It happens all the time: I innocently flip to the Dr. Oz show, and an hour later I want to buy about half a dozen nutritional supplements for everything from fat burning to brain boosting. But do they really work? And if so, am I sacrificing my health? As hard as I might wish that swallowing those gel capsules full of acai, african mango or ginseng powder could make me fitter, smarter and disease-free for the rest of my life, it just ain’t so simple.
Supplements are not well-regulated by the FDA, which only requires that drugs be clinically tested. Very few supplements are proven effective. What’s more, many brands will not contain any of the active ingredient that l want, or they may have far less than advertised. Or, the quality may be so poor that they are completely ineffective. Consumer Lab, an independent testing center, finds missing ingredients or other problems with one in four supplements they test. So off the bat, there’s a 25% chance my supplement won’t deliver as promised.
I also have no clue as to what the side effects may be. I can try to look up adverse reactions, but almost no supplements have been well studied so adverse reactions are unknown.
But don’t shun supplements completely; some are fantastic products that really help people live better lives. You just need to follow 2 steps: research the ingredient, and research the brand. This doesn’t take long if you know where to go. Head to the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements page and do a quick search. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) also has a terrific A-to-Z topics list for safety and effectiveness of many supplements. The newest trends are not always listed, because there may not be enough research yet. If there’s no adequate research, than odds are stacked against the latest miracle supplement actually working. So buyer beware.
Some supplements that are likely to work are green tea for weight loss, glucosamine for joint health and niacin to treat high blood pressure. Of course, none of these are guaranteed and large doses of any supplement may be dangerous.
If you’ve found a promising supplement and are ready to buy, the next step is to check for quality. The simplest way is to look for the USP Verified mark on the product label. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention has a voluntary vitamin and supplement testing service, and gives their seal of approval to those with high-quality ingredients and honest labeling. You’re can feel safe going with USP picks; however, there are also quality products that the organization hasn’t tested. These brands require more research. Be wary of miraculous claims, mega-doses, cure-alls, or companies that don’t provide a physical U.S. address and phone number. And don’t give out your credit card number for a “free trial.” That’s a red-flag warning of a scam.
Unfortunately, even with the best research your new supplements may not work. Since clinical trials are so rare, you may also have side effects that nobody has written about. When I took L-carnetine supplements, I got lightheaded every time I stood up, and felt like I might pass out. This was probably because it made my already-low blood pressure drop, but even with my research I never learned that this side effect could happen.
The best way to be healthy is to eat normal portions of a variety of whole foods and to exercise. Period. Supplements don’t make up for lifestyle choices, and the truth is that healthy people do not usually need them at all. But if you’re like me, the idea of a little fitness boost is appealing enough to make you try out herbs, amino acids, extracts, vitamins and lots more. I only urge you to do the research, start your regimen slowly, and read up on drug interactions or medical conditions that the supplement could affect. Be smart, be safe, and be healthy.
(featured photo by Brooks Elliott)