5 things you need to consider before taking any supplement

If your morning routine involves tossing down a handful of dietary supplements in vague hopes of boosting your energy or warding off illness this week or disease down the line, you might want to dial back and rethink your approach – especially if you’re of the mindset that you don’t need to discuss your supplements regimen with your doctor.

Here’s why: Although dietary supplements can play a role in remedying a vitamin deficiency or nutritional imbalance, they’re generally unnecessary for people who have a well-rounded diet, and supplements might even pose health risks.

So, whether you’re eyeing supplements to improve your health or you’re already taking a few, here’s how to make sure that you’re doing so in a way that’s helpful rather than harmful.

As a general rule, try to get your vitamins and nutrients from food over supplements

Before dropping a lot of money on supplements, you should know that a balanced diet will usually supply enough of the necessary vitamins and nutrients, unless a deficiency has been diagnosed.

In other words, eat your vegetables and fruits, whole grains and nuts, and healthy protein sources, and you’re probably pretty much set. We know that nutrients are best utilised when they’re taken as a whole food and not from a bottle. Trained integrative medicine physicians won’t usually recommend a slew of vitamins and supplements without a targeted purpose. Supplements are just that – usually extras.

That said, if you have a particular deficiency, or if your access to a variety of nutrient-rich foods is limited, supplements can be a way to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and nutrients you need. Still, this should ideally be something you discuss with a health care provider before you head to the health food store.

Know that supplements aren’t as safe and regulated as most people assume

There are two major misconceptions about supplement safety that can cause trouble for unwitting customers. The first is the assumption that if it’s available over the counter at a pharmacy or “natural” food store, it must be safe to take. Unfortunately, over-the-counter status or even a label that says “all natural” doesn’t mean that it won’t have harmful side effects in certain people or when combined with certain substances.

The other common misconception is that the Food and Drug Administration regulates supplements to ensure their safety. While pharmacies and other retail outlets may vet their supplement products to the extent feasible before putting them on their shelves, that’s no guarantee that the quality and concentration are as advertised. Plus, the FDA’s role in regulating dietary supplements is somewhat limited: The agency inspects manufacturing establishments themselves for product quality, labeling, and claims, and it monitors adverse-events reports after the products are on the market. But that’s about the extent of it.

By law, the FDA doesn’t approve dietary supplements or product labeling. The companies that manufacture or market the supplements are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe and lawful. Consumers should be aware that companies can introduce new supplements to the market without FDA approval or even notification. That’s because dietary supplements are regulated under different, less stringent rules than those covering conventional foods or drug products.

Always check with your doctor before starting a supplement

The main reason for discussing your supplement usage with your provider is safety. Dietary supplements – and that includes vitamins and minerals – can interfere with prescription medications, and taking a larger daily dose than recommended can cause side effects. The same goes for botanical or herbal supplements.

Our recommendation is to make sure that they share with their health care provider what they are taking in line with over-the-counter products, supplements, or essential oils. This is critical to ensuring that the combination of everything is safe.

Another reason to talk to your doctor about supplements is because what your physician doesn’t know about what you’re taking could compromise your care if you do become ill.

Know how much you’re supposed to take – and how much you’re actually taking

Another common misconception about dietary supplements is that if a vitamin or mineral is good for you, increasing your intake might deliver additional health benefits. In fact, taking in more than you need can be harmful.

Too much vitamin D over time can actually weaken the bones. Biotin – a popular supplement that people take to improve skin, nails, and hair – can interfere with lab-test results when taken at high levels, making them read falsely high or falsely low.