Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ Blog - The Pros and Cons of Popular Dietary Supplements
Warning: The CDC cautions all those pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant to discuss all medicines with your healthcare provider including OTC meds, herbal and dietary supplements, and vitamins. Learn more.
Additional Warning: The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements. There is often conflicting research on whether certain supplements help or harm health. Certain supplements can interfere, interact, or nullify other types of medication. Certain supplements can harm a developing fetus and negatively impact those with a decreased immune system. ALWAYS consult your healthcare provider regarding amounts or dosages prior to dietary supplement use.
A dietary supplement is a pill, capsule, or liquid that contains vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, or other substances to add to the diet and supplement what might be missing from a person’s nutrition. It's not a replacement for food, but it can help ensure the body gets the essential nutrients it needs.
Why do so many people weave these pills and powders into their daily routines? And do the supplements truly hold the key to a healthier you?
We spoke with Palina Lancaster, MS, RDN, LD, director of dining services and a registered dietitian at Morrison Healthcare, about the advantages and disadvantages of using dietary supplements.
Pros: Vitamins, the tiny powerhouses that are crucial for bodily functions, play a fundamental role in maintaining overall health. Vitamins are required for many biochemical processes, and a lack of them can result in a variety of health problems. Vitamin supplementation is an easy way to cover nutritional deficiencies in our diets.
The most popular vitamin supplements are:
- Vitamin C: Known for its immune-boosting abilities, it promotes collagen creation, which is necessary for the skin, blood vessels, and connective tissues. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron, which is important for avoiding anemia.
- Vitamin D: Known as the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D is crucial for maintaining strong bones and teeth.
- B-vitamins: The B-vitamin complex — B6, B12, and folic acid — plays a vital role in energy production, nerve function, and red blood cell formation. These vitamins are essential for converting food into energy and maintaining a healthy nervous system.
Con: One downside to using vitamin supplements is the risk of potential interactions between vitamins and medications. Some vitamins can interfere with the absorption or effectiveness of certain medications, leading to unwanted health effects or lowering the effectiveness of the medication. Talk to your health care provider when combining vitamins with prescribed medications to avoid any adverse effects.
Also, taking too many vitamin supplements can result in an overdose because the body can't process excess vitamins easily. This can cause harmful effects, as some vitamins (like vitamins A, D, E, and K) are toxic in large amounts. It's important to follow recommended doses and consult a health care professional if unsure.
“When it comes to vitamins, it's not just about popping a pill," says Palina. "Lab work is essential to understand your body's specific needs. For instance, vitamin D levels can be tested through labs, and your provider can determine the right supplementation, duration, and dosage based on your individual requirements."
Pros: Herbs and botanicals have a long history of therapeutic use. Many people love them because they offer a natural approach to wellness. Ginger, known for its anti-inflammatory effects, can help relieve nausea. Echinacea, known for its immune-boosting properties, is a wintertime go-to. With guidance from your primary care provider, herbs can address specific concerns without the potential side effects of synthetic alternatives.
Cons: Similar to vitamin supplements, combining herbs/botanicals with certain medicines can cause problems. Some medicines that weaken the immune system might not work well if you also take echinacea. And while ginger is healthy, it can boost the effects of blood-thinning medications, increasing the risk of bleeding. To manage these interactions and ensure herbs are a safe complement to your health routine, talk to your health care provider prior to use.
Also, some herbs and botanicals may harm pregnant women as they can stimulate contractions or affect hormone levels. Always check with your health care provider before using herbs during pregnancy to avoid potential risks.
Pros: Amino acid supplements, particularly branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), are beloved by athletes for their potential to enhance exercise performance, reduce muscle soreness, and support muscle repair. While they do have health advantages, Palina encourages getting amino acids through eating whole foods.
Cons: Relying too much on amino acid supplements might disrupt the body's balance of essential and non-essential amino acids. Try to avoid over-reliance on supplements and instead focus on a balanced diet that includes a variety of protein sources.
Pros: Often considered the superheroes of gut health, probiotics contain bacteria that improve digestive well-being. These microorganisms support the balance of gut flora while helping digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function. Found in yogurt and supplements, probiotics are often used during and after antibiotic courses because they help restore the natural balance of intestinal bacteria.
"Incorporating yogurt, sauerkraut, or other probiotic-rich foods into your diet can promote digestive harmony," says Palina.
Cons: The effectiveness of different probiotic strains can vary, and there is the risk of overconsumption. To avoid any complications, those with weakened immune systems should seek the advice of a health care provider before introducing probiotic supplements into their daily routine.
Pros: Essential minerals such as zinc, potassium, iron, and calcium are vital for the body to function properly:
- Zinc: Supports immune function and wound healing
- Potassium: Plays a key role in heart health and muscle function
- Iron: Helps with oxygen transport in the blood
- Calcium: Is essential for strong bones and teeth
While you can get these minerals in the form of supplements, it’s best to get them through a healthy diet. Including a range of mineral-rich foods in your diet — like leafy greens, bananas, nuts/seeds, and lean meats — helps to promote good physiological functioning and general health.
Cons: Taking too much of certain minerals can lead to adverse effects. For example, too much calcium from supplements may contribute to kidney stones, and overconsumption of iron can cause nausea and even organ damage. Try to get a mix of minerals from different foods and avoid taking supplements without the guidance of your health care provider.
"Balancing your intake of essential minerals is fundamental for overall health," advises Palina. "But just as too little can pose risks, excessive intake should also be approached with caution. It’s most important to take a well-rounded and mindful approach to nutrition."
An Informed Approach to Dietary Supplements
While keeping the above pros and cons in mind, remember that these products aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It's up to you to do your research and learn about potential interactions — especially if you're taking any prescription medications. Always consult your healthcare provider prior to starting a supplement.
While supplements can help you accomplish your nutritional goals, they should complement a balanced diet, not replace it.
"Balance is key,” says Palina. “We've got so many good fruits and vegetables that offer every vitamin and mineral we need. Embrace the power of a well-rounded diet where vitamins, minerals, and other essential elements work together to promote holistic health and longevity."
Before you jump on the latest supplement trend on social media, think about how you can get more of what you need from your diet alone. Dietary supplements can be tools in your health arsenal — but use them wisely. Seek guidance from health care professionals, listen to your body, and remember that there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
How do you incorporate dietary supplements into your health and wellness routine? Or what foods do you prioritize to ensure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need? Share with us in our discussion below.
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