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Have you ever wondered if you really need to take all those supplements that are lining your kitchen cabinet?

Maybe you started taking them because you heard they could boost your energy, improve your skin, or prevent some diseases.

But do they really work? And are they safe?

In this blog post, I will help you sort out the facts from the myths about dietary supplements.

I will tell you which supplements are beneficial, which ones are unnecessary, and which ones could be harmful.

I will also give you some tips on how to choose and use supplements wisely, based on the latest scientific evidence.

But first, let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, I was feeling tired, stressed, and overwhelmed by my busy life.

I thought I was eating a healthy diet, but I still felt like something was missing.

I decided to try some supplements that promised to boost my mood, immunity, and brain power.

I bought a bunch of them online, without doing much research or consulting a doctor.

At first, I felt great.

I had more energy, more focus, and more confidence.

I thought I had found the secret to wellness.

But then, things started to go wrong.

I began to experience headaches, nausea, and insomnia.

I also noticed that my skin was breaking out, and my hair was falling out. I was confused and scared.

What was happening to me?

I decided to stop taking all the supplements and see a doctor.

He ran some tests and told me that I had overdosed on some vitamins and minerals, and that some of the supplements I was taking were contaminated with harmful substances.

He said that I was lucky that I didn’t cause any permanent damage to my liver, kidneys, or nerves.

He explained that dietary supplements are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs, and that many of them are not tested for safety, quality, or effectiveness.

He also said that some supplements can interact with each other, or with medications, and cause serious side effects.

He advised me to be more careful and selective about what I put in my body, and to always consult a healthcare professional before taking any supplements.

That was a wake-up call for me.

I realized that I had been wasting my money and risking my health on products that I didn’t really need, or that could even harm me.

I learned that supplements are not a magic bullet, and that they cannot replace a balanced diet, exercise, and sleep.

I also learned that some supplements can be helpful, but only if they are used correctly and appropriately.

So, how can you tell which supplements you need and which ones you can skip?

How can you make sure that the supplements you take are safe and effective?

And how can you get the most out of them?

Do you really need supplements?

Experts have different opinions on this question.

“Most adults can be healthy without relying on supplements,” says Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN.

“In fact, when people have health issues, dieticians usually suggest other options before supplements.”

The first thing to try is changing your lifestyle, such as eating better and exercising more.

However, supplements can be useful in some situations.

They can also help you get enough nutrients if your diet is lacking, says Stephanie Greunke, RD, a registered dietician and part of Needed‘s practitioner group.

Some examples where doctors may advise you to take vitamins, supplements, or minerals are:

  • pregnancy
  • lactation
  • infants receiving human milk or less than 32 oz. per day of formula
  • health improvement
  • special diets
  • deficiencies

Potential supplements based on research and expert recommendations

While some may criticize the use of supplements, certain ones can be advantageous, especially in specific situations.

Prenatal Vitamin

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests individuals with uteruses should start taking prenatal vitamins when attempting to conceive and continue throughout pregnancy.

Burdeos advises starting three months before attempting to become pregnant.

The CDC recommends taking prenatal vitamins with 400 mg of folic acid to prevent certain birth defects.

ACOG recommends a daily intake of at least 27 milligrams of iron during pregnancy, commonly found in prenatal vitamins.

According to Burdeos, the combination of folic acid and iron provides benefits for fetal development.

“Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects, serious abnormalities in the baby’s brain and spinal cord,”

Burdeos explains. “Iron facilitates oxygen transportation throughout the body, supporting proper baby and placenta development.”

Vitamin D

Approximately 42 percent of people are vitamin D deficient, with the highest rates among Black individuals—82 percent, as per a 2022 study.

While the sun, egg yolks, and fatty fish are natural sources, the National Institute of Health (NIH) notes it’s challenging to get sufficient vitamin D from food alone.

Vitamin D deficiency is linked to various conditions, including poor bone health, cancer, cardiovascular disease, gestational diabetes, and more.

Research suggests vitamin D during pregnancy may reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, pre‐eclampsia, low birth weight, severe postpartum hemorrhage, and pre-term birth.

NIH recommends infants up to 12 months take 10 mcg of vitamin D per day.

Since infant formula is fortified, the CDC states formula-fed children under 12 months likely don’t need a vitamin D supplement.

A 2015 study indicates a lactating parent could take 6,400 IU of vitamin D per day to provide enough through human milk.

NIH advises 600 IU per day for ages 1 to 70 and 800 IU per day for those over 70.

Greunke suggests a vitamin D supplement is beneficial even beyond infancy due to the challenge of obtaining it from food.

Omega-3s

Omega-3s, found in fish and nuts, may benefit those with low dietary intake.

While linked to heart health, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes the association is based on seafood intake.

However, it may help reduce triglycerides and alleviate rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

B12

B12 naturally occurs in animal products and is crucial for red blood cell formation, DNA production, nerve function, and cell metabolism.

A 2022 study indicates higher B12 deficiency in vegans than vegetarians, with nearly two-thirds of pregnant individuals deficient.

B12 supplementation is recommended for those deficient, especially non-animal protein consumers.

Iron

Present in nuts and dark, leafy greens, iron helps carry oxygen, support muscle metabolism, physical growth, and neurological development.

While a food-first approach is preferred, iron supplementation may benefit those with deficiencies or borderline anemia.

Pregnant individuals should seek prenatal vitamins with iron, but caution is advised to avoid iron poisoning.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a naturally occurring mineral, yet almost half of the U.S. population doesn’t consume enough, according to a 2018 study.

Greunke suggests magnesium supplements may help reduce blood pressure, lengthen sleep duration, lower fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels, and improve mood.

Supplements to Skip

Some supplements, like probiotics, have gained immense popularity, but according to experts and researchers, the supporting data isn’t as robust as the hype suggests.

It might be a good idea to hold off on trying these supplements.

Green Elixirs

These vibrant powders may look like a health enthusiast’s dream, adorned with promising buzzwords on their labels.

“Most greens powder products boast about being packed with whole food sources of nutrients and pre- and probiotics,” says Pasquariello.

“However, this can be highly misleading, leading consumers to believe they can replace actual greens or green vegetables with these powders.”

Pasquariello dismisses claims that greens powders enhance energy, performance, and digestion as unsubstantiated.

There’s limited research on them, with a small 40-person study from 2009 suggesting that supplementing with a fruit and vegetable powder for 90 days might lower blood pressure but not body weight.

Pasquariello recommends opting for real leafy greens in your diet instead.

Probiotics Probiotics rank among the most popular supplements, yet the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health indicates that the evidence supporting probiotic supplements for issues like diarrhea and ulcerative colitis lacks substantial backing.

Mega-Anything

Certain products boast about their “mega-doses,” but Burdeos warns against falling for the allure.

“Unless specified by your doctor, these supplements are a case of too much of a good thing,” she advises.

Mega-doses can have long-term impacts.

For instance, an excess of vitamin D can lead to kidney problems, and an overabundance of vitamin C can cause digestive issues, according to Burdeos.

This caution applies to any supplement.

If you’re obtaining sufficient nutrients from your diet, there’s generally no need to add more through oral tablets or powders.

Enhanced Creatine

Monohydrate Despite research from 2017 suggesting that creatine monohydrate can reduce injury and speed up recovery, the “buffered” and “advanced” versions claiming superiority aren’t necessarily true, according to Greunke.

“These formulations may be pricier and assert better absorption, but that hasn’t been proven,” says Greunke.

Discovering top-notch supplements Since supplements don’t adhere to the same standards as food, navigating the vitamin and mineral aisle can feel like venturing into the wild west.

Experts provide insights on maneuvering through the supplement realm below.

Chelated vs. Non-Chelated

These terms may catch your eye on mineral bottles.

“Chelated means the mineral was altered to enhance absorption by combining it with another molecule, like an amino acid or organic acid,” explains Greunke.

Examples include iron bisglycinate, zinc bisglycinate, chromium picolinate, and magnesium bisglycinate.

“Non-chelated minerals, on the other hand, are unstable and attract other molecules, interfering more with absorption,” notes Burdeos.

Research results are mixed, with various studies showing different outcomes.

For instance, a 2014 study suggested that chelated zinc as zinc citrate and zinc gluconate is absorbed better than non-chelated zinc.

Evaluating Mineral Sources

Most of our mineral intake comes from food and water, but they’re also found in trace mineral drops, salts, and electrolyte products.

“Thoughtful supplements consider nutrient competition, such as iron competing with other minerals for absorption,” says Greunke.

Greunke suggests avoiding multivitamins with iron and taking calcium and iron supplements a few hours apart.

It’s crucial to consult with your doctor before adding iron to your supplement regimen, as excessive intake can lead to iron poisoning.

Electrolytes, including sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, and phosphate, play vital roles in maintaining fluid balance, heart function, blood flow, blood pressure regulation, bone health, hormone influence, and adrenal health.

Additional considerations when selecting supplements Experts also recommend:

  • Ensuring third-party testing, such as through U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention and Consumer Labs.
  • Avoiding artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
  • Steering clear of fillers like stearic acid, silicon dioxide, and titanium dioxide.
  • Choosing the supplement format that suits you best, whether it’s pills, chewables, gummies, or powders.
  • Selecting supplements aligned with your medical and dietary needs.
  • Reading labels critically—if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Determining supplement absorption

How can you tell if your supplement is working, or if you should scale back?

Experts share some telltale signs.

  • Elimination High doses of magnesium citrate and vitamin C can lead to diarrhea.
  • If this occurs, consider reducing your intake. Some B-vitamins might cause bright yellow urine, which is generally harmless.
  • Energy Levels The boost in energy could be attributed to a supplement or a placebo effect.
  • Quick improvements in energy may result from supplements like vitamin B12, while adrenal supplements may offer a calmer and focused feeling.
  • Dehydration or mineral imbalances can be addressed with electrolyte supplements.
  • OTC and In-Office Tests The necessity of OTC or in-office testing depends on the reason for taking supplements.
  • Conditions like pre-diabetes or diabetes may require at-home glucose monitoring and in-office bloodwork.
  • Medical professionals can check nutrient levels in your blood before and after a specific supplement period.

If you’re experiencing side effects, an in-office test may be recommended.

Conclusion

In general, it’s crucial to consult with your doctor about any supplements to ensure they don’t interfere with medications or treatments.

You’ve learned a lot about supplements in this article.

You’ve discovered how to choose the right supplements for your needs, how to avoid common pitfalls and scams, and how to get the best value for your money.

You’ve also learned how to use supplements safely and effectively, and how to consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements.

FAQs

How do I know if a supplement is safe and effective?

The best way to know if a supplement is safe and effective is to look for evidence from reliable sources, such as scientific studies, reviews, and meta-analyses.

You can also check the label for information on the ingredients, dosage, quality, and safety of the supplement.

Look for seals of approval from independent organizations, such as USP, NSF, or ConsumerLab, that verify the quality and purity of the supplement.

Avoid supplements that make unrealistic or exaggerated claims, or that contain ingredients that are banned, illegal, or harmful.

How do I know if a supplement is right for me?

The answer depends on your individual needs, goals, and health conditions.

Some supplements may be beneficial for certain people, but not for others.

Some supplements may also interact with medications, foods, or other supplements, and cause unwanted side effects.

That’s why it’s important to consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements, especially if you have a medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are taking any prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

How much of a supplement should I take?

The amount of a supplement you should take depends on several factors, such as the type of supplement, the strength of the supplement, your body weight, your age, your gender, and your health status.

Generally, you should follow the directions on the label, or the advice of your doctor or pharmacist.

Do not exceed the recommended dose, unless instructed by a health care professional.

Taking too much of a supplement can be harmful, and may cause toxicity, overdose, or adverse reactions.

When should I take a supplement?

The timing of taking a supplement depends on the type of supplement, the purpose of taking it, and your personal preference.

Some supplements are best taken with food, to enhance absorption and prevent stomach upset.

Some supplements are best taken on an empty stomach, to avoid interference with other nutrients or medications.

Some supplements are best taken at a specific time of the day, such as morning or evening, to optimize their effects.

Some supplements can be taken anytime, as long as you are consistent.

You should follow the instructions on the label, or the advice of your doctor or pharmacist, for the best results.

How long should I take a supplement?

The duration of taking a supplement depends on the type of supplement, the reason for taking it, and the expected outcome.

Some supplements are meant to be taken for a short period of time, such as a few weeks or months, to address a specific issue or deficiency.

Some supplements are meant to be taken for a long period of time, such as years or indefinitely, to support general health and wellness.

Some supplements may need to be cycled, meaning that you take them for a certain period of time, then stop for a while, then resume.

You should follow the directions on the label, or the advice of your doctor or pharmacist, for the best guidance.

What are the possible side effects of taking a supplement?

The possible side effects of taking a supplement vary depending on the type of supplement, the amount of the supplement, the individual response, and the interaction with other substances.

Some common side effects of taking supplements include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, headache, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, allergic reactions, and skin rashes.

Some serious side effects of taking supplements include liver damage, kidney damage, heart problems, blood pressure changes, bleeding disorders, seizures, and coma.

If you experience any side effects from taking a supplement, stop taking it immediately and seek medical attention.

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