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Supplement Safety Myths & Facts

By Jenefer Angell, MA

Healthnotes Newswire (March 18, 2010)—How do you make sense of supplements? With so much conflicting information in the news, it’s hard to know what vitmins, minerals, and herbs are safe to use and whether they even help at all. Adding to the confusion: some popular assumptions about supplements and the implications of new research aren’t always on the mark. So keep the following in mind when taking supplements or considering whether to add them to your self-care routine.

MYTH: If it’s natural, it must be good for you.

FACT: While research has shown many natural treatments to be safe and effective, they should be taken with careful consideration.

While many vitamins, minerals, and herbs are known to safely prevent or treat a variety of diseases, they work by altering your body chemistry—just like a medicine from your pharmacy. So before you take a supplement, it’s important to learn about possible side effects and especially how it might interact with medications you are already taking.

Some interactions should be avoided but they can also be positive. Sometimes an interaction can mean that a medicine is depleting vital nutrients from your body and that an extra vitamin supplement may protect your health—but it’s always a good idea to check. It’s also important to never discontinue or change dosage of a medication in favor of a natural treatment unless supervised by a doctor.

MYTH: Everything I need to know about a supplement I can read on the bottle.

FACT: Government regulations restrict manufacturers from making most specific health claims—even those based on results of scientific studies.

To find out about the potential benefits and risks of taking a supplement start by doing your research. It’s always wise to talk to a knowledgeable healthcare professional before taking any supplement, especially if you are already treating a medical condition. Also, special safety considerations apply to pregnant or breast-feeding women, children, and seniors.

MYTH: The latest scientific study is the last word on a supplement’s safety or effectiveness.

FACT: The quality of the full body of research should be considered—not just the latest.

In scientific process, scientists never consider one single study to be the last word; rather, each new study is added to previous research and becomes part of the medical community’s discussion.

When the news media report on new studies, they tend to look for the sensational. Though hundreds of studies are published every year showing the benefits of herbs and nutrients for a wide range of diseases, studies that make the news are frequently those that claim a supplement is dangerous or doesn’t work. On the other hand, some research is conducted by groups that stand to profit from positive results, such as a supplement manufacturer “proving” that their supplement (particularly proprietary mixtures) works for a particular health condition.

The next time you see a headline splashed across the news—especially about those supplements that continue to be the subject of heated debate, such as St. John’s wort, echinacea, vitamin E, vitamin C, and ginkgo—keep some perspective by thinking about the following:

• Who is doing the reporting? Is it a health column describing the study itself? Or a journalist relating second- or third-hand news from a press release or conference proceedings?

• How strong is the evidence? Some studies lead to convincing conclusions while others are preliminary.

• Are the results published in a scientific journal?

• Did the researchers use a control group to compare treatment results with the experiences of people who didn’t use it? (If not, improvement attributed to a treatment may be a placebo affect.)

• Was the supplement given in a form and amount, and for a duration, that could be expected to be effective based on previous knowledge?

• Was the study conducted by people who have no vested interest in the outcome?

• Is there a body of research that suggests it may help with a particular health condition?

Reminder: You should never discontinue or change the dosage of a medication and/or begin a different treatment without a doctor’s supervision.

MYTH: Medicines are always more effective than natural treatments.

FACT: Some natural treatments may be as effective as medicines; however, it’s important to properly evaluate treatment options before deciding which to use.

When you consider treatment options, discuss the following with your healthcare provider:

• What are the risks of delaying known effective treatment in order to try an alternative remedy?

• Is the body of research on a supplement’s effectiveness positive or inconclusive, and does it appear to be safe when taken in the proper amounts?

• How strong is the evidence for the medical treatment, and what is the expected degree of improvement from taking it?

• Are a supplement’s costs equivalent or less than those of the medicines used to treat the same condition?

• How do the potential dangers of taking the supplement compare with the relative dangers of taking the medicine?

Asking such questions will help you interpret the significance of scientific findings. To find answers, talk to a knowledgeable professional, and use a science-based resource that provides an evaluation of up-to-date research. Being informed is the best way to make good decisions for your health.

Managing Editor Jenefer Angell oversees creation and updating of Aisle7 content, including Aisle7 IN-STORE, Aisle7 ONLINE, Healthnotes Newsletter, and Healthnotes Newswire. She holds master's degrees from Reed College and from Simmons College.