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Knowing the benefits and risks of dietary supplements

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Many people take dietary supplements, but some of those vitamins may have significant risks and can interact with other prescription drugs.  Dr. Kevin Campbell explains these risks and how to avoid them.

Before taking any dietary supplement, take a close look at the bottle and the science behind the claims of what the supplement will do for you.

For example, people may take Echinacea to prevent colds, Ginkgo to improve memory and flaxseed to lower cholesterol.

Herbal supplements, sometimes called botanicals, aren't new. Plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years; however, herbal supplements haven't been subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as other medications and are not strictly regulated.

Some herbal supplements, including products that are labeled "natural," have drug-like effects and can be dangerous. It's important for anyone taking supplements to do their homework and research benefits and side effects, especially if you also take prescription drugs.

Are herbal remedies and dietary supplements safe?

Just because supplements and certain herbal remedies can be purchased over-the-counter does not mean they are safe.  Whether they're in the form of pills, powders or food, supplements can have strong side effects in the body.

Does the FDA regulate supplements?

  • The Food and Drug Administration requires the following information on labels of all herbal supplements:
  • The name of the supplement
  • The name and address of the manufacture or distributor
  • A complete list of ingredients
  • Serving size, amount and active ingredient 

However, manufactures do not have to seek FDA approval before putting dietary supplements on the market. In addition, companies can claim that their products address a nutrient deficiency, support health or are linked to body functions if they have supporting research and include a disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated the claim.

Once a dietary supplement is on the market, the FDA is responsible for monitoring its safety. If the FDA finds a product to be unsafe, it can take action against the manufacturer and may issue a warning or require the product be removed from store shelves.

Considering taking dietary supplements? 

If you plan to take any supplement, there are a few things you should know and keep in mind.

Be skeptical. If a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. When it doubt, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Talk to you doctor. Tell your doctor if you're taking a supplement and if you experience and problems.

Look at the big picture. Some groups may be more at risk for adverse side effects with supplements. They include teens, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who take multiple medications and those planning to undergo surgery.

Look at you lifestyle. Why are you considering taking a supplement? Could you achieve the same results by getting more sleep, exercising more or eating a more healthy diet?

RELATED LINKS

Dangerous Supplements from Consumer Reports

FDA on Dietary Supplements

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