Heard about dietary supplements? Want to know more?

We asked the National Institutes of Health for some of our answers.

We know: All about dietary supplements

What is a dietary supplement?

A dietary supplement, as defined by the government, is a product (other than tobacco) that:

  • is intended to supplement the diet;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

Why do people take dietary supplements?

People take dietary supplements for many different reasons:

  • Body movements may become slow or uncoordinated
  • Arthritis
  • Memory improvement
  • Energy
  • Immune booster
  • Joints
  • Sleep aid
  • Prostrate

Is using supplements considered conventional medicine or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?

Some uses of dietary supplements have become part of conventional medicine. For example, scientists have found that the vitamin folic acid prevents certain birth defects, and a regimen of vitamins and zinc can slow the progression of the eye disease age-related macular degeneration. On the other hand, some supplements are considered to be complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) - either the supplement itself or one or more of its uses. An example of a CAM supplement would be an herbal formula that claims to relieve arthritis pain, but has not been proven to do so through scientific studies. An example of a CAM use of a supplement would be taking 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day to prevent or treat a cold, as the use of large amounts of vitamin C for these purposes has not been proven.

If I am interested in using a supplement such as CAM, how can I do so most safely?

  • It is important to talk to your health care provider (or providers, if you have more than one) about the supplement. This is for your safety and a complete treatment plan.
  • Do not take a higher dose of a supplement than what is listed on the label, unless your health care provider advises you to do so.
  • If you experience any side effects that concern you, stop taking the supplement, and contact your provider.

Does the Federal Government regulate supplements?

  • Yes, the Federal Government regulates supplements through the FDA. Currently, the FDA regulates supplements as foods rather than drugs. In general, the laws about putting foods (including supplements) on the market and keeping them on the market are less strict than the laws for drugs.
  • The FDA issues warnings about supplements that pose risks to consumers, including those used for CAM therapies.

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