The Truth About Dietary Supplements

Are you taking any dietary supplements? But are these worth it? Are you improving your health or wasting your money?

Are you taking any dietary supplements? If so, you are not alone. An article published in June 2019 in the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed that almost 52% of the population takes them.

The dietary supplement market is projected to generate approximately $57 billion in revenue by 2024 in the US. The most popular ones were those for weight loss, muscle building, sexual function, and energy production.

But are these worth it? Are you improving your health or wasting your money? Let me share my explanations and views on the subject that can help you make better-informed choices on whether you should be taking any of these. First, watch this video.

What exactly are dietary supplements?

They are manufactured products (as opposed to natural products) that are intended to supplement the nutrients you take in from the food you eat. Typically, dietary supplements are either extracted from food sources or synthetic, and are to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid. They are supposed to provide additional known nutrients or other nutrients “believed” to have a beneficial biological effect. The problem with the latter is that there is seldom proof of such beneficial effects.

Currently, there are about 50,000 dietary supplement products marketed in the United States, multivitamins being the most commonly used product. In the United States, it is against federal regulations for supplement manufacturers to claim that these products prevent or treat any disease.

You may not be aware that the Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1994 prohibits the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from prescreening supplements before they are sold. However, according to one survey with a nationally representative sample of adults in 2005-2006, 50% of the participants mistakenly perceived that dietary supplements were routinely checked for their safety and efficacy before marketed.

The FDA can issue warnings on the safety of supplements sold for various purposes, such as warnings about toxic ingredients that may be present, misleading labels, the presence of undeclared prescription pharmaceuticals, steroids, and other chemicals. In this regard, the FDA has issued numerous warnings on the safety of some supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, sexual function, and energy. Warnings have included adulteration of supplements with dangerous ingredients such as lead, undeclared medications such as antidepressants, antihistamines, and steroids. Unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury have also been reported.

My views on each type of supplement

Overall, it appears that dietary supplement users have little awareness of the health risks associated with their consumption. Here are my views on each type of supplement:

Vitamins and minerals: Consumption of individual nutrients such as vitamins and minerals has proven to be successful in preventing neural tube defects and other medical conditions. The problem is, this raises hopes in many people of obtaining optimal health and enhanced physical and mental functions. However, consumers have reported numerous adverse effects such as muscle cramps, hair loss, joint pain, liver disease, and allergic reactions. The reasons for such possible harmful effects could be fast absorption that upsets your digestive system, or improper quality control during the manufacturing, and contamination.

Weight loss: Many supplements marketed as natural weight loss supplements actually contain unapproved stimulants including analogs of amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ephedra. These can make you anxious, nauseous, hypertense, or dizzy. Some natural weight loss supplements include high doses of plant compounds with strong stimulant effects including yohimbine (a veterinary drug used to reverse sedation in dogs and deer) and higenamine (a medication used to increase heart rate during cardiac stress tests), which also can have negative effects on your thinking and attention span. Other supplements sold for weight loss have been associated with intestinal, cardiac, liver and kidney problems.

Muscle building: Dietary supplements to increase lean body mass to improve athletic performance and simultaneously decrease body fat percentage may help create better muscle definition. The most widely used are high protein drinks, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and weight loss products. However, research shows that these don’t work just by themselves. Along with the intake of such supplements, one has to participate in resistance exercise training to obtain statistically significant but still modest increases in strength and fat-free mass. Some supplements sold for muscle building have also been associated with testicular cancer.

Energy: Energy drinks usually contain sugar and stimulant compounds, usually caffeine. Some may also contain other sweeteners, herbal extracts, and taurine (an organic compound used by cells to balance electrolytes) and amino acids. These are often promoted as providing mental and physical stimulation. However, most of the performance effects such as increased attention and reaction speed are primarily due to the presence of caffeine than a cup of coffee could provide.

Monitoring the Supplement Market

I suggest that the supplement market has gotten out of hand for most consumers who, under the barrage of advertising and hyped promises, have a hard time separating truth from fiction. I suggest the following remedies to fix the problems consumers face in this marketplace. First, we should urge our representatives in Congress to allow the FDA to do the prescreening of dietary supplements to establish their quality and safety, given that consumers have no facilities or opportunities to do so. We need the FDA to assess the quality and quantities of ingredients advertised and also ensure that any known injurious agents are not present in a supplement. Consumers can still make their own decisions about whether or not a supplement helps them.

For the consumer, I suggest the following. If you experience any adverse symptoms when taking a supplement, such as a headache, insomnia, anxiety, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, chronic diarrhea, or constipation. First, stop taking the supplement for two weeks and then resume the consumption. If the same symptoms reappear, repeat the same interval of abstinence, and try one more time to determine whether there are a clear cause and effect between taking the supplement and the effects it has on you.

In addition, once a year, get a medical checkup and blood tests to examine blood count, hemoglobin, Vitamin D and calcium levels, and liver function.

However, my most important advice is that, since the best source of nutrients is those found in nature, rather than relying on supplements as recommended by manufacturers, consume at least two different vegetables on a daily basis. Eat one vegetable raw in its natural form without any processing or cooking to be sure to derive the most benefits from it.

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