Nutritional supplements: Are they worth taking or an unnecessary risk?

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    Americans spent $11.5 billion on nutritional supplements last year. The industry is huge. Whether you have problems sleeping, are looking for more energy, or are looking for a “natural” solution for weight loss—there’s a nutritional supplement for it. And while many people take these pills and powders for specific goals, others pop them purely as prevention, because it can’t possibly hurt, right?

    Nutritional supplements toe the line between food and drug. Because they aren’t really medicines, the FDA doesn’t have the same level of control. And while supplement makers aren’t allowed to make false promises, clever marketing and suggestive selling makes many consumers see these typically budget-friendly options as an effective health insurance.

    They’re sold for bone and vision health, help sleeping and increased energy, more potent sex drive and faster weight loss, as well as general health boosters. If you have an ailment or simply want to prevent one, there’s likely a nutritional supplement just right for you.

    But, a growing body of research says that these supplements may not be all their cracked up to be.

    nutritional supplements

    A growing body of research says that nutritional supplements may not be all they’re cracked up to be. (Shutterstock photos)

    Research on nutritional supplements: Well, what do you know!

    Last year, a study that looked at supplementation by older women actually found an increased risk of death associated with supplements. Even after accounting for other lifestyle factors and health status, the researchers found that commonly used vitamins and minerals were associated with a higher risk of death.

    “Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements,” said the study authors.

    Which supplements were they talking about? In general, women who supplemented with a multivitamin formula had a 2.4 percent increased risk of mortality. Those who supplemented with B6, iron, folic acid, magnesium and zinc were at anywhere from a three to six percent increased risk of death. Copper supplements were associated with an increased risk of 18 percent.

    These are vitamins that people take to live longer and to be healthier. But, this isn’t the only study to link nutritional supplements with increased risk of death and disease. In 2007, a similar study linked vitamin A, vitamin E and beta-carotene supplementation to increase risk of death. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute linked multivitamins to an increased risk of prostate cancer.

    For their part, the scientists whose work was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine say that nutritional supplements should not be used as a general health insurance. They should not be taken on a regular basis with no goal in mind but to help decrease risk of deficiency. Instead, they say, vitamin and mineral supplements should only be taken when a deficiency is present.

    We cannot recommend the use of vitamin and mineral supplements as a preventive measure, at least not in a well-nourished population. Those supplements do not replace or add to the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and may cause unwanted health consequences.

    Interestingly, the study did find that vitamin D3 supplements may have useful applications.

    While the study looked at vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal supplements are another matter entirely.


    Herbal supplements—any safer?

    Nutritional supplements

    People mistakenly think that if something is herbal, it is automatically safe.

    People mistakenly think that if something is herbal, it is automatically safe. But, herbs can be potent and because the supplement industry is so loosely regulated, a product that claims to be a “natural” or an “herbal” solution isn’t necessarily devoid of harmful, lab-made ingredients.

    A conscientious consumer—one who wants to take natural, preventative herbal supplements—should know to research the products they take, look for those from reputable companies with no questionable ingredients.

    Take your health into your own hands.

    There is no substitute for a healthy diet. You cannot supplement your way to optimal health. Instead, good health comes quite simply through good, real nutrition. We can’t take what’s useful out of our foods, break it down, and put it back into a pill—it doesn’t make sense and it certainly can’t take the place of the original.

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