You may have noticed these ads on TV, online, in your email, or mail — promotions for various natural supplements promising to cure every ailment you have. Can they possibly live up to the claims they make, growing back your hair while also curing indigestion? With so many different dietary supplements out there and little to no regulation on the field, it’s unfortunately impossible to give a broad answer. Instead, to give you some form of an answer, we’ll focus on the most commonly used supplements, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — multivitamins, Vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
By far the most popular dietary supplement according to the CDC are multivitamins. Generally, these are exactly what their name implies, and usually in a dissolvable pill form or capsule with several different types of vitamins and nutrients present. A multivitamin can be useful to help you fulfill the need for several vitamins you may need. While most people can get the nutrients and vitamins through their diet, some groups may need that assistance. These individuals tend to be pregnant women, some seniors, and people living with certain conditions that can make it difficult to absorb certain nutrients through digestion.
Outside of the reasons listed above, there really isn’t a reason to take a multivitamin, at least according to the research. Now, it’s important to remember that this advice is generalized (as is all the advice in this article), and if your doctor suggests you take a multivitamin, follow their advice. But if you haven’t been instructed to take a multivitamin for whatever reason, the science doesn’t back any of the claimed benefits. In fact, both Johns Hopkins Health and Harvard’s The Nutrition Source conclusively deny the overarching benefits of multivitamins outside of the cases where proper nutrients cannot be achieved through diet.
This makes it all the more important that you read the label and research what vitamins are in your multivitamin before taking it.
Another issue is that since there isn’t regulation into the supplement industry, there isn’t a specific recipe that every multivitamin must follow. This means that one multivitamin can vary greatly from others, to the extent where they can encompass different vitamins entirely or different amounts. This makes it all the more important that you read the label and research what vitamins are in your multivitamin before taking it. Why? Well, the best risk you could face is the multivitamin doesn’t include the vitamins you’re hoping for, so it won’t fulfill the need you have. In the worst case, the multivitamin could be tainted or have active ingredients that have negative interactions with your medications. Again, these can all vary depending on which vitamins are in your particular multivitamin.
Second on the popularity list are Vitamin D supplements. Most people get Vitamin D naturally, as it’s produced by your skin in response to sunlight, allowing you to easily get the amount your body needs. There are even dietary sources of Vitamin D like salmon and egg yolks. So, what does Vitamin D do for the body? Studies have linked proper Vitamin D levels with a number of benefits for the body, including reducing your risk of certain diseases, strengthening bones and preventing osteoporosis, combatting depression, and aiding in weight loss. Vitamin D deficiency can be severe, manifesting in tiredness, muscle and bone pain, weakness, and weakened bones leading to stress fractures.
Generally, taking a small dosage of Vitamin D supplements won’t hurt you, but there is evidence that overdoing it can have negative effects.
Does this mean that Vitamin D supplementation is a good idea? Possibly, depending on your health circumstances, but only in those instances. If you’re generally healthy and getting enough Vitamin D naturally, supplementation isn’t supported by much of the research. Even some of the pro-supplementation research has been called into question, fueling a debate that has raged for years. Generally, taking a small dosage of Vitamin D supplements won’t hurt you, but there is evidence that overdoing it can have negative effects, including increased risk or falls and fractures. One study even found that higher dosages of Vitamin D supplementation can lead to lower bone density, exacerbating the osteoporosis problem many take Vitamin D supplements to prevent.
There are groups that may have Vitamin D supplements suggested to them. Again, you should only begin taking a supplement after speaking to your doctor or nutritionist. Generally, the following are the only groups that may consider looking into Vitamin D supplementation after speaking with their doctor.
- Seniors at risk of osteoporosis
- Post-menopausal women
- People who are lactose intolerant
- People with certain conditions or taking certain medications that inhibits Vitamin D absorption
- If you follow a diet that may lack dietary sources of Vitamin D
- If you show signs of Vitamin D deficiency
- If your doctor suggests it
These aren’t the only reasons why you may want to discuss taking Vitamin D supplements, but generally, you should try to find them in your diet first. As mentioned above, Vitamin D supplementation doesn’t come without risks.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The third most popular kind of supplements may also be the most controversial. Commonly identified as fish oil supplements, omega-3 fatty acids on their own are really healthy for you. We’ve actually talked about omega-3 fatty acids before from their dietary sources (a quick search of Omega in our search bar will find 16 articles discussing the health benefits). Why is it controversial? Well, the evidence is mixed on how effective fish oil is for your overall health.
For example, there is evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may reduce pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, but the reduction was mild and didn’t prevent the joint damage from the condition. Some studies have shown that low doses of fish oil supplements taken daily may lower your risk of heart attack, but others have failed to replicate these findings. The issue is for every study that finds a benefit of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids supplements, there’s another that finds no benefits. Adding to the complications is that a healthy and suitable amount of omega-3 fatty acids in one’s diet, removes the need for supplements.
You may not experience any benefits and should try to get the nutrients from fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids first, but you may be fine to add it to your daily dosage.
As to whether or not you should be taking fish oil supplements, we’ll stick with the official American Heart Association recommendations, which is that three grams or less a day is generally safe. Any more and you should talk to your doctor. You may not experience any benefits and should try to get the nutrients from fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids first, but you may be fine to add it to your daily dosage. That said, fish oil can have interactions with some drugs so before starting fish oil supplements, we suggest speaking to your doctor to be sure.
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Are all supplements worthless? Not really. We’ve listed a few circumstances where they can be helpful, especially if you struggle to get the nutrients through your diet or have conditions that make it necessary to supplement what you do get through your diet. By working with your doctor or a nutritionist, you may be able to either build the nutrients directly into your diet or find ways to boost your diet with supplements in a healthy way. But, if you’re a generally healthy person and your doctor doesn’t suggest you begin supplements, you likely won’t see too much of a benefit.
Medicareful Living — Are Dietary Supplements Good for Your Health?