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Do you think you could benefit from certain dietary supplements: Vitamins, Minerals, and Other Nutrients | Food and Health

Do you think you could benefit from certain dietary supplements? Vitamins, Minerals, and Other Nutrients
Do you think you could benefit from certain dietary supplements: Vitamins, Minerals, and Other Nutrients

Do you need dietary supplements: Vitamins, Minerals, and More

Supplement bottles line the shelves of your local supermarket.  They include vitamins and minerals, from A to zinc.  You can also find products like probiotics, herbs, and fish oil.  But are they necessary for good health?  And what about its risks?

"For most people, eating a nutritious variety of foods can provide all the nutrients they need," says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian and consultant to the National Institutes of Health.  But some may need more than what they get from their meals.  Their needs may vary based on their age, their health, and what they eat.

 Many misunderstand what dietary supplements are for, explains Haggans.  "Some people may believe or hope that supplements can prevent or treat disease, but that's not what they claim," she says.  “They are made for the purpose of supplementing the diet.”

Dietary supplements are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. “But they are regulated under the umbrella of food,” says Haggans.  “It is important for people to know that they are not regulated like drugs.”

That means companies don't have to prove a supplement works before selling it.  Companies are required to follow good manufacturing practices in the production of their products.  But bottles may not always contain what the label says.

Some independent organizations perform quality tests on supplements and give seals of approval.  But these tests only ensure that a product has been made correctly and that it contains the listed ingredients.  They do not guarantee that it will work or that it is safe to use.

Who needs supplements?

The body needs different amounts of certain nutrients at different times in life.  For example, the ability to absorb and process some nutrients declines with age.  Therefore, older adults may need more of certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, vitamin B12, and calcium.

People who avoid certain foods may also need a nutrient boost.  For example, vitamin B12 is only found in animal products.  “So if you're on a vegan diet, you may not be getting enough B12 from food,” says Haggans.

Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant need a certain amount of folic acid.  This helps prevent a type of birth defect called 'neural tube defects'.  And babies may need more vitamin D than is found in breast milk.

People with chronic health conditions may also need more of some vitamins and minerals, according to Dr. Patricia Haggerty, who studies nutrition and the immune system at NIH.  These conditions include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and some autoimmune diseases.

But whether you need a supplement—and which one(s)—isn't a guess, she says.  "What supplements, what dosage, etc. are things you need to work out with your health care provider."  Blood tests can often help determine if you have a nutrient deficiency.

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Dietary Supplements: Safety Concerns

If you take supplements, tell your health care providers.  Some supplements can change how medicines work.  Others have risks for specific groups of people.  See the box Ask your doctor for questions about supplements.  You can keep track of information about your supplements and medications using the NIH My Dietary Supplements and Medication Log table.

“It's also important to know the total amount of nutrients you're getting from both food and different supplements,” says Haggans.  "'More' does not necessarily mean 'better,' and 'natural' does not necessarily mean 'safe.'"

Many nutrients can be dangerous in large amounts.  These have what is called an upper intake level.  Regularly consuming more than that level can lead to serious health problems.  Among the vitamins and minerals with a maximum limit are calcium, iron, zinc and vitamins A, B6, C and D.

Manufacturers are not required to keep their products below these maximum limits, Haggans explains.  So check the labels before you buy.  Also, some nutrients, such as vitamin K, can interact with common medications.

Other types of dietary supplements, such as botanicals, can be even more complicated.  Botanicals are also known as herbal supplements.  They contain one or more parts of a plant.  Some examples are ginseng, echinacea, and St. John's wort.  Botanicals can come in many forms, such as capsules, dry teas, or liquid preparations.

Botanicals can vary in their ingredients from brand to brand.  Therefore, their effects on the body may be different.  "They can also interact with medications and have side effects," says Haggans. 

Some botanicals may carry health claims that go too far, says Dr. Ikhlas Khan, an NIH-funded natural products researcher at the University of Mississippi.  Examples include helping you "sleep better" or "lose weight."

“If you're looking for a cure, you shouldn't be looking in the supplement aisle,” he says.

Dietart Supplements: Strengthen your immune system

Perhaps the most common claim for supplements is that they boost the immune system.  Researchers have been studying whether any can help.

"Many nutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, selenium, and magnesium, are important for a healthy immune system," says Haggerty.  But, so far, consuming more than the recommended amount of any nutrient doesn't seem to boost the immune system.

Researchers are testing whether certain supplements can decrease symptoms of COVID-19.  "But, so far, the data is insufficient to support recommendations for or against any vitamin, mineral, or botanical to prevent or treat COVID-19," says Haggerty.

Scientists are also looking for supplements that help against other viruses.  Khan and his colleagues are studying a botanical extract made from a type of algae called spirulina.  Studies in mice have shown that the components it contains can increase the immune response and protect against viral infection.  The team wants to test whether it can be used to protect against the flu.

But one challenge with botanical supplements is that they can vary from bottle to bottle, Khan explains.  Therefore, the team must first fully characterize the product before it can be tested in clinical studies.

You might ask: If supplements aren't the answer, what can you do to support your immune system right now?  "The most important thing is to eat a nutritious variety of foods and maintain a healthy weight," says Haggerty.  Obesity can weaken your immune system.

It's also important to get regular physical activity, get enough sleep, and minimize stress.  Do not smoke.  If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.  Stay up to date on your vaccinations.  And wash your hands to reduce the chances of getting sick.

 "These are all things we can do on a daily basis to keep our immune systems healthy," says Haggerty.

Source: NIH, Direct News 99