Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements, OH MY!

February 13, 2013

On any given day, I will wake up, get dressed and head down to the kitchen for a good breakfast (it is the most important meal of the day.) Since I was a child, I was trained to take my vitamins like a good boy and told that it would make me grow healthy and strong. That was a long time ago. However, it is still going on. Now and then I begin to wonder: what are these things (vitamins and supplements) doing, if anything? Who monitors these pills and potions? Am I taking them because my father told me it’s a good thing or because they really are helpful?

Here is a quoted paragraph from the FDA website on the basic definition of what they are:

“The law defines dietary supplements in part as products taken by mouth that contain a “dietary ingredient.” Dietary ingredients include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs or botanicals, as well as other substances that can be used to supplement the diet.

These products are available in stores throughout the United States, as well as on the Internet. They are labeled as dietary supplements and include among others:

  • vitamin and mineral products
  • “botanical” or herbal products—These come in many forms and may include plant materials, algae, macroscopic fungi, or a combination of these materials.
  • amino acid products—Amino acids are known as the building blocks of proteins and play a role in metabolism.
  • enzyme supplements—Enzymes are complex proteins that speed up biochemical reactions.”

People use dietary supplements for a wide assortment of reasons. Some attempt to compensate for poor diets, medical conditions, or eating habits that limit the intake of essential vitamins and nutrients. Other people look to them to boost energy or to get a good night’s sleep. Postmenopausal women consider using them to counter a sudden drop in estrogen levels. But how do we know that the vitamins are really doing that?

According to the law, most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements do not have to be proven as accurate or truthful in order to meet the FDA’s satisfaction.  Dietary supplement manufacturers do not have to get the agency’s approval before selling these products.

It is also against the law to market a dietary supplement product as a treatment or cure for a specific disease, or to relieve the symptoms of a disease. Hmmm. That sounds a bit worrisome to me. So, the FDA does not require the producers of these products to prove their claims. And, yet millions of people take them regularly, blindly and on the advice of their “experts” (“my friend takes these and his arthritis is almost gone now…”)

So, how do I choose my supplements? I assume that my diet is generally good and well-rounded. That helps. We all know, however, that we may not always get our total needs met with food alone. So I take and suggest a multivitamin appropriate for my age and sex. The rest of my ‘supplement’ intake is based on researched articles related to specific medical conditions and what studies have shown is appropriate.

Do not believe that all vitamins and supplements are safe. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to vitamins. For example, Vitamin E over 400 iu per day has actually been shown to increase cardiovascular disease, Vitamin A in excess can cause problems with skin, hair and vision. Vitamin C in greater amounts than 500mg per day is associated with increased gastrointestinal symptoms.

Using supplements improperly can be harmful. Taking a combination of supplements, using these products together with medicine, or substituting them in place of prescribed medicines could lead to harmful, even life-threatening results.

So do the right thing. Do your own research from valid peer reviewed sites, and TALK TO YOUR PHYSICIAN. Find out if your plan is correct for your age, sex and medical problems. I know I will. Now, take your vitamins like a good kid!

Here is a final quote from the FDA:

“Be a Safe and Informed Consumer:

  • Let your health care professional advise you on sorting reliable information from questionable information.
  • Contact the manufacturer for information about the product you intend to use.
  • Be aware that some supplement ingredients, including nutrients and plant components, can be toxic. Also, some ingredients and products can be harmful when consumed in high amounts, when taken for a long time, or when used in combination with certain other drugs, substances, or foods.
  • Do not self-diagnose any health condition. Work with health care professionals to determine how best to achieve optimal health.
  • Do not substitute a dietary supplement for a prescription medicine or therapy, or for the variety of foods important to a healthful diet.
  • Do not assume that the term “natural” in relation to a product ensures that the product is wholesome or safe.
  • Be wary of hype and headlines. Sound health advice is generally based upon research over time, not a single study.
  • Learn to spot false claims. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

About Robert Waxler, M.D.

Robert Waxler, M.D. specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics at the Bob Hope Health Center.

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