Dietary Supplements (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)
What are dietary supplements?
In the United States,
dietary supplements are substances you eat or drink. They can be vitamins,
minerals, herbs or other plants,
amino acids (the individual building blocks of
protein), or parts of these substances. They can be in pill, capsule, tablet,
or liquid form. They supplement (add to) the diet and should not be considered
a substitute for food.
Dietary supplements are widely available in
the United States in health food stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, on the
Internet, and by mail. People commonly take them for health-related reasons.
Common dietary supplements include vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C or
a multivitamin), botanicals (herbs and plant products, such as St. John's
wort), and substances that come from a natural source (such as omega-3 fatty
Makers of dietary supplements cannot legally say that
dietary supplements can diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease. But they can
say that they contribute to health maintenance and well-being.
People have used the active ingredients in dietary supplements for
thousands of years to help health and to treat illness. Sometimes those
supplements are the basis for some of today's common medicines. For example,
people have used willow bark tea for centuries to control fever. Pharmaceutical
companies eventually identified the chemical in willow bark that reduces fever
and used that knowledge to produce aspirin.
The U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way that
it regulates medicine. A dietary supplement can be sold without research on how
well it works.
What are dietary supplements used for?
dietary supplements for many health conditions.
- People often use vitamins and minerals to
supplement diet and treat disease. For example, echinacea may keep you from
getting a cold and may help you get better faster.1
High doses of vitamin C may also help you get better faster.
Historically, people have used herbal medicines to prevent illness, cure
infection, reduce fever, and heal wounds. Herbal medicines can also treat
constipation, ease pain, or act as relaxants or stimulants. Research on some
herbs and plant products has shown that they may have some of the same effects
that conventional medicines do, while others may have no effect or may be
- Researchers have studied some natural products and have found
them to be useful. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, may help triglyceride levels.
Are dietary supplements safe?
Not all herbs and
supplements are safe. If you are unsure about the safety of a supplement or
herb, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian.
your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about
combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may
not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a
dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or
When using dietary supplements, keep in mind the
- Like conventional medicines, dietary
supplements may cause side effects, trigger allergic reactions, or interact
with prescription and nonprescription medicines or other supplements you might
be taking. A side effect or interaction with another medicine or supplement may
make other health conditions worse.
- The way dietary supplements are
manufactured may not be standardized. Because of this, how well they work or
any side effects they cause may differ among brands or even within different
lots of the same brand. The form of supplement that you buy in health food or
grocery stores may not be the same as the form used in research.
- Other than for vitamins and minerals, the long-term effects of
most dietary supplements are not known.
Shah SA, et al. (2007). Evaluation of echinacea for
the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis.
Lancet Infectious Diseases, 7(7): 473-480.
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine
June 29, 2011