Sometimes widespread use of supplements is even associated with negative health effects. “Studies have found a small but significant increase in all-cause mortality in people taking high doses of vitamin E supplements,” says Lichtenstein. “And beta-carotene supplementation has been found to be associated with increased risk of cancer in smokers. These negative effects are not found when these nutrients are consumed in foods.”
That doesn’t mean that all supplement use is bad. “There are some cases where supplements are definitely valuable,” says Lichtenstein. “For example, as we get older, some of us have decreased capacity to absorb vitamin B12, so B12 supplements are important for avoiding pernicious anemia. And women of childbearing age may need extra iron or additional folate. A healthcare provider should decide if any supplements are appropriate on a patient-by-patient basis.”
Twenty-nine percent of the older adults surveyed reported taking more than four supplements a day. “We don’t see the issue as supplement use by itself,” says Jaime Gahche, MPH, a nutritional epidemiologist with the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements and lead author of the study on supplement use in older adults. “The problem is the potential for overuse of dietary supplements, particularly when multiple products are being consumed, and in conjunction with prescription medications. This can increase the risk of consuming nutrients beyond what is recommended, and could increase the risk of drug-nutrient interactions.”
Supplements and Prescription Drugs: About 90% of older adults take prescription medications, and 39 percent take five or more, putting older Americans at special risk for any potential interactions between dietary supplements and prescription drugs. “We found that there was a high concurrent use of supplements with prescription and other medications,” says Gahche. “Those who reported three or more prescription medications were much more likely to be taking supplements than those who were not taking any prescription medications.” It is essential that patients tell their healthcare providers about any dietary supplements, including herbal and botanical preparations, they are using.
While it may seem like supplements are an insurance policy against poor nutrition, there is no substitute for a healthy dietary pattern. “It’s preferable to get one’s nutrients from food, rather than supplements,” says Lichtenstein. “Supplements won’t compensate for over-consuming sodium or under-consuming fruits and vegetables. You can’t pop a supplement on top of an unhealthy diet and expect better health.”
Be smart when choosing supplements. These tips can help:
-A healthcare professional is the best person to determine if supplement use is necessary.
-Healthcare professionals should be informed of all dietary supplement intake, including special teas and other herbal or botanical preparations.
-A pharmacist or other healthcare professional should check for known interactions between an individual’s prescription and over-the-counter drugs and any supplements they wish to take.
-Supplements are not well regulated. For non-prescription supplements, look for seals of approval from USP or UL, or check ConsumerLabs.com to see if a supplement actually contains the ingredients it advertises.