Dietary supplements are intended to complement a diet and provide what a person may lack nutritionally based on daily habits, medicines they’re taking or other outside factors.
“Supplements [cover] a multitude of things. Whether we’re talking about vitamins, minerals, herbal products, it’s anything that we use to add to … whatever lifestyle choices you have for various reasons. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition,” says Carrie Beth Smith, PharmD and Board Certified Pharmacotherapy Specialist at Saint Francis Medical Center.
Smith says there has been a wide range of research done on supplementation.
“Most people who use supplementation use it because they recognize that they have a deficiency in some area,” she says. “That’s why most of us take a multivitamin because we’re not sure if we get everything we need from our diet.”
A number of people who take supplements may be doing it to provide their body with something to compensate for an insufficiency caused by medical reasons or conditions.
“Some people use different supplements to assist in care for certain conditions. Â… They use them to help benefit their body for certain conditions and it’s a broad range,” Smith says. “People use supplements for, pick a topic, and somebody will probably tell you, ‘Oh, there’s a supplement for that.'”
All the nutrients we need could have been sourced from our diet 60 or more years ago according to Smith. As time has gone on, more automated options, chemicals and pesticides have come into use and loss of soil nutrients from erosion have made those nutrients less easily obtained.
When considering the saying “You eat whatever your food eats,” Smith says “most of the time we think about that for animals, but it’s the same thing with fruits and vegetables because they get their nutrients from the soil. So if we’re eating the fruits and vegetables to get the nutrients but the soil doesn’t have what it used to, then the tomato your grandma or great-grandma ate is not the tomato you’re eating today.”
With those factors in mind, Smith also says every person’s supplement needs (or lack thereof) will be different because every person has a distinctly different diet and lifestyle.
“There are certain things that probably are more predominantly geared toward or more necessary for men versus women,” she says. “There are some things that go across the board that everybody probably needs a little bit of. To do supplementation appropriately, you look at the individual person and what that individual needs.”
The main goal of supplementation is to get a person to a proper state of health. Once that goal has been met, Smith says supplementation can most likely be reduced.
“Once your body’s in a healthy mode and in a healthy place, then eating healthy and eating that variety, it’s much easier to get what you need (in terms of vitamins and minerals),” she says.
When it comes to supplementing for other reasons, Smith says the conversation shifts. She says people often continue supplementing for years without considering whether or not they still need the supplements they’re consuming.
“You have to think about, what’s it doing for your body and then does your body really still need it?” she says.
This is a difficult question to consider, Smith says, because many healthcare providers may not have a definitive answer.
“Unless you have somebody who’s really interested in supplementation and really has taken a personal interest in it, finding qualified individuals to speak to becomes difficult, to be perfectly honest,” she says.
Enter physicians and pharmacists.
“When you have that physician/pharmacist team that both have an understanding of supplements and why supplementation is important and how to do it, then you can actually provide people with what their bodies need,” Smith says.
And in most cases, Smith says speaking with a physician to order supplements is the safest option.
“The best quality supplements are those that physicians must order because the companies meet beyond the strictest standards of what’s required for supplementations on the shelf at ‘pick-your-drugstore,'” she says.
Although dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, according to its website, firms that market supplements are required to ensure the product manufactured is safe, any claims made about the product are not false or misleading and the products comply with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and FDA regulations in all other respects.
The solution to any doubt in this case, Smith says, is looking for companies that work directly with physicians to supply supplements for their patients.
Smith also recommends speaking to a physician or pharmacist because they can best consider which medications a person may be on already and determine how certain supplements may interact with them.
“When you have a pharmacist/physician team that works together, you get the best of both worlds,” she says.
Smith says the first step in moving from health to wellness is taking responsibility for one’s own wellbeing and asking physicians and pharmacists the appropriate questions about dietary and supplemental needs.
“I’m a firm believer when your body gets what it needs it does what it was created to do,” Smith says. “… Why wouldn’t you want to be well?”