Five things you should know about supplements

Natural supplements may be beneficial in some cases, but they may cause harm in others, especially for cancer patients. Here are five things you should know about these popular products.

An estimated 68 percent of U.S. adults take dietary supplements, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition. And yet, despite their popularity, these products are clouded by a great deal of misinformation and a general lack of understanding about their benefits and risks. I’ve seen firsthand how the correct use of some supplements can help improve health and wellness. But certain risks come with taking supplements without the advice of trained professionals.

What you should know

Here are five facts everyone should know about taking supplements:

Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. While some natural supplements have a number of benefits, including relatively few side effects, they may be harmful if taken incorrectly. It is also important to know that some natural supplements may be safe for a healthy individual but not for a person with certain health conditions. That is why it is important to speak with a physician or dietitian before taking a new supplement.

Many supplements are not preapproved for safety by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many people are surprised to learn that the FDA does not preapprove the safety and efficacy of many supplements. This means some products may be contaminated, contain unknown ingredients or provide improper dosing information. The best way to avoid these risky products is to seek the advice of a health care professional who is knowledgeable in the use of supplements.

In some cases, supplements may help ease symptoms when used correctly. A 2012 joint report from the American Academy of Neurology and American Headache Society concluded that butterbur extract can help some people with migraines. Additionally, some research has suggested that red yeast rice may help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, though the study points out that there are some risks involved. These are just two examples of how conventional science is exploring the use of supplements in helping to improve medical conditions.

Some supplements can negatively interact with medications. People often fail to stop and think about how supplements may interact with other medications. These interactions may lead to a number of side effects: unexpected toxicities, limits on the effectiveness of certain drugs, and sometimes even an increased risk of bleeding, liver and kidney damage and central nervous system depression. And yet, one 2005 study showed that 25 percent of the chemotherapy patients surveyed were using dietary supplements suspected of causing adverse reactions with their cancer treatment, but many did not consult a health care professional.  

Supplements are being integrated into cancer treatment. In the fight against cancer, many people assume that treatment is limited to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. But more and more these days, the growing arsenal of potential options also contains integrative therapies, including herbal and non-herbal supplements that may help alleviate some side effects of certain cancer treatments. For example, ginger may help manage acute nausea for some patients, and zinc has been used by some patients to improve taste changes following chemotherapy treatment. Before taking any supplements, though, cancer survivors and patients undergoing cancer treatment should proactively consult with a qualified health care professional.

The growing demand and respect for supplements in today’s society is promising for many of us in the field of integrative therapy. In the future, I believe we’re going to see more supplements being used in conjunction with appropriate medications and additional integrative therapies to support patients’ overall quality of life. To keep up with the evolving understanding of supplement use, and to guard against certain risks, it is extremely important for the public to understand these products and only take them under the advice of a medical professional.