by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

How many times have you stood in front of a wall of vitamins and supplements with confusion and questions? What knowledge should you have to make the safe and correct choices?

With the aging baby boomer population many people are taking more responsibility for their health, including the buying of supplements.  Americans spend billions of dollars on prescription drugs each year and a large portion of them also use one or more dietary supplements.  Beyond the usual multivitamin many are using antioxidants, calcium, vitamin D, herbs, fish oils, enzymes and numerous other supplements for specific conditions or for overall good health maintenance.

A supplement can be any product containing one or more dietary ingredients (vitamin, mineral, herb or other botanical, amino acid or a combination of these). Supplements can be bought as pills, powders, liquids, teas or cream.  How do you sort through the advertisements, the books, those unsolicited mailings, and labels to pick your product?  What is your responsibility?

BE BOLD, and discuss the supplements  you use with your physician. Many physicians are now more receptive to integrating supplements with allopathic medicine and recommend the use of specific supplements. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association made a dramatic shift in 2002 when it took the position, “all adults should take a multivitamin to prevent chronic disease”.  Remember your physician can help prevent possible drug-supplement interactions.

Seek out other professionals with expertise in supplements, herbs and drugs.  A Registered Dietitian with specialty training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) can be a significant resource.  Pharmacists can also check your present drugs against any possible drug-supplement interactions. Require sales associates to provide you with information.  Numerous reference books are also available for this purpose  Remember well meaning friends, neighbors and relatives may not always have all necessary information when recommending products to you.  One shoe size does not fit all and the same goes for supplements. Listen to their advice and question if advice is pertinent to your situation.

Don’t be gullible and don’t believe everything you see on infomercials, the Internet or mailings you receive.  Question the source of the information?  Are they selling a product?  Do you have to buy a book or subscription to find out what the miracle ingredient is?  Is the loss of 10 pounds per weeks really believable?  If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.   Watch for these red flags:  It promises a cure or tells you to forgo medical treatment.  In these two cases DO NOT BUY!

Quality information will not promise cures without good sources or data showing years of safe use.

Watch for double dipping. In a few cases interactions can occur between drugs, over the counter medications and/or supplements.  Keep a written list of medication with you and know what supplements you are taking.  Tell sales associates your medications and check for interactions.  Interactions are few but three of the most common major drug categories to be aware of are:  anticoagulants, antidepressants and blood pressure medications.

Read the entire supplement label (not just the front)!  Print can be small use a magnifying glass if needed but check the serving size, look for direction on how and when to take and note all warnings.

Question the “kitchen sink formulas”. Those are the ones with the “hot ingredient” on the label.  Check the dosage amount provided of the “hot ingredient”.  Is the dosage large enough to be therapeutic or just there for advertising?  Remember there are many great synergistic formulas on the market, but others can have minute amounts of listed ingredients.

When you go to buy ask question and know the brands you buy.  Pertinent questions would be: Is this an established brand?  Do they use Good Manufacturing Practices or a True Labeling Program?  Are there any mystery ingredients or fillers?  Are there any artificial colors or flavors?  Does the bottle clearly state how much to take and when?  Is there an additives statement if the product is free of common allergens (corn, wheat, milk, etc)?  Is there a lot number and expiration date if problems arise?

Supplements serve specific purposes and benefit the body in unique ways. Do your homework and then feel good about your supplements. Purchase the supplements you know to be of help to you and which have no interactions with your prescription drugs.

Those who take responsibility for their health will be the ones who will be in the best health and do the best in our medical system.


Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.