Dietary supplements – A detailed introduction everyone needs to read

by | Oct 13, 2022 | Dietary Supplements

The use of dietary supplements is increasing every year. People all over the world are becoming obsessed with these (seemingly) wondrous pills that offer all the solutions in one bottle.

But the question that lies here is that:

Is this obsession justified?

Do you(or the people around you) even know all the details about the dietary supplements? Or are you embarking on a trend you heard from a friend or family?

Because if that’s the case, then, my friend, you are in DEEP TROUBLE!

Read through this article to get to know all the facts about dietary supplements
(Don’t forget to check the frequently asked questions mentioned below!)

What are Dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements - A detailed introduction everyone needs to read

Dietary supplements are products made to supplement your diet for the betterment of your health. They include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins(in some cases), and herbal and botanical ingredients. They can also contain compounds that are famous for their health benefits such as polyphenols and plant pigments (although these claims are not backed by scientific evidence).

Dietary supplements can be natural or artificially made to serve any specific purpose. However, remember that dietary supplements are considered a part of the food. They do not, in any way, serve to treat or cure any specific chronic disease, nor can they mitigate the symptoms of an illness.

They come in the form of pills, capsules, soft gels, liquid form, tablets, or powder form.

Are dietary supplements important?

Well, that depends on your need for supplementation and if you need one nutrient in a more concentrated form than the ones naturally available in food.

Dietary supplements only cover the occasional slips that you have while consuming food.

With each following year, we face the same problems:

  • Rising pollution
  • Increased use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and
  • The decreasing nutritional value of fruits and vegetables

This is why it is quite possible that you may develop a deficiency in certain nutrients. Not only this but the rising consumption of junk food and adopting ill eating habits are also a culprit for the nutritional deficit in your body.

It was also noted in a study that in the US, almost 75% of the people (aged 1 year or more) eat less fruit than the recommended value. It was also noted that 80% of the population ate less than the recommended vegetable intake.

All of this has given rise to hidden hunger, i.e., micronutrient depletion in your body. Hidden hunger is a global phenomenon. Nowadays every third person on our planet Earth suffers from hidden hunger (With more than 2 billion people, that makes a massive crowd of undernourished humans!)

Note: Did you know that the orange of the year 1950 had the same amount of Vitamin A as 21 oranges of this century?! (Yup. No kidding!) This is a classic example of the decreased nutritional value of food. Not only this, but also the meat we consume today contains half the amount of protein than in previous years. Therefore, the need for dietary supplements becomes amicable in certain situations.

How do dietary supplements work?

Dietary supplements work by providing your body with the nutrients that you may not be getting from your food. They are taken by mouth and enter the bloodstream through the digestive system. This is how they reach all cells in your body and supposedly absorb them to make up for the low nutrient count that they had.

Note: Always be sure of one thing: No dietary supplement can claim to cure, diagnose, prevent or mitigate any disease under the regulation of the FDA. Keep an arm’s length from the fraudulent products that claim this. During the COVID-19 pandemic, FDA banned a plethora of herbal products, homeopathic medicines, teas, and tinctures that bogusly claimed to act as a vaccine or protection against the COVID-19.

Usage of dietary supplements

Once the dietary supplements are absorbed, they can function in multiple ways. Some of the uses include

  • Calcium helps you make your bone strong
  • Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium and thus consequently prevents bone loss.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, such as in fish oil, are vital for the prevention of heart diseases. They are very important for vegans and vegetarians as they are not getting Omega-3 enough from the plant diet.
  • Folic acid, when given to pregnant women, reduced the risk of neural defects in their unborn babies.
  • AREDS (a combination of Vitamin C and E among other nutrients) helps prevent complete loss of eyesight in people suffering from AMD.
  • Some essential oils such as lavender oil, in a combination of other ingredients, claim to reduce anxiety and stress.

Types Of Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements - A detailed introduction everyone needs to read

The types of dietary supplements include

Vitamin based supplements

Vitamins are important compounds that are needed by your body in limited amounts. In simple words, vitamins are a compound or a group of compounds that we cannot synthesize on their own. It needs to be absorbed from food or other sources (such as sunlight in the case of Vitamin D) to meet its requirement.

If you are on a calorie deficit diet or prefer to eat one type of food more than the other, there is a chance that you may develop vitamin deficiency.

Well, our body mainly requires the following 13 vitamins:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B complex includes Vitamin B1(Thiamine), Vitamin B2(Riboflavin), Vitamin B3(Niacin), Vitamin B5(Pantothenic acid), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B7(Biotin), Vitamin B9(Folate), and Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

So, in order to fulfill the requirements of your body, you need to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables as well as meat. And if you are unable to do so, vitamin-based supplements or multivitamins are given to you to make up for the deficiency.

However, there are 2 concerns regarding vitamin-based supplements.

  • Firstly, most vitamin-based supplements do not abide by the recommended upper intake level (UL) set by the US Institute of Medicine. For instance, the official UL for vitamin D is 4000 IU but the products available in the market sell 10,000 IU without prescription.
  • Secondly, there is no evidence that vitamin-based supplements benefit healthy individuals in any form. The difference was only seen in those who had a vitamin deficiency.

Mineral-based supplements

Minerals are the chemical elements without which our survival is impossible. Mineral-based supplements provide our body with the chemicals that are needed for proper functioning.

The 4 main elements i.e., Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen are so important that there is no upper intake level (UL) set for them. These elements are the building blocks of your body, thus making your survival possible. You can easily get them through a nutritious diet.

The other elements needed (in limited amounts) are Potassium, Chlorine, Sodium, Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Manganese, Copper, Iodine, Chromium, Molybdenum, Selenium, and Cobalt.

All of these play a vital role, in one form or another, to ensure proper growth and survival of the body. For instance, your thyroid glands need Iodine to work(its deficiency causes a disease, Goiter) while cobalt is an important part of Vitamin B12.

Mineral-based supplements either sell these elements individually or they may include vitamins and other minerals in them too.

However, there is one thing that’s clear: Mineral-based supplements cannot, in any case, guarantee to reduce the effects of any disease.

The FDA has launched Qualified Health Claims (QHC) for the supplements that are backed up by scientific research for their effectiveness. They can use the wordings like “may reduce” or “may effect” to state their claims. This is done because there is no strong scientific backup for these claims.

Nutritional supplements

Nutritional supplements are those that provide your body with macronutrients such as protein and fatty acids and micronutrients as well. They are especially important to target any specific purpose such as fertility or bodybuilding.

The nutritional supplements can be divided into the following categories:

  • Protein and amino acid-based supplements

This type of nutritional supplement is used by patients recovering from an injury or old age immobile people who are at the risk of severe muscle loss. Proteins and amino acids are also used by athletes to make up for the muscle they might have lost during an intense workout or by those who want to lose weight with a protein-based diet.

The most popular nutritional supplements in this category are whey protein, soy, hemp, and casein, all of which are forms of protein. Out of all these, whey protein has been linked to gain in endurance, strength, and muscle mass to some extent by some scientific research. (But hey, there is no sure way to know that. So, if you are skeptical, that’s good. Always consult your doctor first regarding dietary supplements.)

Know that the official UL of protein is 0.8 mg per kg of body weight every day for normal people(those who do light exercise). For athletes or professional bodybuilders, the recommended dosage by IOC is 1.2 to 1.8 g/ kg of body weight.

Amino acids that are used by people to gain muscles, improve performance, and dilate vessels are leucine, cysteine, and arginine respectively. These mostly come as a combination of ingredients that serve the same purpose.

  • Essential fatty acids-based supplements

Essential fatty acids are necessary for proper immune response, heart health, and appropriate growth and development. These include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA), omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids. EPA and DHA are some of the forms of omega-3 fatty acids.

The most commonly used nutritional supplement in this category is fish oil, which is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Also, note that the recommended dosage of essential fatty acids intake differs according to age.

However, there is one thing you must know: the scientific research on fish oil has failed to prove that it treats or prevents heart disease. These inconclusive results contrast with the claims of fish oil manufacturers. Therefore, I always recommend you do your research before falling prey to any scam!

  • Probiotics

Probiotics include different types of bacteria (both mono-strain and multi-strain) that supposedly act to improve gut health.

This analysis, however, remains unprovable in the field of research for adults. A study, however, has found that the children who consumed probiotics during diarrhea had a modest decrease in symptoms.

  • Bodybuilding supplements

Bodybuilding supplements are the ones designed for athletes, professional bodybuilders, and those who do intense workouts to maximize lean muscle mass production.

The bodybuilding supplements that are pretty common are high protein drinks, pre-workout blends, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), glutamine, arginine, essential fatty acids, creatine, HMB, whey protein, ZMA, and weight loss products.

You must have seen promotions of such supplements once in a while. This is because the bodybuilding industry promotes the use of these products a lot. People like us, who are impatient and desperate for results, fall prey to these firms. But more often than not, the results come with side effects so severe that you have to bear the consequences for quite a long time. Therefore, consulting your doctor is an irrebuttable fact here too.

  • Fertility supplements

Fertility supplements are used to increase the likelihood of conceiving a child for both partners.

For women who are trying to conceive, antioxidant treatments (taken orally) are prescribed. Although there are a lot of rumors that these work, research says that there is no solid proof of their effectiveness.

Note: A review suggests that DHEA increases your likelihood of conceiving and carrying the baby to term if given before an IVF cycle. However, nothing is known for sure!

On the other hand, for men with a problematic sperm count, some antioxidant supplements are claimed to be effective. These include supplements that have carnitines, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, zinc, or Coenzyme Q10. Research conducted in 2018 states that such supplements increase sperm count, their shape and ability to move, as well as their concentration in a sample. All of these are primary factors to consider if you and your partner are trying to get pregnant.

But don’t get your hopes up yet…
A 2021 review also supports these dietary supplements but states that overindulging with antioxidant supplements can potentially decrease the sperm count too! And since dietary supplements are mislabeled most of the time, it adds more to the problem.

Herbs and botanical supplements

The use of herbs and botanical supplements is increasing up to 8.6% each year. More and more people nowadays are going for natural supplements to maintain their health. And you can see this trend in the Asian and Pan-Asian countries mostly. The people of developing countries of these regions tend to believe in their ancient practices a lot. They believe that healing by nature is the best healing of any form. This idea is being caught up in the West too, where people have started using herbs and botanical supplements as their first line of defense.

They may include whole foods, their extract, or a combination of both. Some of these are:

  • Garlic (reduces inflammation, lowers BP and high cholesterol levels, improves your energy during a workout, and prevents the onset of diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes)
  • Ginseng (works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory drug. Promotes your immune response, improves your brain function, and helps you get over fatigue)
  • Echinacea (helps your body fight off an infection by boosting your immune response, reliable treatment for flu and the common cold)
  • Ginkgo biloba (helps sharpen memory and improves brain health. Its nuts are used to treat flu, cough, and even gonorrhea)
  • Resveratrol (anti-inflammatory, helps with arthritis and skin condition, prevents diseases such as cancer and diabetes)
  • Cranberry (mainly useful for urinary tract health. It is also beneficial for lung and heart health)
  • Collagen (reverses the sign of aging, improves skin elasticity, strengthens joints, and increases bone density)
  • St. John’s wort (it improves mood and alleviates mild depression)

Current usage analysis of dietary supplements

The current usage of dietary supplements is at an all-time high.
According to a survey held by CRN (Council of Responsible Nutrition) in 2019, more than three fourth of the population of the U.S. has used dietary supplements that year. On further analysis, it was noted that an astounding 83% of the parents, with children under 18 years old, used dietary supplements a lot.

The most used dietary supplements are vitamins and minerals, with more than 75% of the U.S. population claiming that they took multivitamins (or other forms) during the year 2019.

On the other hand, the least used dietary supplements belong to the weight management category (a mere 17%).

Now you must be thinking
‘What does this have to do with you?’

Well, let me explain.
This shows the implications of the tactics used by the supplement makers. They make the people believe that their product is the only thing that they need to remain fit and healthy. They target especially the middle-aged ones, who start becoming worried about their low energy and endurance in general.

This is why 81% of adults between the ages of 35-54 claim to use supplements every day.

As explained earlier, we do not know if it’s even effective or not (the research on this topic is insufficient and vague). Therefore, the cashing out of the fear of people should be banned completely. Dietary supplements’ makers, instead of giving hope to people, should clearly mention that there is not enough proof to say that these products work!


Who regulates dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements are (unfortunately) classified as foods by the FDA, not drugs. This means that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t even determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are made available to the public.

Since dietary supplements do not undergo extensive preliminary clinical trials, there is no official way to determine whether they really work or not.

Now, this is a concerning fact.
As you just have to believe what the dietary supplements are telling you.

FDA can only take action against any dietary supplement if its reviews contradict its claims. If the negative reviews are found to be true, FDA restricts that supplement’s sales and production.

Can everyone take dietary supplements?

Nope, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to just start taking any supplement without consulting their physician beforehand.

Your doctor will evaluate your health and perform tests first to know if you even need to take a certain supplement or not. This will save you from potential overdose which can be quite risky for your health. (It’s a whole new ballgame, my friend. You would NOT want to experience that! It might even lead to your death.)

They will also check your family history regarding any genetic disease or your history of allergic reactions.

Not only this, but if you are already taking prescribed medicines for your illness, then certain dietary supplements will not be recommended to you. Drug-supplement interaction, in some cases, is quite significant as it may increase or decrease the function of the medicine (see below for some examples!)

Do dietary supplements impact the effectiveness of any medicine?

Yes, certain dietary supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of prescribed medications. For instance, Vitamin K can lead to decreased effectiveness of blood thinners such as warfarin.

On the other hand, Vitamin E can augment the function of blood-thinning agents, thus making you prone to nosebleeds and unexplainable bruises.

Also, have you heard of St. John’s wort? It’s a botanical supplement that claims to be effective towards depression and mood changes.
However, think twice before taking this supplement!
It can reduce the effectiveness of certain drugs, such as birth control pills and prescribed antidepressants. This dietary supplement causes an early breakdown of these drugs.

Vitamin B6 is also a dietary supplement that should be used cautiously. It can reduce the effectiveness of levodopa (medicine for Parkinson’s disease) and anti-seizure drugs. Vitamin B6 overdose (i.e., taking high doses for over a year) can lead to serious nerve damage.

There are also many other supplements that interact with medicines. I would suggest you read my next article for further information.

Where can I purchase dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements are over-the-counter medicines. You can easily purchase them from any reputable supermarket or pharmacy.

Most of the companies also sell their dietary supplements online on their websites. Since a lot of companies offer you discounts on online purchases, you can avail this offer if the supplement is of a renowned brand.

Remember that you have a higher chance of getting scammed if you purchase dietary supplements from substandard shops or an unknown online retailer. Always go for official web forums or trustable stores so that you do not put your health at stake!

The takeaway

While some dietary supplements have become a need of time, most of them are not as necessary as they pose themselves to be.

You should research extensively before buying any dietary supplement, check the company’s credibility, read reviews a lot, and most importantly, do not forget to consult with your doctor!
He will tell you which type of dietary supplement will work for you or whether you should take supplements or not.

Always remember, that your health comes first. Do not risk your life for the sake of following the trend of supplementation without doing your proper research!


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