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Best Tips for Taking Dietary Supplements

The dietary supplement industry is more than a $32 billion business, and people are searching for better health through nutritional supplements. More than half of the cancer patients in one recent study used dietary supplements, and two-thirds of them taking more than one supplement each day. If you are among the many Americans taking nutritional supplements, you may be frustrated because you know more than your healthcare provider about them!

Unless you have a nutritionist in the family or consulted with one, you have probably learned about nutritional supplements on your own. Unfortunately, much of the dietary supplement information available to the public is confusing and misleading. You may be purchasing natural products that make miraculous health claims without substantiated research to back them up. You may be taking the wrong dose or the wrong product all together for your specific needs. You may be taking supplements at the wrong time or storing them incorrectly. Unless you are one hundred percent sure of what you’re doing, your first step should not be into a health food store but into a nutritionist’s office. 

The only way to ensure you choose appropriate nutritional formulas is to find a qualified professional who can develop a specific program for you. If you are going to spend your hard-earned money on dietary supplements, you should be confident that you are buying products that are best for you. Look for a registered dietitian, certified nutrition specialist, or naturopathic physician who has clinical oncology experience. Most individuals who carry these credentials base their recommendations on current scientific findings. 

The unfortunate reality is that most people don’t seek professional advice about dietary supplements, choosing instead to “self-prescribe.” So, for all of you do-it-yourselfers, here are some practical supplement-savvy suggestions to help you make sound decisions for yourself and your loved ones.

Don’t assume that supplements are safe just because they are sold over-the-counter. Dietary supplements can have pharmacological or drug-like actions that may interfere with prescription drugs or significantly affect how the body functions. Some supplements can cause side effects that a doctor may erroneously attribute to a prescription drug or medical therapy—leading to discontinued or delayed medical treatment for your loved one. For this reason, it is prudent to inform a qualified professional about which supplements you are taking or intending to take. If it’s labeled “natural,” that doesn’t mean it is safe.

Food should come first. The threat of malnutrition looms large in the chronically ill population, so it’s important to remember that you should not use supplements to replace food. If you can’t eat very much, it is more important to fill your stomach with nourishing food rather than herbal teas, liquid concoctions, pills and powders. 

Don’t let your emotions drive your dietary supplement decisions. As you strive to get better, you may become vulnerable to individuals who are offering the “miracle” health cure. A good rule of thumb regarding any health claims is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be mindful of product claims such as “works better than [a prescription drug],” “totally safe,” or has “no side effects.”

Think cost-effective. Dietary supplements are expensive, so if you find your wallet is getting thin, invest in a professional opinion before making another trip to the health food store. A typical nutrition consultation costs between $100 to $300—the same amount of money that many consumers usually spend per month on dietary supplements. 

Quality does matter. Lower cost, “value-priced” dietary supplements may contain fillers, additives, and coal tars that can cause stomach upset or allergic reactions. The FDA has established quality standards for nutritional supplements to ensure their identity, purity, strength, and composition. Also, several independent organizations offer quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display their approval seals. These seals of approval assure that the product was manufactured correctly, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. Organizations that offer this quality testing include U.S. Pharmacopeia,, and NSF International. 

If you are a caregiver, be respectful of your loved one’s decision to take nutritional supplements. Even if you disagree, reduce a potentially stressful situation by gently encouraging them to seek professional guidance about their supplement choices. On the other hand, listen to and respect your loved one’s wishes not to take dietary supplements, even if you think they should.

When searching for supplements on the internet, use noncommercial sites (e.g., NIH, FDA, USDA) rather than sellers’ information. Don’t be fooled by internal graphs or charts on products. The online National Library of Medicine is a great place to check whether a supplement has undergone proper research protocol.

If you are purchasing from a health food store, bring a magnifying glass to read supplement labels before purchasing. Most labels are difficult to read, and you want to make sure you buy what you need!

Buy supplements in vegan or gelatin pull-apart capsules. Uncompressed, powdered compounds are usually better absorbed than hard-pressed tablets. 

Avoid supplements that contain fillers, additives, or coal tars. Additive-free products will tell you so on the label. Many multivitamins contain sugar substitutes, so read labels carefully, especially if you might be allergic to any fillers or additives.

Before you purchase, check the expiration date. Shelf life is shortened when you transfer supplements from the original container to smaller containers.

Divide your doses over the day to ensure maximum nutrient absorption per dose and decrease the chance of GI intolerance. Check to make sure you can follow the dosage requirements to avoid the overwhelm of needing to take many capsules at once.

 If you develop an upset stomach, rash, or some other adverse reaction, stop taking all supplements. Notify your doctor. Restart your vitamin regimen one supplement at a time. Add a new supplement every two or three days until you determine which supplement bothers you. 

If you have trouble swallowing supplements, try taking them with a thick liquid such as fruit nectar or a fruit smoothie. Chewable, liquid or powdered forms of vitamins are easy to swallow alternatives to capsules and pills. 

Take all supplements with food, unless otherwise specified. Most nutrients are better absorbed when your digestive tract is processing food. Amino acids, however, should be taken on an empty stomach. 

Keep in mind that dietary supplements won’t make up for a lousy diet. Supplements always work better when part of a holistic healthcare plan that includes proper dietary habits and lifestyle choices.

Do not substitute supplements for prescription medications. Ask your pharmacist if you need to be aware of any drug-nutrient or nutrient-nutrient interactions. 

Some supplements can also have unwanted effects before, during, or after surgery. This can be particularly true of herbal supplements. A good rule of thumb is to go off all supplements three days before major surgery and resume three days after surgery unless your health care professional recommends something else.

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