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FAQs About Dietary Supplements

You buy vitamins and other nutritional supplements with the goal of improving your health, but do you know exactly what to look for, or what's inside the bottle? Just because a supplement is labeled "all-natural" doesn't mean it's safe -- or effective.

Before you buy any supplement, read through this list of frequently asked questions to make sure you're buying a product that helps rather than harms your health.

What is a dietary supplement?

Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, enzymes, amino acids, or other dietary ingredients. You take these products by mouth in pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form to supplement your diet.

Can I take supplements on my own, without a doctor?

Supplements are available for sale over the counter at your local pharmacy or online without a prescription. Still, you should always check with your doctor before taking any product because some supplements can cause side effects, or interact with other prescribed or over-the-counter medicines or supplements you're already taking. It's especially important to ask your doctor about a supplement before you take it if you're pregnant or nursing, about to have surgery, or you have a health condition such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes.

What questions should I ask my doctor about taking supplements?

Ask your doctor whether you need the supplement based on your current diet and health. Also ask what benefits and risks the supplement can have, how much to take, and for how long you should take it. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist know exactly which supplements and medicines you're taking.

Are all supplements tested to make sure they're safe and effective?

No. Manufacturers aren't required to test their products for safety and effectiveness. Some supplement ingredients have been tested in animal or human studies. For example, folic acid has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of birth defects in pregnant women. However, other supplement ingredients haven't been studied well, or at all.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.

How can I tell whether I'm getting a good quality supplement?

Manufacturers are required to follow "good manufacturing practices" (GMPs), which means their supplements have to meet certain quality standards. However, it has been found that some products may contain more or less of the ingredient than is stated on the label. Or, in some cases they may contain ingredients not listed on the label, including prescription drugs.

To be sure you're getting a good-quality product, look for a seal of approval from an organization that tests supplements such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF International. Products that carry these organizations' seal must be manufactured properly, contain the ingredients listed on the label, and not include any harmful contaminants.

You can also call the product's manufacturer to find out what research they've done to confirm the supplement's benefits, what production standards they use, and what side effects have been reported from their product. Find out if the supplement hasn't been recalled, by checking the FDA's web site.

What supplements are used to improve mental function and/or mood?

Acetylcarnitine5-HTPtyrosineginkgo bilobafish oilsSt. John's worttheanine, and Bacopa may help mental function and alleviate depression, though each of these must be taken with some care (and not all together!). See also: a full dossier on Memory Loss and Other Brain Problems from our Health+HIV section of Recommended Reading.

What supplements can I use to combat fatigue?

Various conditions can cause fatigue, but in general, B12 (methylcobalamin), and Eleuthero (formerly called "Siberian ginseng" - this should NOT be used if you have high blood pressure!) may all help to improve energy. A good start may also be as simple as a good multivitamin!

For more information about the causes and treatments for fatigue, see our Fatigue Fact Sheet (PDF).

What supplements can I use to stabilize my weight?

For those experiencing weight loss, whey proteinscarnitine and creatine may all help - but of course and especially in conjunction with a good diet and routine exercise! Resistance exercise remains an important component of a successful HIV management plan.