8 Must-Read Tips Before Buying Natural Supplements

Natural SupplementsNatural dietary supplements come in many shapes and forms, and here at Natural Alternative Remedy, we’ve tried our share of products – with mixed results. While our goal is to find the best out there, we realize that we can’t always keep up with the ever-growing supplement supply. With the increasing interest in living naturally healthy lives, the dietary supplement industry has grown into a more than $104 billion industry globally, and only continues to grow. Now that’s a lot of dough – and a lot of hype.

In our continuous research, however, it has become clear that not all dietary supplements are created equal. In fact, with questionable levels of industry and product oversight, there are actually a few concerns to be aware of when walking down the supplement aisle. And the dietary supplement regulations that do exist do not necessarily guarantee that the products on the market are safe for everyone’s use. So be a savvy consumer and follow these tips for finding the best natural supplements for you. And don’t forget to bring along your common sense, too.

Who Shouldn’t Use Dietary Supplements

Before we get started with our tips for using natural supplements, we first want to mention the groups who should be especially careful when considering adding a new supplement to their regimen. Are you in one of these groups?

You’re taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication…

As with any drug or supplement, there can be unwanted and even serious side effects when two or more otherwise safe substances are combined. A holistic approach to your health and wellbeing may very well include both natural alternative remedies and other medications, but be sure to consult your physician or pharmacist about possible interactions. Negative interactions can result in anything from decreased effectiveness of your current medication to serious health problems.

You’re pregnant or breastfeeding…

We know, you’ve heard this before. There are quite a few everyday activities, foods, and products that pregnant women are cautioned to avoid. In reality, many of the warnings stem from lack of knowledge about the safety of the product for the baby and mother. While many natural alternatives may be perfectly safe for women, there are very few studies about the effects of these products on this particular demographic (and rightfully so, as testing on pregnant women is generally considered unethical). As a general rule, pregnant or nursing mothers should be particularly conscientious about their health and should always consult their physician before taking a new supplement.

You’re going to have surgery…

If you have an upcoming surgical procedure scheduled – even a minor one –  it is always best to talk to your physician about all of the medications and supplements you are taking as many can have an impact on the surgery and your overall recovery. Some effects can be minor (like increased bruising), while others can be more serious (like affecting the efficacy of anesthesia or causing increased bleeding). Your doctor may ask you to discontinue use of certain products before and after surgery, if only temporarily.

You’re a child…

meaning that you or the person taking the supplement is under 18 years of age, though even that number is not a hard stop given each person’s unique development. Children and young adults’ bodies operate differently from their adult counterparts and as a result, have different requirements for maintaining overall health. Most importantly, children’s bodies process nutrients and drugs differently and, much like the pregnant population, children are generally not subjects in safety and efficacy studies so effects and appropriate dosages can be unknown.

Even if you fall into one of these groups, natural supplements can still be a part of your healthy lifestyle – just with a little extra care and consideration. Now on to the top 8 natural supplement consumer tips!

8 Tips for Buying Natural Supplements

1. Recognize that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.

Just as “fat free” doesn’t equate to “healthy,” natural doesn’t always mean safe. Though we wish it weren’t the case, nature is not always man’s friend. There are countless natural substances that are unsafe for human use and consumption – many of which we have discovered over the course of history through rather perilous trial and error. There are even more natural substances that are not safe in certain quantities, when taken for certain durations, or even in conjunction with other substances. Also, it is good to be aware that natural supplement manufacturers may not necessarily include warnings about known and possible side effects as drugs manufacturers are required to do. The lack of a warning on the label is not a guarantee of safety.

2. Do your research.

You’ve landed here, which is a great first step, but when it comes to your health, it pays to be an educated consumer. In addition to learning about the supplement in question and its dietary ingredients, it is equally as important to learn about your sources for that information. Consider where and who is providing the information. It is generally best to look past the manufacturer or distributor to reputable third parties for information. In addition to sites like Natural Alternative Remedy, you can seek supplement-related scientific studies and research for information – many of which are available online. Check out the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Subset for Dietary Supplements or National Center for Biotechnology Information’s journal and scientific study database. We particularly like the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

3. Don’t get caught up in the hype.

It’s a marketers job to start a buzz about their product. Just as there was someone behind making kale the new broccoli, there is generally someone behind that new supplement you’ve been hearing all about. New supplements hit the market every day, generally with the hope of becoming the next big thing. Though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates advertising of consumer products (including dietary supplements),  never underestimate the power of “good” advertising and marketing. Effective marketing language can find its way out of infomercials and into your favorite magazine’s health editorials and health blogs, so remember to check in with those trustworthy sources you found in tip #2. Also remember, sound health advice is not a result of one favorable scientific study, but rather a body of research so be weary of marketing that touts a new “breakthrough” study. Though we know that it is not possible to go through the supplement aisle with advertising blinders on, tried and true tends to be our motto for natural health. Save the next best thing for the figurative guinea pigs.

4. Consider the full picture.

By this we mean that whenever you consider the use of a new supplement, you must consider your complete health picture. This includes your unique body, diet, age, sensitivities or allergies, and lifestyle. Supplements are innately intended to supplement, meaning that they should not take the place of essentials, but rather complement or complete a healthy lifestyle. Just as it is possible to be deficient in certain nutrients, it is equally possible to get too much. Yes, too much of a good thing is especially true in the world of dietary supplements. Do you follow a particular dietary philosophy? Do you exercise frequently? Do you have unique health issues or concerns? Do you already take certain supplements or medications? A one-size-fits-all solution is generally not suitable in the world of health. Don’t forget that considering your full health picture includes consulting your doctor.

5. Read the ingredients list and the manufacturer’s dosage recommendations.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that even some reputable companies have had inconsistencies between what’s listed on the label and what’s actually in the bottle. Not only is it always best to be aware of what you’re putting into your body – natural or otherwise – you may be surprised by the sheer variances between products that tout the same dietary ingredient or health claim. Check for unnecessary fillers or common allergens. Also be aware of the amounts of each ingredient and the manufacturer’s dosage recommendations. Just because a supplement contains that well-known natural remedy does not mean that it contains an effective amount. Contrarily, it may contain more than you need (remember your full health picture?). If you’re seeking an herbal remedy, look for a product that only contains the part of the plant considered to be effective. Many herbal remedies are specific to a portion of the plant, rather than the whole plant itself. Lastly, for those multi-ingredient supplements marketed for certain conditions or health concerns, it is all the more important to check the label. You might already be taking supplements with some of these ingredients, or simply may not need or want them.

6. Start with one product at a time.

In addition to the possibility of harmful ingredient interactions, taking more than one new product at a time can pose other issues. First and foremost, should you have any sort of reaction or side effect, pinpointing the offending ingredient is made all the more difficult when you have introduced a host of new supplements into your regimen. Limit yourself to one product (with a list of ingredients that you and your physician are comfortable with) and test it for a few weeks (or the recommended duration) before introducing more supplements. You should also note that some supplements are not intended for long-term or regular use while others build up in your system over time for gradual, but cumulative effects. Give the supplement time to work with your body to determine whether it’s the right product for you.

7. Keep a list of the medications and supplements you take regularly – and their doses!

How many times have you been in the doctor’s office and have been asked to list the medications that you’re currently taking? This is a typical patient form question, but in addition to medications, you should also list the supplements. Yes, that includes the likes of your multi-vitamin! In order for your health care provider to provide the best holistic care, a complete picture of your health and diet landscape is necessary. See #4 above. This advice is not limited to patient forms; it’s simply good practice to know what you’re taking. Lastly, there is also no such thing as over-sharing when it comes to your health. In fact, most patients do not share enough. Tell your health care provider what you’re taking even if he or she doesn’t ask. And if they don’t ask, then maybe it’s time for a new provider.

8. Finally, contact the manufacturer for more detailed information.

As we have learned, manufacturers and distributors do not need FDA approval to bring their products to market. While this has more than a few implications for you, it also means that the FDA does not maintain a list of these manufacturers, distributors, or even the products they sell. So if you want more information about a product, its ingredients, or its claims, you have to contact the manufacturer directly. At least the FDA requires that they list their name and address on the product label for this very reason.

Follow these 8 tips and you are well on your way to living a naturally healthy – and supplemented – lifestyle. But before you conquer the supplement aisle, check out these final tips and resources.

Other Natural Supplement Tips to Consider

  • Avoid supplements that claim to be “miracle cures” particularly if they claim to contain a breakthrough, secret, special, or proprietary ingredient. How can you be an informed consumer if you don’t know what you’re buying?
  • Avoid supplements that claim to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure a disease. Not only is the claim unlikely to be true, it is illegal as only drugs (that go through stricter testing and regulation) can make these claims.
  • Consider supplements that carry a third-party certification, such as NSF International and United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Though these certifications do not ensure supplement effectiveness, they do provide independent testing that verifies that the product is made from quality ingredients, contains the ingredients listed, and does not contain unlisted ingredients.
  • Compare natural supplement products to find the best one for you. Though the FDA does not maintain a complete list of supplement products and ingredients, check out the National Institute of Health’s Dietary Supplement Label Database. It’s a great place to start to research products.
  • Consult the FDA’s Tainted Supplements resource online before you buy. Though the FDA is unable to regulate and test all products marketed as dietary supplements, they do keep a list of products that are considered hazardous through inspection or adverse event reporting. So if the product you’re considering is on this list, it would be best to find an alternative.
  • Last, but not least, be sure to report harmful side effects and adverse reactions you experience with dietary supplements. You might just save another person from an unsafe product.