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Dietary supplements: Why does your body need nutritional supplements?

Dietary supplements help you improve your overall health by fulfilling your daily requirements of essential nutrients. Find out about its benefits, types, side effects and risks. This article is part of a week-long series by Health Shots for National Nutrition Week 2023.
Dietary supplements
Know all about dietary supplements. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Published: 5 Sep 2023, 12:00 pm IST
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Dietary supplements are products that contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, or other dietary substances intended to supplement the diet and provide additional nutrients that may be lacking or insufficient in a person’s regular diet. These nutritional supplements are available in various forms such as pills, capsules, tablets, powders, liquids, and even gummies.

Common types of dietary supplements and their use

Now that you know what is dietary supplement used for, let us tell you about some common types of nutritional supplements.

Vitamins and Minerals: These supplements provide essential vitamins (such as vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B12) and minerals (such as calcium, iron, zinc) that are important for various bodily functions, including immune support, bone health, and energy production.

Herbal Supplements: These supplements are derived from plants and often contain extracts or compounds believed to have health benefits. Examples include ginkgo biloba extracts for cognitive support and echinacea for immune support.

Amino Acid Supplements: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Supplements like branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are used by athletes to support muscle recovery and growth.

Fish Oil/Omega-3 Supplements: These supplements provide omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and potential cardiovascular benefits.

Fish oil supplements benefits
Fish oil supplements have many health benefits. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Probiotics: Probiotic supplements contain live beneficial bacteria that can support gut health and digestion. They are often used to promote a healthy balance of gut microbiota.

Multivitamins: These are supplements that contain a combination of vitamins and minerals in one formulation. They are intended to cover a broad spectrum of nutrient needs.

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Antioxidant Supplements: Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E are believed to help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, potentially reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

Sports and Performance Supplements: These supplements are commonly used by athletes and active individuals to enhance athletic performance, improve recovery, and increase energy levels. Examples include creatine and pre-workout supplements.

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Also read: Weight gain supplements: Try these to gain weight fast

Are dietary supplements safe?

Dietary supplements can offer health benefits when used appropriately and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. However, there are also potential risks associated with their use. It’s important to understand both the benefits and risks of nutritional supplements before incorporating them into your routine.

Herbal supplements
Herbal supplements have a separate fan following. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

What are some safety considerations before taking supplements?

Quality and Regulation: All supplements aren’t the same. Some supplements may contain inaccurate labeling, contaminants, or inadequate amounts of active ingredients. Look for reputed brands that adhere to quality standards and have third-party testing.

Dosage: Taking more than the recommended dosage of a supplement can lead to adverse effects. Always follow the recommended dosage instructions on the product label or advised by a healthcare provider.

Interactions: Some supplements can interact with medications or other supplements you’re taking, potentially reducing their effectiveness or causing harmful effects. Always inform your healthcare provider about all supplements you’re using.

Nutrient Overdose: In some cases, excessive intake of certain vitamins or minerals can lead to toxicity. For example, excessive vitamin A intake can cause liver damage, while excessive iron intake can be harmful, especially for individuals with certain health conditions.

Pre-existing conditions: Certain health conditions may be worsened by specific supplements. For instance, individuals with kidney problems should be cautious with supplements that contain minerals like potassium.

What are the common risks of specific supplements?

Herbal Supplements: These can vary widely in terms of quality and efficacy. Some herbs can interact with medications, cause allergic reactions, or have unintended effects on health.

High-dose vitamins: While vitamins are important, taking excessively high doses of certain vitamins (megadoses) can be harmful. For example, excessive vitamin E intake may increase the risk of bleeding.

Weight loss and bodybuilding supplements: Some weight loss and muscle-building supplements may contain stimulants, steroids, or other substances that can have serious health risks. They can also be associated with cardiovascular issues and organ damage.

Performance-Enhancing Supplements: Some supplements marketed as performance enhancers can have dangerous side effects, and their use may lead to doping violations in sports.

Ephedra and Bitter Orange: These substances, often used in weight loss supplements, have been associated with serious health risks, including cardiovascular issues and strokes.

Pregnancy and Special Populations: Pregnant, breastfeeding, children, and elderly individuals should consult healthcare providers before using supplements due to varying nutrient needs.

How to check if a dietary supplement is safe?

Nutritional supplements offer benefits, but use them cautiously. Prioritise a balanced diet with whole foods and consult a healthcare professional for safe, effective use. Ensuring the safety of nutritional supplements is crucial to protecting your health. Here are some steps you can take to check if a nutritional supplement is safe before using it.

1. To ensure the safety and effectiveness of a supplement, research the brand, check for certifications, read the label, and compare nutrient facts to RDAs or adequate intake levels.

2. Avoid supplements with grandiose claims or unrealistic results, and be cautious of “cure-all” supplements. Research ingredients, including unfamiliar or complex names, to understand their benefits, risks and recommended dosages.

3. Consult a healthcare professional before adding a supplement, read reviews and testimonials, and avoid proprietary blends.

4. If you experience adverse effects, stop using the supplement and report them to a healthcare professional or authorities like the FDA’s MedWatch program.

Importance of diet over nutritional supplements

The dietary supplements industry is not as strictly regulated as the pharmaceutical industry. Therefore, taking proactive steps to research and ensure the safety of supplements is important for your well-being.

It is important to note that supplements can address nutrient deficiencies but should not replace a balanced diet. Whole foods contain synergistic nutrients and compounds, making them preferred.

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About the Author

Diksha Dayal is an expert in therapeutic nutrition. She works on nutrition interventions. She is currently the Head Of Department, Nutrition & Health, at Sanar International Hospitals. ...Read More

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