Research shows that falsehoods are shared much more rapidly—and widely—online than truthful statements. Social media has done a lot of good, helping us reach new audiences and connect with people literally on the other end of the world. But with the rise of bots and disingenuous users, fake content has spread like wildfire.
And the supplement industry has been hit particularly hard. A recent study found that the Top 10 products in the weight-loss pills category on Amazon had questionable review rates above 50%. And 67% of reviews unearthed from the testosterone booster category were also deemed to be questionable. In an industry that lacks FDA regulation, and where new products are hitting the market every day, this is a serious cause for concern.
This is likely one reason why the government launched an app this month specifically for researching herbal supplement claims. The new app is a solid starting point, but selecting the best supplements also requires a little of your own detective work. When considering a new supplement, follow these tips to make sure you’re only putting the best ingredients into your body.
Science, not ‘bro science’
A recent a randomized trial among men found that multivitamins could help prevent cancer. Observational studies with supplements have come back with alarmingly promising results: Omega-3 fatty acids can help keep cardiovascular issues at bay, vitamins C and E fight heart disease and Alzheimer’s, and vitamin D has been hailed as an all-around protector against depression, diabetes and cancer.
Here’s the kicker: these studies are simply observational and must be taken with a grain of salt. You can’t be sure of the real benefits (and risks) of supplements unless there’s a legitimate trial to prove the claims. And that jacked-up dude you meet at the gym, or online, spouting stats like a fountain, isn’t a reliable source, either.
Have realistic expectations
Don’t get carried away by long reviews that wax lyrical about a particular supplement. Dietary supplements enhance your health, but they’re called “supplements” for a reason. Simply put, they should be consumed alongside nutritious food. And if you’re using supplements to combat a chronic disease, it’s crucial to talk with your doctor first.
Follow recommended dosages
Certain ingredients in supplements might cause side effects, both mild and strong. Every year, 23,000 visits to an emergency department are, directly or indirectly, related to supplements. Just because a product has the word “herbal” on its label doesn’t make it completely safe (though prescription drugs definitely aren’t any safer).
Salmon oil, gingko biloba and turmeric can hinder platelet aggregation. Excessive use of Vitamin B6 supplements can cause chronic leg cramps in some cases. Exorbitant amounts of Vitamin C can induce nausea, gripes and diarrhea. Depending on which nutrient you’re mega dosing on, subtle signs like lack of sleep, tingling, reduced concentration and irritability could crop up.
Always make sure you keep a tab on the % Daily Value and upper limit of your supplements. A common mistake is increasing your supplement dose in order to improve its effects. Increased Vitamin A levels can reduce bone health and induce headaches. Loading up on iron supplements can be dangerous, in some cases causing vomiting and liver damage.
But this isn’t all doom and gloom. Vitamin overdoses are rare; just make sure you factor in supplements plus food to get an accurate total of how much you’re actually getting of each supplement.
Watch for harmful reactions
If you have a health condition, certain ingredients in a supplement might react adversely with your medication. Make sure you consult a doctor before starting a new supplement. Sometimes, a label or a review might mention this fact in fine print.
Antioxidant supplements (vitamin C and E) can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Vitamin K supplements could hinder a blood thinner’s abilities. St. John’s Wort, a popular herbal supplement, reduces the potency of antidepressants and birth control pills. It’s also been shown to increase sun sensitivity.
Choose a reputable supplement brand
Stay away from products that sound too good to be true. Red flags are exaggerated claims and miracle-like cures in the review section. You can also look for a seal of approval from independent testing organizations like Consumer Lab, NSF International and U.S. Pharmacopeia. Independent certification implies the organization has accurately tested the supplement for proper manufacturing processes and harmful contaminants.
If a dietary supplement states that clinical studies have been conducted, make sure you evaluate the findings published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
A healthy diet is crucial, too
There is scientific evidence that proves some supplements can improve overall health. For instance, fish oils rich in omega-3 can help patients suffering from heart complications.
Still, there’s no complete substitute for nutrients you get from a whole-food diet. Supplements are needed when your diet is lacking in certain nutrients. Even then, you should consume these products in safe amounts.
It goes without saying you should inform your doctor if you’re thinking of taking supplements. Doctors suggest a supplement only when they’re sure your body needs a nutrient boost. They can also inform you of potential side effects and ensure the recommended supplement doesn’t pose a risk with your current medications.
At the end of the day, you should be wary of online reviews that tell you only the good side of the dietary supplements they’re trying to sell. A nonbiased review will inform you of all the ingredients, side effects and benefits of a particular supplement.