Most of us assume that dietary supplements are better than prescription and over the counter drugs when it comes to safety and effectiveness. After all, manufacturers of these products keep telling us that their products are all natural. The truth is that the only truly natural products are those found in the product section of your supermarket.

Over the counter drugs or dietary supplements?

Once a compound is extracted and concentrated into a pill, it is no more natural than a prescription or over the counter drug (OTC). But what it is true is that dietary supplements, including herbal preparations, are generally less potent than OTC and prescription drugs, and as a result, are less likely to trigger serious side effects.

Having said that, there are some potential problems with the use of supplements:

You may self-medicate yourself without an adequate evaluation of your health condition by a physician, thinking that based on the claim the manufacturer of the supplement makes, it is safe to take the product.
If your doctor doesn’t know what supplements you are taking, he might prescribe medication that may cause a negative interaction between the medication and the supplements.
The product may contain more or may contain less than the ingredient amount stated on the supplement’s label and this can be a problem when buying, let’s say herbal products.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA)

In 1994, Congress passed a law known as The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which established the guidelines for marketing supplements in the United States. The products that DSHEA considered as dietary supplements are:

Herbal and botanical substances
Amino acids
Diet products to supplement the daily intake of food

Under the DSHEA Act, manufacturers of supplements can make a claim or a disclaim as shown below:

This product is not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration
This product is not intended to diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease
A supplement label might indicate the product “promotes cardiovascular health” or “supports immune function” but cannot give any explanation as to what aspect of cardiovascular health promotes or to what specific immune function supportes.

Because of the laxity of the law with dietary supplements, a product can be sold for months or years and nothing can be done until the FDA proves it to be unsafe. This usually happens after health officials have linked the supplements to health problems in many individuals.

That was the case with ephedra which contains ephedrine alkaloids, compounds that have many stimulant effects. Ephedra was added to supplements that promoted weight loss, boosted sports performance, and increased overall energy.

Not all supplements are unsafe or ineffective

We need to keep in mind, however, that just because the laws governing dietary supplements are more liberal than the ones governing prescription or over the counter drugs, it does not mean that all supplements are unsafe or ineffective or that all medications approved by the FDA are guaranteed to work like a charm.

Many scientific studies indicate that in the right doses and formulations, certain supplements may be beneficial for treating a variety of conditions. On the other hand, we know that prescription and over the counter drugs can have significant side effects.

One excellent source of information

What I would like to emphasize here is that since the law does not require that supplement manufacturers test their products and provide evidence of safety and effectiveness, it is vital that you find quality information about supplements.

One excellent source of information is, a Web site that provides information on a variety of supplements as well as results from independent lab tests.

Those lab tests indicate which preparations contain the amounts of the active ingredients stated on the product’s label and which have been found to contain contaminants. Some of the information on this site is free, and some is available for a modest subscription fee.

Inform your physician

Make sure that whoever is writing a new prescription for you knows everything you are taking at the time, including non-prescription drugs, vitamins, minerals, and any other supplements. Bring a list to every appointment you have with your health providers.

This is very important if more than one physician is writing prescriptions for you. For your safety, everyone must know what everyone else has been giving you and what you are taking on your own.

Final word

It is very common nowadays for doctors as well as patients to assume that every symptom of a health problem is best solved by taking a medication or a supplement. Actually, some health problems are solved way much better by changing some lifestyle habits: better food choices, more physical activity, more sleep, less stress, taking a day off, and so on.


I am Andy Carpenter and I would start by saying that I have a Bachelor Degree in Nutrition Science conferred by California State University, Los Angeles and that I am certified as a Registered Dietitian.

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