Supplements 101: Selecting Safe and Effective Natural Medicines

Every year billions of dollars are spent on natural medicines. As the holistic health movement continues to grow, more products are available and new companies are emerging. Supplements differ as much in quality as they do in effectiveness. Understanding some simple facts about selecting natural medicines can help you make the most of your money and get optimal results.

Important Questions

Dietary supplements do not need to be approved by, or registered with, the Food and Drug Administration before they are marketed. Manufacturers are responsible for establishing their own practice guidelines to ensure products are safe and contain the ingredients listed on the label.

Unfortunately, not all companies conduct the necessary testing and research to ensure a pure, safe, and effective medicine. What makes certain products better than others, and how can you tell the difference? When selecting supplements, consider the following questions:
  • Where do the ingredients in this product come from?
A product is only as good as its raw materials. If plants used in herbal medicines are cultivated with pesticides, chemical residues may contaminate the finished product. If vitamins come from synthetic sources, the body may not be able to utilize them as well as vitamins coming from natural sources. Reputable companies should provide information about all ingredients they use in their products.
  • Is there reliable research information available on this product?
As health care consumers’ demand for alternatives to pharmaceutical prescriptions continues to grow, so does interest in scientific research on natural medicines. Ask your doctor about studies supporting the supplements she or he recommends.
  • Does the product information come from the maker or the seller of the product, or from a reliable, independent source?
Manufacturers that use independent laboratories to conduct studies on purity and efficacy of their product can provide you with unbiased and reliable information about their supplements. When requesting product information from a manufacturer, ask about the source of that information as well.
  • Has an effective dosage been determined? 
Therapeutic doses vary with symptoms, age and weight. Even natural medicines can be toxic if too much is taken, or they may not work at all if you don’t take enough. With some supplements, results may not become apparent for six to eight weeks or more, but others work quickly. Talk to your doctor about the correct dosage and what to expect from products you are using.
  • How will the supplement interact with other natural or pharmaceutical medications?
Serious side effects can occur if supplements are taken in the wrong combination with other medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical. Stop taking a product if you experience unpleasant side effects, and always tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking.
  • What are the potential health benefits, risks and side effects?

Don’t take supplements you don’t need. Consider potential outcomes, whether good or bad, before taking any new medicines.

Basic Guidelines

Only use supplements that list the name and address of the manufacturer, a lot number or batch number, the date of manufacture and expiration date. When looking for herbal medicines, choose standardized products that list the scientific name, quantity and part of any plant ingredient.

Store supplements in a dry place away from heat and light, preferably in dark glass containers with a tight seal. Take inventory regularly and discard expired products.

Never self-diagnose. Seek medical attention for health problems and always consult with a licensed practitioner trained in the use of natural medicines before taking any supplements.