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It’s all natural. It’s from the drug store. It’s just a vitamin. Yeah, but is it safe?

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A vast world of products fall under the umbrella of dietary supplements. Some supplements can be part of a healthy lifestyle and are safe in recommended doses, while others have significant safety concerns. It’s always good to assess supplements with a critical eye.

Keep in mind that supplements — like prescription medications — can affect your body in many ways. They may have side effects that range from mildly bothersome to potentially life-threatening. And, they can have harmful interactions with other supplements, prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs. Many supplements need more scientific study before their effectiveness and safety are established.

Dietary supplements are governed by different rules from those that apply to prescription drugs. Supplements don’t go through the same rigorous testing and approval process to establish their safety and effectiveness. It’s up to each manufacturer to ensure that product labeling is sufficient and truthful, and that the product is safe and effective. Labels might not contain information about adverse effects or possible drug interactions. And though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can monitor products once they are on the market, it has little power to step in until after a concern is brought to light.

Some companies do make high-quality products. But it can be challenging to separate the good from the bad. Here are some tips that will help you approach supplements safely:

  • Avoid self-prescribing supplements. If you’re getting information online, make sure it’s from a trusted source, such as org, the Office of Dietary Supplements or the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and discuss it with your health care provider.
  • Look for products labeled with U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) seal, which indicates good quality manufacturing — basically telling you the bottle contains what it claims to contain on the label. Others used include good manufacturing practices (GMPs), or NSF International.
  • Don’t assume something marketed as “natural” means it’s safe. Many natural compounds are poisonous to humans.
  • Be wary of products claiming immediate or drastic effects. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Avoid “more is better” Even compounds your body requires, such as vitamins and minerals, can be toxic in high doses. And, you might waste money on unnecessary products.
  • If you’re taking supplements or drugs, keep good track of the amount you take, how frequently you take it and any side effects you experience.
  • Discuss your needs and questions with your health care provider or pharmacist before taking any supplements. Be sure to ask about interactions with any medications you are taking. Both can help you navigate the options available as you seek to optimize your health and wellness.

This is an excerpt from The Menopause Solution: A Doctor’s Guide to Relieving Hot Flashes, Enjoying Better Sex, Sleeping Well, Controlling Your Weight, and Being Happy!

Stephanie S. Faubion, M.D.

Dr. Faubion is Professor and Chair of the Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, Director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health and the Medical Director of The North American Menopause Society. Her clinical research interests include menopause and sexual health in women, and she is the medical editor of Mayo Clinic The Menopause Solution

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