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Dietary Supplements

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I'm thinking about taking dietary supplements to stay healthy. The label says they're all natural and have a lot of benefits. You don't need a prescription to buy them, so they must be safe, right?

Dietary supplements are products that contain “dietary ingredients” like vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and enzymes. They range from beneficial to bogus, and you may take them for a host of reasons — to feel healthy, to feel younger, to prevent disease, or just to get more nutrients. Many claim to be “natural.”

But just because a supplement is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s harmless or safe. Some supplements, including herbal products, can be dangerous. For example, there are “natural” supplements linked to serious liver damage and even cancer. And though you can buy dietary supplements off the shelf without a doctor’s prescription, some can affect how well your prescription drugs work. Some supplements do have proven health benefits: for example, calcium supplements can reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The key is to talk to your doctor — especially if you have a medical condition, take other drugs, or plan to have surgery — before you add a supplement to the mix.

For the latest information on dietary supplements, visit the websites for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the FDA. Dietary supplements don’t have to go through the same FDA review for quality, safety, and effectiveness before they’re sold that prescription or over-the-counter drug products do. But the FDA requires supplement manufacturers to test the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their products.

Look up specific herbs and supplements on the Drugs and Supplements page at MedlinePlus.gov.