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A nutritional supplement is a marvelous thing. It can be a vitamin, a food, a random plant extract, a chemical that probably won't actually kill you, or even nothing at all. It can be promoted as medicine only not quite, and isn't sufficiently regulated that you need to actually prove it's effective for anything at all, as long as you don't make any specific health claims.
Kinds of nutritional supplements
You can roughly break down the different types of supplements like this:
- Vitamin supplement: These are used for if you are not getting enough vitamins in your diet, and sometimes includes mineral supplements
- Herbal supplements: This can be basically anyone of these, and are in theory derived from some plant.
- So-called Superfoods: Basically, a plant with almost magical abilities
- Pre-Work Out/Post-Work Out: These are chemicals used by people who work out. A Pre-Work Out supplement is meant to increase energy and muscle endurance, and they're usually just caffeine pills. A Post-Work Out is used to increase muscle recovery.
- Protein Shake: Different kinds of shakes have different values, but they're used because muscle builds best if you consume an easily absorbed protein within 5 minutes of working out. However, in a test conducted by Consumer Reports, 3 out of 15 tested shakes were found to contain amounts of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic that were slightly above the allowed limit.
- Lifestyle helper: For lack of a better term. These are things like fish oil and glucosomine that make life easier in some way, such as helping your heart or joints respectively.
A Dose of Reality
A study of several commercial nutraceuticals sold as potential health enhancers was tested in mice and reported in 2014. The compounds tested were: Bone Restore®, Juvenon® (lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine), Life Extension Mix®, Ortho Core®, Ortho Mind®, Super K w k2®, Ultra K2®, and a more complex mixture of vitamins, minerals, botanical extracts and nutraceuticals that the researchers themselves prepared. The researchers concluded, "The results are consistent with epidemiological studies suggesting that dietary supplements are not beneficial and even may be harmful for otherwise healthy individuals."
Essentially, drugs are assumed to be unsafe and ineffective until they are clinically proven otherwise, while dietary supplements (because they are classed as food) are assumed to be safe and effective until they are clinically proven otherwise.
Keeping the above in mind, vitamin deficiencies can occur in people (living in a cloudy/low-sun exposure environment can interfere with your vitamin D intake and eating a vegan diet for a lengthy period can make you deficient in vitamin B12). Should you be diagnosed by a qualified physician and prescribed and/or recommended nutritional supplements by one, follow their advice. Self-diagnosing medical conditions can be a risky business; recognize your own bias. Between the dubious nature of the claims often made by the makers of these products, and the questionable quality and quality control, always check the supplement you may be thinking about taking, and always err on the side of caution. With that in mind, the following is a list of websites which monitor the quality of supplements and the claims of their makers.
- Medline Database: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
- Consumer Lab: http://www.consumerlab.com
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: http://www.ajcn.org
- Supplement Watch: http://www.supplementwatch.com
- Food and Drug Administration: http://www.fda.gov
- Institute of Food Technologies: http://www.ift.org
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: http://www.ods.od.nih.gov
- Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database: http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com
- Report: Protein Drinks Have Unhealthy Metals
- What our tests found, Consumerreports.org, July 2010.
- http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11357-013-9609-9 Lifespan effects of simple and complex nutraceutical combinations fed isocalorically to mice
- A database of peer-reviewed research, analyzed by pharmacists and scientists, and used by the National Library of Medicine