Over-the-Counter Health Supplements: Hype or Hope?

You probably wish you could turn back the clock to a mystical past in which you felt younger, stronger, and more vital. Whether you ever actually lived in that past is another story, but the folks responsible for marketing and distributing the growing array of over-the-counter health supplements sure are good at bringing it to life. If you’re considering buying one or more of the products you see on TV, online, or on the shelves at your local health-foods store, take a moment to consider whether these supplements are anything more than hyped-up sugar pills.

Defining Health Supplements

Also known as “dietary supplements,” most of these products come in pill form and are readily available on the shelves of your local supermarket or health food store at a variety of price points. Some, like “B-complex” and “immune booster” pills, are little more than cocktails of everyday vitamins that retail for a few dollars per bottle. Others are more complex, containing a variety of obscure herbal compounds, and are correspondingly more expensive.

In any event, the Food and Drug Administration defines the “dietary ingredients” in these supplements as anything that can be considered a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, or “extract.” As you can imagine, some perform their stated functions better than others.

Regulation and Fact-Checking

Since their active ingredients have the potential to cause serious harm when not taken properly, prescription medications are tightly regulated by the FDA. Not so with health supplements: the companies that market these products are not required to disclose the results of studies that test the efficacy of their constituent compounds. In other words, you’re taking the supplement at your own risk.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Most health supplement ingredients are not actively harmful; more often, it’s merely a question of whether or not they work. A quick rundown of some effective and not-so-effective supplements follows.

  • Joint health. The two most common joint health compounds are chondroitin and glucosamine, both of which occur naturally in human cartilage. Although initial claims that they actually help rebuild joint cartilage that wears down due to rheumatoid arthritis have been proven false, they do appear to reduce pain and inflammation in sufferers of the disease.
  • Heart health. These supplements contain everything from Vitamin E, garlic extract, and Omega-3 fish oils to green tea and red yeast rice. Only red yeast rice has been proven to reduce “bad” cholesterol, but that’s only because it mimics an active ingredient in popular prescription medications like Altoprev.
  • Memory. Most of the supplements that claim to improve cognitive function contain gingko biloba, a naturally-occurring plant extract. It has been conclusively proven to improve the memories of dementia patients and increase blood flow to the brain, but it carries the risk of side effects including bleeding, dizziness, and vomiting.

Even the most effective over-the-counter health supplements, like gingko biloba, have drawbacks that should not be taken lightly. Many more simply don’t do what they claim to. Before buying any non-prescription supplements, do your research, talk to other users, and make an informed decision on your own terms.

Tamera Mulkey is a freelance blogger, who writes about health topics. If you want to make a career in the health industry, Tamera recommends getting a master of science in nursing online.

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