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Can dietary supplements be harmful?

What to keep in mind when using supplements.

From multivitamins to weight loss pills, dietary supplement consumption is on the rise.

Almost half of all Australians take a supplement every year. In 2021, the dietary supplement industry made over $2 billion dollars in revenue, and those profits are continuing to rise. Millennials are now twice as likely to purchase more vitamins than their parents, a result that has been caused by the pandemic, and a heightened interest in becoming healthier.

Dietary supplements are a manufactured product used to help supplement someone’s diet. They usually come in a pill or liquid form, and they provide extra nutrients that’s similar to the nutrients you’d get from food.

Most people take supplements based on trust. They don’t usually know what kind of ingredients they contain, what they were made of and if they’re even effective.

Kimberly Wilson, a third-year student at Deakin University has been taking Vitamin C for the past few months and hopes it will prevent her from becoming sick.

“I’ve been taking it for the past few months,” she tells upstart. “I read that Vitamin C is good for preventing colds, so I decided to start taking it.

Vitamin C is one of the most popular vitamins and has been studied for several years as a possible treatment or preventative for colds, but most findings have been inconsistent. Overall, experts have found little to no evidence that the vitamin is helpful in treating colds. While Wilson has been taking Vitamin C for the past few months, she says she hasn’t been able to tell if it’s improved her immunity.

“They taste pretty good, but I can’t definitively say if they’re helping or not,” she says.

For the most part, there’s not that much evidence out there that they improve our immune system at all. According to an analysis done by Consumer Reports, of the more than 50,000 supplements tested, only a few have “some level of safety and effectiveness”.

What is even more troubling is that 12 percent have been found to have safety or quality concerns. Unlike prescription medicines, supplements are over-the-counter and they’re available to anyone at their own expense. Wellness Dietician Olivia Howard says that the right supplement and its effectiveness will depend on the person taking it.

“For people that have specific deficiencies, supplements can be helpful in addressing that,” she tells upstart.

“For the most part though, it depends on the person. A lot of people won’t need to take a nutritional supplement if they get all their nutrients from eating a healthy diet.”

The recent pandemic has shaped a lot of people’s approaches to their health. Today, more people are being mindful of the foods they eat and have switched to preventative healthcare to boost their immune systems. In fact, during the pandemic the use of dietary supplements increased not only in Australia, but globally. Howard says the pandemic caused many people to start prioritising their health and immunity.

“The pandemic brought a pretty big surge in the demand for different supplements,” she says.

Since COVID-19 is still new, there hasn’t been much research as to whether supplements are effective in treating the illness. In a study to see whether supplements demonstrated any benefit to people who had mild COVID-19, the research found that there were no improvements to the person’s symptoms compared to someone who wasn’t taking any supplements.

There were also studies to see if taking a higher dose of Vitamin C could help patients with COVID-19, but they found no evidence.

While there still needs to be more research done on the effectiveness of supplements, it’s important to remember that some can do more harm than good. Increasing the intake of supplements can be dangerous. For example, too much Vitamin A could cause headaches and an increased chance of liver damage. Not only that, taking a supplement in conjunction with other medications can lead to a change in the medication’s potency.

It’s important to read the label on the bottle before taking any supplement, Howard says.

“Labels are on there for a reason. Taking a higher dosage will not make it more effective, in fact it’ll probably make it less effective,” she says.

“A low-risk product doesn’t mean there are no risks.”

Like different medicines, dietary supplements come with risks and side effects. But unlike medicines, most people choose dietary supplements without learning about them from their medical practitioner, nurse or pharmacist. Howard says the best way to see if a supplement will be beneficial is to talk to a healthcare provider first.

“I think talking to your GP or any other health provider is best when making these decisions. While multivitamins do look like a healthy choice, you should first ask yourself whether you really need it in the first place.”



Article | Chloe Ostler is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communication (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @chloeostler.

Photo | Health Supplements – Nutraceuticals – 50191152323.jpg By formulatehealth is available HERE and is used under the Creative Commons License. The photo has not been modified.

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