From multivitamins to supplements that pledge to help with everything from depression to treating athlete’s foot, whole stores are filled with these alternative medications. With so many options out there it can be difficult for patients to know what is beneficial or even where to start.
“Today more than ever it’s important for patients to work with their physician or nutritionist when considering supplements. Some are beneficial but others can be dangerous, especially when it comes to interacting with other supplements or medications,” said Aaron Michelfelder, MD, family and integrative medicine physician at Loyola University Health System. “In general there is no benefit from taking a supplement just for the sake of supplementing. So, talk to your doctor about what would be beneficial for you.”
For instance, Michelfelder says that many people don’t know that calcium supplements can interfere with thyroid absorption. If a patient is on a thyroid medicine, taking a calcium supplement at the same time could cause side effects.
“There are so many interactions that many patients aren’t aware of, but if you work with your physician, you can find the best and safest combination for you based on your health history and needs,” Michelfelder said. “Even if your own primary care physician isn’t willing to try supplements, you should still consult a medical professional. There are many integrative and functional medicine physicians who would be happy to provide a consult.”
Vitamin C is another common supplement that people may take for the wrong reasons. According Michelfelder there is no evidence that it helps ward off colds, but it does help with iron absorption and can be helpful for people who are anemic.
“There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People shouldn’t take more than 2,000 mg of vitamin C a day as it can lead to kidney problems. It’s also extremely acid, making it a bad choice for someone with stomach issues,” Michelfelder said. “It’s hard to navigate all the products out there on your own. That is why it’s important to work with a medical professional as a team.”
Michelfelder has prescribed supplements to patients when there is a nutrient deficiency or if together they feel it might be beneficial.
“In general it’s inexpensive and if it’s not likely to cause harm I think it’s great for patients to give it a try. Everyone is different, everyone’s body is different. For some people it really can make a difference in their health,” Michelfelder said.
He says if a person has mildly high blood pressure he might recommend trying a supplement and lifestyle change for 6 months and then evaluate if a medication is necessary.
There also are instances, such as sleep problems, when Michelfelder prefers to prescribe supplements rather than prescription medication.
“Sleep medications can be habit-forming and leave people impaired the next day. I would much prefer my patients to try melatonin or just better sleep hygiene, such as limiting screen time and increasing exercise,” Michelfelder said.
Because there is little research on the effects of supplements on a fetus Michelfelder suggests pregnant women stay away from all supplements with the exception of a prenatal vitamin.
“There are not as many regulations or as much research done on supplements as there is for medications, so the most important thing is to make sure you talk to your doctor,” Michelfelder said.