Karla Benzl, M.D.
Safety Guidelines for Supplements
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Do you take any dietary supplements for wellness? If so, you are not alone. Many people turn to complementary and alternative medicine to address mental health issues, such as focus problems, mood problems, anxiety problems, and insomnia. Some supplements have research to support their use, while others do not. Here are some general guidelines to follow before trying a new supplement.
First and foremost, review the safety facts about the supplement. There could be concerns with potential side effects or possible drug-drug interactions with prescription medications or other supplements. Keep in mind that supplements are concentrated forms of naturally occurring chemicals. Natural remedies can also have side effects, just as synthetic chemicals do. Do consult your doctor or pharmacist if you take prescription medications and are considering a dietary supplement. Luckily, there are quite a few resources available online to help guide your decision about what supplements and brands to use.
National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. This a great place to start. This website provides comprehensive fact sheets on dietary supplements and is a free resource. https://ods.od.nih.gov/
The Mayo Clinic. This is also a great resource. Their website provides a searchable online database of individual supplements. Information includes dosages, safety concerns, and efficacy. This also a free resource. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements
Review the research behind the supplement you are taking. You want to see enough research showing that the supplement has been proven to help the condition for which you are seeking treatment. Ideally, you want to see results from randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials, which will often be noted on the product label. I recommend doing some online research as well. The following website reviews existing research studies for individual supplements.
Consumerlab.com This online database is an independent testing organization that reviews the efficacy of individual supplements. There is a small subscription fee, however, it is up-to-date and worth the fee if you tend to use supplements.
Choose a brand that has been tested for quality. Supplements are not FDA regulated, which means that the quality of the supplement is in the hands of the manufacturer, with little to no regulatory oversight. Some supplements have been shown to contain contaminants such as heavy metals. Also, because supplements are minimally regulated, you should also be asking- does this supplement actually have what the label says it has? Also, read the product information carefully. Be aware of added ingredients to the supplement, and always read both the active AND inactive ingredients. Lastly, check the dosing. Read the actual milligrams of the desired compound, and calculate to see if you are getting the desired quantity per capsule. You may be surprised to see that you need 4 capsules in order to ingest the desired dose. If the supplement does not list a numerical value (such as milligrams or milliliters) for each active ingredient, then this is a red flag. You want to know roughly how much of the compound you are ingesting, both for safety reasons and quality concerns. So how can you choose a good quality supplement?
Check for third-party regulatory agency approval on the bottle. Approval from third party testing is a good indicator of quality. For example, GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) is an agency that assesses label accuracy and absence of contaminants. TGA (Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration) is the most strict regulatory agency in the world.
Labdoor.com is a free resource that tests purity and quality of popular supplements.
Consumerlab.com is once again a helpful resource, since they test popular supplement brands for contaminants and labeling accuracy. They provide a work sheet where you can compare quality and cost between different supplement brands.
U.S. Pharmacopeia: Dietary Supplements & Herbal Medicines and NSF International are two other databases that provide information about quality and safety.