The Truth About Dietary Supplements: Benefits, Risks, and More

There are thousands of studies looking into various potential health benefits of dozens of dietary supplements. Below are some of the more commonly used supplements and what some of the current research says about them. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting to take any new supplement.

1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is naturally produced in the body when exposed to sunlight and is a building block of strong bones. Foods like milk can be fortified with vitamin D, but adequate levels are difficult to get from diet alone. Also, there may be times when our bodies don’t produce sufficient amounts, particularly in darker, winter months, so supplementation may help make up for this.

Some research suggests that vitamin D and calcium supplementation together may help prevent osteoporosis, an age-related disease that weakens bones, making them more susceptible to fractures or breaks. One meta-analysis, for example, concluded that both dietary and supplemental forms of calcium and vitamin D increased bone mineral density in postmenopausal women, possibly lowering the risk of hip fractures. But research is mixed. A study published in July 2022 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that taking vitamin D supplements was not useful in reducing the risk of bone fractures in middle-aged and older adults who were not specifically vitamin D deficient. It’s best to discuss with your doctor, especially if you have osteoporosis, are pregnant, or are at risk for fracture, per the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

Other research has found that vitamin D supplementation may help regulate mood and ease depression, especially if you are deficient.

2. Zinc

Zinc has been linked with a number of potential health benefits, perhaps most notably a boosted immune system. One meta-analysis, for example, found that doses of around 75 to 100 milligrams (mg) of zinc from a lozenge per day shortened the common cold by 33 percent, while other research found that people who took 80 to 92 mg of zinc per day recovered three times faster from the common cold than those who did not.

Zinc supplements may also help slow the progression of macular degeneration, an age-related eye disease that causes vision loss, per the Cleveland Clinic and a separate research review.

3. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is essential for health, and it’s one of the building blocks of healthy blood vessels, cartilage, and muscles. Many people consume sufficient amounts of vitamin C in their diet, but those with a deficiency may need supplementation, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Research suggests that vitamin C may play an important role in preventing chronic disease. Some studies have found, for example, that vitamin C supports vascular health, though more research is needed to determine its effect on preventing heart disease.

Vitamin C may also support eye health, including a reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. And a research review concluded that vitamin C may help delay the development of cataracts due to age and diabetes in those with a known dietary deficiency, yet clinical studies haven’t shown much benefit for those with normal levels.

4. Magnesium

Magnesium is an important nutrient for health and is found in a number of foods, including nuts, seeds, and beans. Still, many people don’t get enough magnesium in their diet and may benefit from supplementation.

Some research has found that adequate magnesium intake may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, while other studies have found that magnesium may have protective benefits for the heart in those with the chronic condition.

Magnesium supplementation may also help reduce symptoms of depression, according to some studies.

5. B Vitamins

Vitamin B, which is made up of a group of eight B vitamins, plays a vital role in allowing the body to use energy. B vitamins include B1 (also called thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxal phosphate), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid or folate), and B12 (cobalamin).

B6 and folate have been linked with a number of health benefits in studies, including a reduced risk of heart disease. Other research found that B2 supplementation may reduce the duration and frequency of migraine attacks, while different studies suggest that it may play a role in preventing cognitive decline.

6. Probiotics

The gut is made up of trillions of friendly microorganisms called probiotics that play a major role in digestion, warding off disease, and everyday bodily functions. These microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, and other microbes.

Discovering the role that these microorganisms play in our health is an emerging field of scientific research. Some research suggests that taking friendly probiotics in supplement form may have positive health impacts, particularly when it comes to digestion.

Probiotics may be especially helpful in preventing and treating diarrhea related to antibiotic use or Clostridium difficile, some studies have found. Other studies suggest that probiotics may help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but the latest guidance from the American Gastroenterological Association states that there isn’t enough evidence to make a recommendation on probiotics for IBS.

7. Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) and helps provide energy for muscles, particularly while exercising, per the Cleveland Clinic. Creatine is a popular supplement among bodybuilders and athletes. Many people take it after a workout to help with muscle growth, and there’s some research to support that practice.

A scoping review published in March 2022 in Nutrients, in which authors looked at 16 randomized, controlled clinical trials, concluded that creatine supplementation may have efficiently supported muscle growth in healthy, younger people, but additional, larger trials are recommended.

Other research suggests that creatine may be beneficial for older adults. A research review published in April 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine determined that the use of creatine supplements, either with or without resistance training, can increase muscle mass and help prevent falls in older adults.

Additionally, studies suggest that creatine may improve short-term memory and have protective effects for memory and cognitive function in healthy adults.

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