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Dietary Supplements (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)


Table of Contents


Dietary Supplements (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)

What are dietary supplements?

In the United States, dietary supplements are substances you eat or drink. They can be vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants, amino acids (the individual building blocks of protein), or parts of these substances. They can be in pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form. They supplement (add to) the diet and should not be considered a substitute for food.

Dietary supplements are widely available in the United States in health food stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, on the Internet, and by mail. People commonly take them for health-related reasons. Common dietary supplements include vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C or a multivitamin), botanicals (herbs and plant products, such as St. John's wort), and substances that come from a natural source (such as omega-3 fatty acids).

Makers of dietary supplements cannot legally say that dietary supplements can diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease. But they can say that they contribute to health maintenance and well-being.

People have used the active ingredients in dietary supplements for thousands of years to help health and to treat illness. Sometimes those supplements are the basis for some of today's common medicines. For example, people have used willow bark tea for centuries to relieve fever. Pharmaceutical companies eventually identified the chemical in willow bark that relieved fever and used that knowledge to produce aspirin.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way that it regulates medicine. A dietary supplement can be sold without research on how well it works.

What are dietary supplements used for?

People use dietary supplements for many health conditions.

Are dietary supplements safe?

Not all herbs and supplements are safe. If you are unsure about the safety of a supplement or herb, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian.

Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.

When using dietary supplements, keep in mind the following.


Credits for Dietary Supplements (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Last Revised June 11, 2013

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