Q: What are dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements, including plant-and animal-derived products, are not classified as or considered to be drugs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t act like them. To be classified as a dietary supplement, a product must be taken by mouth and contain a “dietary ingredient” – that is, a substance intended to be taken in addition to, not instead of, healthy foods. Overall, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, botanicals, amino acids and any part of those substances, such as extracts or concentrates.

Q: Why do I need to talk to my doctor about the supplements I take or want to take?

Plants produce chemicals just as people and animals do. Those chemicals, while from a source found in nature, can have effects on the body ranging from mild to potent, just like chemicals produced in a laboratory. Because supplements are, in fact, chemicals, they have the potential to interact with chemicals in manmade medications. That’s why you need to get the go-ahead from your doctor about supplements – not just once but each and every time you consider trying one.

Q: How are dietary supplements different from medication?

When you go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, you have three layers of protection between you and the product. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed and approved it, your doctor has considered your history and prescribed it, and your pharmacist alerts you to possible interactions with other medications you’re taking. Even with an over-the-counter medication, there’s the FDA layer of protection, and your pharmacist is accessible to answer questions. But with a dietary supplement, there are no protective layers between your hand and the product on the shelf.