True Effects Often Unknown

At this point, it is difficult to know the effects of supplements. There’s also a phenomenon known as the placebo effect. In many research studies, some people are given the actual pill or treatment being tested, while others unknowingly receive a placebo (Latin for “I will please”), an inactive pill or treatment. Usually, it’s just a sugar pill – harmless but offering no real physical benefit. Some people taking the placebo will experience the same results (reduced arthritis pain, for example) as the people taking the real drug. That shows the power of suggestion.

For most types of supplements, unfortunately, solid scientific evidence is just not available. Few studies have been done to test supplements, and the studies that do exist usually don’t stand up to rigorous scientific examination. In addition, these types of treatments are not regulated and tested in the same way that pharmaceutical products are to ensure that that they are both safe and effective. Finally, there are a few purity standards or quality control mechanisms in place.

It may seem like a paradox, but most pills that are labeled as a natural contain chemicals that are processed, just like drugs. It’s true that natural substances are chemicals found in the body normally, while drugs are chemicals that are not normally found in the body. But the chemicals in prescription or over-the-counter drugs are tested extensively for safety and purity, while the natural pills are not tested on the same level. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider natural remedies, but you should be aware of the concerns.

Tips for Choosing Supplements

If you decide to try an herbal extract, dietary supplement or other natural remedy, you should proceed with caution and keep these points in mind:

  • Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, pharmacist or other health professionals for their opinions or recommendations.
  • Buy wisely. When purchasing a supplement, buy from a large company, pharmacy or health food chain. They may have more stringent quality controls than small companies to maintain their good reputation.
  • Consider the cost. Some supplements can be quite expensive. That first bottle you grab off the grocery store shelf might not seem like too much to spend, but consider how much you’re supposed to take to receive the promised benefits. You might have to buy two or three bottles a month, and the cost really adds up. If you’re going to see real benefits, the cost might be justified. But if you’re trying it because it might help, maybe not.
  • Watch how much you take. Supplements are not harmless just because they don’t require a prescription. Some minerals and other substances can be harmful if you take too much.
  • Inform your doctors. Supplements count when a doctor asks what drugs you’re taking, so be sure to report all supplements and how much you take. Some supplements can adversely interact with prescribed medicines, so keep your doctors fully informed. 
  • Read labels carefully. Be aware that no supplement can lawfully claim to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent disease. Look for products with the USP notation, indicating that the manufacturer followed standards established by the United States Pharmacopoeia.
  • Be skeptical of advertising claims. Because supplements are not regulated as closely as drugs, manufacturers can make claims that are unfounded. They often will craft their labels and promises very carefully to make their products sound more beneficial than actually could prove.
    • Beware of supplements that claim to work by a “secret formula.” You should know what you’re taking and the manufacturer should be willing to tell you.
    • Stay away from any supplement that claims to be a “cure” or “miraculous breakthrough.” Those are dead giveaways that the manufacturer is overpromising what it can do for you, which might be nothing.
    • Also be skeptical of supplements that rely only on testimonials as their proof of benefits. A supplement that truly offers help for arthritis symptoms should be supported by research in established medical journals.