The Science Behind Health Supplements: What Works and What Doesn’t

The use of herbal medicines and natural products for health promotion has existed for thousands of years. 

However, the modern concept of health supplements emerged in the 20th century, as synthetic vitamins and minerals were discovered and manufactured. The health supplement industry has grown enormously in recent decades, with a range of products now available, from vitamins and minerals to herbal remedies, probiotics, protein powders and more. 

Americans currently spend over $30 billion per year on these over-the-counter products. But how much do we really know about their effectiveness and safety? 

This article will provide an overview of the science behind some of the most popular categories of health supplements.

Vitamins and Minerals

Multivitamins and individual vitamin/mineral supplements are among the most commonly used kind of health supplement. Vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium and omega-3 fish oil supplements are especially popular. 

Clinical studies support the use of multivitamins to prevent nutritional deficiencies and possibly reduce risks for some diseases. While a balanced diet is fundamental to obtaining necessary nutrients, it doesn’t always guarantee adequate levels of certain vitamins and minerals. For instance, vitamin D3, primarily obtained from sunlight, may still be deficient in many individuals since the body cannot produce it independently. 

Additionally, factors like absorption efficiency, age, and varying individual needs can lead to insufficient levels of essential nutrients such as magnesium, even in those who follow a balanced diet. Therefore, supplementation may be necessary in some cases to address these specific deficiencies.

Megadoses of vitamins can also have harmful effects. Vitamin and mineral supplements can be beneficial in complementing a nutritious diet, especially since certain circumstances might lead to nutrient deficiencies. While they are not a substitute for a balanced diet, supplements can play a crucial role in maintaining optimal health for many people, addressing specific nutritional needs that may not be fully met through diet alone.

Herbal Supplements

Herbal health supplements like echinacea, ginkgo biloba and St. John’s wort are big sellers, but research about their effectiveness is mixed. Some herbal supplements seem to benefit health, while others can have potentially dangerous interactions with medications. 

For example, St. John’s wort can interfere with antidepressants and birth control pills. Most herbal supplements have not been thoroughly tested for safety and pharmacological interactions because they are classified as foods, not drugs. 

Checking with a health professional before taking herbal supplements is generally recommended, especially when taking other medications.


Probiotic supplements containing friendly bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium offer benefits for digestive and immune system health. Clinical studies indicate probiotics may help prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotics and infections. 

Certain strains also seem to modestly lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Probiotics have an excellent safety profile. Most healthy adults can safely take probiotic supplements and obtain moderate benefits for digestive and immune health.

Protein and Amino Acids

Protein powders and muscle-building supplements like whey protein and creatine are extremely popular, especially with fitness enthusiasts and athletes. Whey protein may help build muscle when combined with strength training and creatine also has evidence for boosting high-intensity athletic performance. 

However, muscle-building supplements typically aren’t necessary for those meeting their protein needs through diet alone. Some supplements like DHEA and androstenedione can also have significant health risks with long-term use. 

Carefully researching products, dosages and the scientific evidence is key when evaluating protein or athletic supplements.

Joint Health Supplements

Supplements for joint health like glucosamine, chondroitin, and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) target lubrication, cartilage integrity and pain relief. Some research indicates that glucosamine and chondroitin may slow cartilage damage in osteoarthritis patients and modestly reduce joint inflammation and pain. 

MSM provides sulfur for connective tissues and may also decrease pain and stiffness. Overall joint health supplements seem helpful for some middle-aged and older adults by targeting pathways that influence cartilage breakdown, inflammation and discomfort. 

Benefits are most notable over the long-term when taken regularly.

Regulations and Safety

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 created classification for supplements separate from foods and drugs. Health supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe and do not need regulatory approval before being marketed. 

While quality testing has increased, the FDA largely relies on adverse event monitoring once products hit the market. Poor quality control and inaccurate labeling continue to be issues in the supplement industry. 

Third-party testing and certification programs helps identify higher quality brands that adhere to purity and potency standards. Consulting health professionals ensures safe use of supplements that may interact with medications or medical conditions.

The Bottom Line on Health Supplements

Some categories of health supplements like vitamins, probiotics and joint supplements may offer wellness advantages based on clinical research. However, many supplements make unrealistic marketing claims that aren’t verified. 

Dietary supplements can interact with medication, exacerbate underlying conditions and contribute to liver, kidney and other types of organ damage in rare cases. Evaluating the necessity for supplementation, closely reviewing safety profiles and buying reputable brands can help consumers make informed decisions about including health supplements in their routine. 

It’s advisable to consult with healthcare professionals, particularly for those on medications or with existing health conditions. Many supplements are recognized for their significant health benefits, supported by scientific research, contributing to optimal health. Professional guidance can be invaluable in selecting the right supplements for individual health needs and goals.

In many cases, simply improving diet, exercising more, reducing stress and sleeping better can provide greater gains than even the most promising health supplements.

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