Dietary Supplements (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products) - Topic Overview
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
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?
dietary supplements for many health conditions.
Historically, people have used herbal medicines to prevent illness, cure
infection, relieve fever, and heal wounds. Herbal medicines can also treat
constipation, ease pain, or act as relaxants or stimulants. Research on some
herbs and plant products has shown that they may have some of the same effects
that conventional medicines do, while others may have no effect or may be
- Researchers have studied some natural products and have found
them to be useful. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, may help lower