How to Use Supplements Wisely

You probably take vitamins and supplements with the goal of improving your health. That’s great news! Yet these products aren't always good for you -- or safe. And buying dietary supplements isn't as straightforward as looking for the most promising health claim on a label.

Fortunately, you can arm yourself with some simple facts before you start taking supplements. Use this checklist as a guide to help you talk with your doctor. Bring it to the drug store or supermarket to help you choose a supplement that's safe, and that best fits your health needs.

Supplements and the FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.

And, what's inside the supplement bottle may not always match what the label promises. Even a supplement called "all-natural" can cause side effects or interact with medicines you're already taking. Some supplements may include ingredients that aren't even listed on the label.

Before you buy any supplement, talk to your doctor. Find out if the product you're thinking of purchasing is safe for you. Ask whether it might interact with any other medications you're taking.

Read the Supplement Label

When buying any dietary supplement, here’s what to look for:

  • Has the supplement been certified by an organization that verifies supplement safety? Look for a blue and yellow seal from the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), or a symbol from NSF International or Consumer
  • Check that the label contains: The name of the supplement, the name and address and phone number of the manufacturer, a complete list of ingredients--including the active ingredient, and the serving size.
  • How much of each nutrient is in the supplement? You don't want to exceed the tolerable upper intake level (UL) for any one nutrient.
  • Does the claim on the label or in the product's commercial sound too good to be true? If the promise sounds unreasonable, it probably is. Only certain claims can be made on food and dietary supplement labels. These claims fall into 3 categories: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure and function claims.
  • Has the supplement been recalled? You can check for recalls on the FDA's web site at


If you don't understand the information on the supplement label, ask the pharmacist at the store for help. If your pharmacist can’t address your questions, you may call the supplement manufacturer. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Is there medical research to back up the product's benefits and safety?
  • Where was this product made? Be careful about any supplement produced outside the United States, because safety standards may not be the same.
  • Have there been any adverse effects reported with this product?
  • Has this product been recalled?

Questions for Your Doctor

When it comes to taking supplements wisely, your doctor is your advocate. Here are some questions to ask your health care provider:

  • Are there any studies to show that this supplement works, and that it's safe?
  • What side effects might it have?
  • Will this supplement interact with any other drugs or other supplements I'm currently taking? Can it reduce or increase the effectiveness of any medicines?
  • Will it cause excess bleeding, and if so, should I stop taking it before surgery?
  • Can I take this supplement while I'm pregnant or nursing?
  • Is this supplement safe for my child to take?
  • Can I take it if I have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or another medical condition?
  • What is the correct dosage for my age and weight?
  • How soon should I start seeing effects?
  • What should I do if I'm not seeing any benefits, or if I'm having side effects?
  • For how long can I take this product?
  • Which brand of this supplement is most reputable?
  • If I do have a side effect from this supplement, where can I report it?

Take Supplements as Directed

Use common sense when taking any dietary supplement. These simple tips can help you stay on track:

  • Follow the directions on the package and your doctor's instructions exactly.
  • Keep a list of all supplements and other medications you're taking.
  • Write down how much of each product you're taking, and at what time of day. It’s easy to forget that you’ve taken a supplement, which can lead to accidentally taking too much.
  • Also write down how the supplement affects you, and whether you have any side effects.
  • Share your notes with your doctor at each visit.

As with any medication, if you experience any side effects from a supplement, call your doctor right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on August 01, 2016



NCCAM: "Using Dietary Supplements Wisely."

Arthritis Foundation: "Evaluating the Safety of Supplements."

FDA: "Tips for the savvy supplement user: Making informed decisions and evaluating information."

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