Four Things I Want Every Patient to Know About Supplements

In between consulting with patients, picking up their medications, and verifying prescriptions, I often see patients standing in front of shelves and shelves of supplements taking in all the options. I look up 30 minutes later, and many are still there trying to make a decision. I’ve asked many if I can help. Some accept but many more do not.

Q: Because it’s sold without a prescription, I can take as much as I want, right?

A: No. The labels on the individual products will tell you how much is recommended in a 24-hour period. Don’t go over that recommended dosing in hopes that you’ll speed up the effect. Remember, supplements can be marketed without going through the approval process by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure its safety and efficacy.

Q: How do I make sure I’m taking what’s listed on the label?Supplement bottles, vitamins

A: Look for a USP verification symbol. Manufacturers can choose to submit their product to be tested by USP. The seal means several things. Most importantly the supplement has been tested to ensure the ingredients on the label are actually in the supplement and it has been made in sanitary conditions. There are several other similar product quality programs including ConsumerLab.com, National Sanitation Foundation International, and the Natural Product Association.


Q: I want to take some garlic because I heard it can help lower my cholesterol. I eat it in food all the time without any problem. Taking a supplement won’t interact with my prescription medications, right?

A: There’s always a risk for interactions. Garlic binds with any prescription medication in your body, which could reduce the effects of those medications. It could also cause increased bleeding. Women on birth control should probably avoid the supplement altogether because garlic could increase the breakdown of estrogen, decreasing the pill’s effectiveness. Before taking home any new supplement, talk to the pharmacist about your current health and medications. St. John’s Wort, Ginko, and Ginseng are just some of the popular supplements with a high risk of interactions.

Q: This multivitamin has 500% of the recommended daily amount for several vitamins. That’s great, right?

A: These megadoses of vitamins can cause side effects. I always tell patients if you’re eating a balanced diet with fresh, unprocessed foods there’s little need for vitamin supplements. If you do want to take a multivitamin, the key is to take the same one every day and look for products with less than 100% of the recommended daily intake. That way you won’t overdose on any one vitamin.

Ashlee James, Pharm.D.

PGY1 Pharmacy Resident

St. Louis College of Pharmacy