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Women: Do you need a dietary supplement?

Don't fall for the "more is better" and "it's natural, so it won't hurt me" myths. Vitamins, dietary supplements, botanicals and herbs are serious medicine.

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is the best way for a woman to get the nutrients she needs. But sometimes even the best diet can benefit from the boost of a supplement.

Women looking for the right supplement may find themselves confronted by a variety of confusing choices. To successfully navigate the supplement aisle, you'll need a lot of savvy and some help from your healthcare team.

Who needs supplements?

Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you know if you're getting the nutrients you need through food. Sometimes the healthiest, easiest and cheapest way to fix any deficiencies is to tweak meals and snacks, such as adding a glass of milk each day if you need more calcium.

But according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, your doctor may recommend supplements if you:

Have heavy menstrual bleeding. You may need supplements to replace iron from blood loss.

Are pregnant or breastfeeding. You may need prenatal vitamin-mineral supplements or more of certain nutrients, such as iron, calcium and folate.

Could become pregnant. In addition to getting folate from food, you should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) from fortified foods or supplements. This will help prevent spinal cord birth defects in a developing fetus.

Have gone through menopause. You may need calcium and vitamin D supplements to slow calcium loss from bones.

Are over age 50. Older adults often have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12. Make sure you get enough by including supplements or foods fortified with vitamin B12 in your diet.

Are on a restrictive diet. You may need certain vitamins and minerals to replace nutrients you don't get.

Are a vegetarian. You may need extra iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D.

Have a health condition that affects nutrition. Some examples are digestive disorders, liver problems and food allergies.

Choose wisely

Dietary supplements are not as highly regulated as foods and drugs. If you're looking for a supplement, here are some tips from the academy and other experts:

  • Use supplements only as directed and in amounts recommended.
  • Check expiration dates to ensure potency.
  • Look for "USP" (U.S. Pharmacopeia) or "USP Verified" on the label. "USP" means the supplement company claims to adhere to USP quality standards, while "USP Verified" means the supplement has been tested and audited by USP.
  • Check whether an independent agency, such as ConsumerLab.com, has tested the product. These agencies confirm that the supplement contains what it claims (but not whether it's safe or effective).

Your healthcare provider can recommend a good supplement that will meet your needs.

Sort through the myths

Myths about supplements abound, so separating fact from fiction is important. According to the academy and others, supplements:

  • Cannot prevent, treat or cure disease.
  • Cannot boost energy or improve brainpower.
  • Cannot protect against the dangers of smoking or alcohol.
  • Cannot reduce stress.
  • Cannot offer immediate results.

Another fallacy is that if a little of a supplement is good, then more is better. Excess amounts of vitamin D, for example, can cause kidney damage. Too much vitamin A, taken over time, can cause bone and liver damage, and headaches.

Supplements also can interact with prescription medicines. For instance, vitamin E, garlic and ginkgo biloba may thin blood and be dangerous for someone on other blood thinners, and St. John's wort can interfere with some heart medicines and antidepressants.

Always let your doctor know what vitamins, herbs, botanicals and other supplements you take.

The bottom line

Supplements don't make up for bad eating habits. Experts agree that the best way to get your daily nutrition is through healthy, nutritious food.

Reviewed 11/28/2022

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