What Is a Dietary Supplement? (video)

What are supplements used for and who needs them?

What are supplements used for and who needs them?

Robert Bonakdar, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, discusses dietary supplements, including who needs them, how they work, their benefits and why it's important to check with your doctor before you get started.

Video transcript

What is a dietary supplement?

It's officially defined as a substance and that could mean a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or a component of our diet, such as an amino acid, that is used to supplement the diet in some way. So it's a very broad term. It does need to be taken by mouth, but it can come in many forms. It can be pills, powders or liquid, but it's typically anything that is utilized to supplement a diet.

How do I know if I need a dietary supplement?

It's very important as we are considering dietary supplements to ask before you start taking a supplement, “Do I really need this?” I ask that because in many cases supplements are very easy to grab off the shelf and they're abundant. There are over 80,000 on the market that we know of.


One of the key things to ask is — because they're so easy to grab and incorporate that in some cases the questions don't always get asked — can I get this from my diet? Does this interact with medications that I might be on already? Are there other issues with taking this that I may not have thought about? Will it affect my sleep, my mood?


I think at the end of the day, it's really important to have somebody that we can interact with — meaning a health care provider that a consumer or a patient is considering — who can really guide them in this process to make sure that supplement is optimal, as opposed to just grab it off the shelf and thinking about it after the fact.

Where is the best place to get information about supplements?

The best place to get information about dietary supplements is definitely a health care provider. There are obviously other sources to start with. The Office of Dietary Supplements, for example, provides good information on various dietary supplements.


But at the end of the day, the person who should know you the best is your health care provider, and it's hopefully somebody you've had a good working relationship with for some time. They would know your medications, your medical conditions, your allergies, and that's the person who you should be able to go to and say, “I'm considering this supplement for this condition. What do you think?” That's a great starting point to figure out if it's the right supplement and also the right formulation, the right dose and the right brand.


There are many details before we start to supplement and we should always always start with a health care provider.

Can I take supplements on my own?

That's a common question as far as when to start taking a supplement. Do I need to see a health care provider or a supplement expert?


At the end of the day, I think there are probably a few cases where you might be okay, but for the most part I would say it's hard to know, so better safe than sorry. So it's always important to really try to find a health care provider before you start grabbing the supplement off the shelf.


In many cases, we've seen folks that we take off supplements in the clinic. Many folks would be surprised to hear that working within integrative medicine or complementary medicine that we actually take people off more supplements than we put them on. And that's true every single day. I have folks coming in with handfuls of different vitamins and supplements and when we get to the point of why you're taking this, what have you seen with utilizing it, in most cases it's not uncommon for patients to say, “Gosh I wish I could have talked to you before I started that because now you know there's more confusion than confirmation.”


So if we have the chance to talk to a health care provider, it will help guide all the details. Should you be taking it? If so where can you get it? What's the dose? What's the brand? How long to take it? What’s the therapeutic trial? Let's reassess this in three months or four months so we have a good idea if this is a keeper or something to move on from.

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