From herbs and botanical extracts to amino acids and fish oil, the supplement industry is vast and easily accessible to consumers. More than half of North Americans report that they use dietary supplements regularly. (6) Common reasons patients take dietary supplements include promoting general health, addressing nutrient gaps in their diets, and lowering their risk of chronic diseases. (3)
With supplements accounting for a $50 billion (USD) industry, it’s important to know the health benefits of taking supplements and how to choose effective supplement ingredients. (7)(13) Do supplements work? Read on to find out.
Do supplements work?
Certain supplements can support optimal health, but much of the current research on dietary supplements is mixed. Certain nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, have been researched significantly more than other supplements, such as herbs. (3) Additionally, the supplements that do have substantial studies often still have unclear quality, dosage, and safety recommendations—all factors that can significantly impact their effectiveness. (8)
Did you know? A report published by the National Institutes of Health found that less than 22% of dietary supplement research was conducted on botanical ingredients. (3)
While more research is needed to understand the role of supplements for disease prevention in otherwise healthy individuals, many supplements have demonstrated their health benefits in observational and randomized controlled trials. (16)
3 supplements with evidence-based health benefits
Although not all supplement health claims are scientifically proven, some supplements have demonstrated positive health effects. Below are just a few examples of supplements with reliable scientific evidence.
1. Vitamin and mineral supplements
The most widely used supplement type in the United States, most multivitamins contain about ten vitamins and ten minerals. (9) Research indicates that taking 100% DV vitamin or mineral supplements can increase suboptimal levels of essential nutrients. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals at risk for nutrient deficiencies, such as children, older adults, or those following restricted diets. (2)
2. Fish oil
Fish oil is another one of North America’s most commonly consumed nutritional supplements. (4) Regularly eating omega-3-rich oily fish (e.g., salmon) is strongly associated with reduced risk of adverse cardiovascular events. (10)(14)
Supplementing with fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids may have similar heart-healthy benefits. Consistent evidence demonstrates that taking fish oil supplements can significantly reduce blood triglyceride levels. (1) Having high blood triglycerides can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. (12)
3. Whey protein
Many clinical trials indicate the potential benefits of whey protein for muscle growth and weight management. (11) When combined with resistance training, whey protein supplement use can improve body weight, support fat loss, and increase muscle size. (5)(15)
To explore the research on several common supplement types, visit Fullscript’s Ingredient Library.
Determining supplement effectiveness
Supplement companies often make promising health claims, but understanding the science behind these claims is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a supplement ingredient or formulation. Use the following tips to understand the efficacy of a dietary supplement:
- Use reliable websites, such as PubMed, to find peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
- Consider using Fullscript’s practitioner resources, such as protocols and the Ingredient Library.
- Refer to the scientific evidence from randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses over observational studies.
- Use high-quality supplements with the same ingredient part, strain, or species that was researched.
The bottom line
Supplements are no magic pill, but some can potentially support specific aspects of health, such as preventing nutrient deficiencies and supporting cardiovascular and metabolic health. Although some supplements have ample research, others have little. Studies also vary significantly in research methods and dosage and quality standards for the supplements, often making results unclear. Analyzing scientific evidence about a particular ingredient using reliable websites is the best way to decide if a supplement will work for your treatment goals.
- Balk, E., Chung, M., Lichtenstein, A., Chew, P., Kupelnick, B., Lawrence, A., DeVine, D., & Lau, J. (2004). Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular risk factors and intermediate markers of cardiovascular disease. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment (Summary), (93), 1–6.
- Blumberg, J. B., Frei, B., Fulgoni, V. L., Weaver, C. M., & Zeisel, S. H. (2017). Contribution of Dietary Supplements to Nutritional Adequacy in Various Adult Age Groups. Nutrients, 9(12), 1325. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9121325
- Brown, A.C. (2017). An overview of herb and dietary supplement efficacy, safety and government regulations in the United States with suggested improvements. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 107(Part A), 449-471. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2016.11.001
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Dietary supplement use among adults: United States, 2017–2018. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db399.htm
- Duarte, N. M., Cruz, A. L., Silva, D. C., & Cruz, G. M. (2020). Intake of whey isolate supplement and muscle mass gains in young healthy adults when combined with resistance training: A blinded randomized clinical trial (pilot study). The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 60(1), 75–84. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.19.09741-X
- Dwyer, J.T. & Coates, P.M. (2018). Why Americans need information on dietary supplements. The Journal of Nutrition, 148 (Suppl 2), 1401S–1405S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxy081
- FDA. (2017). Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on the agency’s new efforts to strengthen regulation of dietary supplements by modernizing and reforming FDA’s oversight. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/statement-fda-commissioner-scott-gottlieb-md-agencys-new-efforts-strengthen-regulation-dietary
- Hempel, S., Newberry, S., Ruelaz, A., Wang, Z., Miles, J.N.V., Suttorp, M.J… Shekelle, P.G. (2011). Safety of probiotics to reduce risk and prevent or treat disease. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville (MD).
- Huang, H. Y., Caballero, B., Chang, S., Alberg, A., Semba, R., Schneyer, C., Wilson, R. F., Cheng, T. Y., Prokopowicz, G., Barnes, G. J., 2nd, Vassy, J., & Bass, E. B. (2006). Multivitamin/mineral supplements and prevention of chronic disease. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment, (139), 1–117.
- Khoukaz, H. B., & Fay, W. P. (2021). Fish oil supplements for prevention of cardiovascular Disease: The jury is still out: CON: Fish Oil is useful to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease. Missouri Medicine, 118(3), 219–225.
- Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Aragon, A. A., Devries, M. C., Banfield, L., Krieger, J. W., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(6), 376–384. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022). High blood triglycerides. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/high-blood-triglycerides
- National Institutes of Health. (2022). Multivitamin/mineral supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-HealthProfessional/
- Rimm, E. B., Appel, L. J., Chiuve, S. E., Djoussé, L., Engler, M. B., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Mozaffarian, D., Siscovick, D. S., Lichtenstein, A. H., & American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health; Council on Epidemiology and Prevention; Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young; Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; and Council on Clinical Cardiology (2018). Seafood long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: A science advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 138(1), e35–e47. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000574
- Wirunsawanya, K., Upala, S., Jaruvongvanich, V., & Sanguankeo, A. (2018). Whey protein supplementation improves body composition and cardiovascular risk factors in overweight and obese patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 37(1), 60–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2017.1344591
- Zhang, F.F., Barr, S.I., McNulty, H., Li, D., & Blumberg, J.B. (2020). Health effects of vitamin and mineral supplements, BMJ, 369, m2511. doi:10.1136/bmj.m2511