Nearly four out of ten American adults have taken dietary supplements to relieve pain, treat arthritis, boost their immune system or improve their health, according to a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health. About one in seven said they use supplements regularly.
But despite their popularity, less than a third of Americans say supplements were recommended to them by a doctor or nurse. And while many take supplements to treat a serious medical condition, such as depression, diabetes, or high blood pressure, nearly 36 percent said they hadn’t told their doctor they were using supplements.
Over 5 percent had been told by doctors to stop taking them.
“Practicing physicians should be aware that substantial numbers of persons take supplements to treat potentially serious health conditions, and many of them may not share this information with their physicians.” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health. “They need to be aware that people are using this as one form of treatment.”
Fish oil tablets were the most commonly used supplements, with one in four respondents reporting they had taken fish oil or an omega-3 supplement within the past two years. Herbal supplements, such as garlic pills, and probiotics, such as acidophilus, were other commonly used dietary supplements. Vitamins and minerals were not considered supplements for the purposes of the survey.
Although there has been a rapid growth in demand for dietary supplements, little was known about the reasons why people take them.
“We were more interested in what they were taking them for,” Blendon said.
The top ten reasons for taking supplements include:
- to feel better (41%)
- to improve overall energy levels (41%)
- to boost immune system (36%)
- to treat digestive issues (28%)
- to relieve pain (25%)
- to lower cholesterol (21%)
- to lower high blood pressure (16%)
- to treat arthritis (13%)
- to treat depression or improve mood (12%)
- to slowdown the aging process (11%)
More than 8 in 10 users (82%) considered it important that they have access to supplements. Nearly half said it was very important.
Marketing and advertising, not scientific research, are the driving forces behind many decisions to take supplements. Only 25 percent of supplement users said they would stop taking them if a government study contradicted the health benefits and marketing claims of supplement makers.
“Many of the most commonly stated reasons for use have little connection to specific, measurable health goals and are more likely to be driven by individual perceptions of efficacy than by external scientific statements as to efficacy,” said Blendon. “As a result, many supplement users are unlikely to change behavior in response to statements from public health authorities about studies showing the ineffectiveness of particular supplements.”
The study didn’t look at either the harmful effects or benefits of taking supplements. The Food and Drug Administration cautions that supplements can be linked to complications — including life-threatening situations as harmful interactions can occur when taking supplements with other over-the-counter or prescription medications.
The survey was conducted by telephone in 2011 with 1,579 Americans aged 18 years and older. A summary of the survey is published in a letter in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. Complete survey results are available here.