Go to your local pharmacy or grocery store and vitamin and mineral supplements line an entire shelf. Want more energy? How about a better memory? What about looser joints? Look on the shelf, and there is a bottle claiming to help each of these conditions, and more, listed on the label. Since these supplements are considered over the counter (OTC) and no prescription is needed, it is left to consumers to figure out which is right for them. This multi-billion-dollar business of supplements appeals to many who are looking to fix or improve an aspect of their life and health. What it amounts to is self-medicating, which can be risky to your overall health.

When looking to add any supplement to your daily diet, always consult your physician first. Using supplements to treat medical conditions or to practice preventative medicine can be a useful and sometimes less expensive alternative to prescription medications. Although many of these supplements are safe, many others have unwanted side effects that can negatively affect other areas of your health. In addition, most consumers are not qualified to know how given supplements will react with prescribed medications they are taking, nor are they educated on appropriate dosages.

A supplement you are taking for improved circulation, for example, may also cause blood thinning. Taking this with certain cardiac medications or before surgery can present unexpected and dangerous complications.

"People need to treat these as drugs, because that's what they are," says Dr. Nicole Robin-Krohn, clinical director of East Jefferson General Hospital's Pharmaceutical Services.

Another potential problem associated with vitamin supplements is that there is no centralized or governmental body charged with overseeing the industry that produces them. Unlike physician-prescribed medications that go through rigorous testing and years of approval processes by the Food and Drug Administration, supplements are simply bottled and placed on the shelf. In essence, there is no proof that what you are taking will actually work, or that you will find potential side effects listed.

In addition to consulting your physician, getting educated prior to selecting and taking any of these supplements is extremely important. Even with the absence of a regulatory body to monitor the safety of the supplement, trusted organizations have taken it upon themselves to research and approve individual supplements. Three of the more widely accepted organizations are National Formulary, U.S. Pharmacopera and Consumer Labs.

Each of these organizations provides consumers an objective look at the standards used to manufacture vitamin supplements and the results one can expect. If any of their symbols are found on the product label of the bottle, consumers can be confident that the supplement has been tested and approved by a qualified third party. Look for the following symbols on the bottle: National Formulary uses capital "CF," U.S. Pharmacopera uses "USP" in an oval and Consumer Labs uses "CL" in a beaker.

For those interested in learning more about vitamins and the herbs used to make many of the supplements, Krohn recommends two books: Evidence-Based Herbal Medicine and Herbal Medicines: A Clinician's Guide. Both are user friendly and packed with practical information on how to add supplements to your diet, the uses for each and possible interactions with other medications.

Although consumers should be cautious when deciding which supplement is right for them, remember that there is a basis for its use. Many health benefits can be gained by taking certain supplements. The key is to understand which ones will safely benefit you.

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