Taking dietary supplements may feel like a healthy habit, but experts say certain products may do more harm than good. That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates supplements as a form of food, not as drugs, so they’re subject to far less scrutiny than medication. In fact, oftentimes their touted benefits and possible side effects remain only loosely tested. Ultimately, consumers are left with incomplete information when deciding which supplements to take—if any at all.
That’s why we’ve spoken with Tessa Spencer, PharmD, a specialist in community pharmacy and functional medicine, to find out which supplements you may want to strike from your list. Read on to find out which four supplements she won’t personally take, and why she considers these popular products non-starters.
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Spencer says that, in her view, the supposed benefits of elderberry supplements are particularly dubious. “While some preliminary research suggests that elderberry may relieve symptoms of flu or other upper respiratory infections, other clinical studies show it does not reduce the duration of flu symptoms,” she tells Best Life. “The studies showing a benefit were very small, and were founded by companies selling elderberry products, which is a huge conflict of interest,” she adds.
Adding to her concern is the fact that many of these products come with misleading info about their ingredients. “A lot of elderberry supplements are impure, diluted, or don’t even contain elderberry in the product, but instead black rice extract,” she explains. “If you choose to supplement, make sure to buy a product that is USP verified for purity and potency so you aren’t just buying colored syrup or tablets,” Spencer advises.
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Another supplement Spencer skips is biotin, which many people take to enhance the appearance and health of their hair, skin, and nails. “I think it’s just a supplement scam,” she says.
“In 2017 a meta-analysis looked at biotin supplementing. This analysis showed improvement of hair and nail growth on supplementation in patients with established biotin deficiency. That’s the key. These patients had a biotin deficiency, which is actually pretty rare in the U.S.,” Spencer says. She adds that people with alcohol dependence, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or individuals who have taken medication to treat epilepsy for over a year are some of the few groups who may be at true risk for biotin deficiencies.
“There have been no randomized, controlled trials to prove the efficacy of supplementation with biotin in normal, healthy individuals to improve growth or strength of hair or nails,” she notes.
Fish oil is a popular supplement that’s often used to improve heart health, but Spencer says it’s on her list of items she won’t take.
“Most individuals consume fish oil for a source of ‘healthy fats.’ While long-chain omega-3s are helpful, I don’t think we should be getting them from fish oil,” she states. Spencer explains that industrial pollutants and insecticides are “commonly found in fish and krill oil supplements,” even those that are supposedly free of such contaminants. “Instead I recommend taking 250 mg daily of pollutant-free (yeast- or algae-derived) long-chain omega-3’s of EPA/DHA.”
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Spencer says she avoids taking vitamin C, citing its mega-sized doses and questionable efficacy as cause for concern. “Most vitamin C supplements provide way more vitamin C than people need. The recommended daily intake for individuals… is around 65-90mg, and the maximum amount of daily vitamins and minerals that you can safely take without risk of an overdose or serious side effects is 2,000mg,” she explains. “The most widely used vitamin C supplements are those that have about 1,000 mg of vitamin C in one packet. That means if you have two packets you’re already at your upper limit—and that doesn’t include any vitamin C you get through your diet.”
Even if you don’t experience side effects from too much vitamin C, Spencer says the excess will go to waste. “You’re just paying for expensive urine,” she quips. “I personally would rather increase my vitamin C intake from eating vitamin C-rich whole foods throughout the day. I try to eat yellow or red peppers, oranges, kale, strawberries, and I also try to include fresh thyme in any dish I’m making to boost those vitamin C levels.”
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you’re taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.