It’s no wonder that health food stores and supermarkets feature dietary supplements so prominently. In an analysis of data collected between 2017 and 2020, more than half of American adults age 20 and older acknowledged using dietary supplements in the previous 30 days, according to a 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But considering the immense popularity of supplements, you might be surprised to learn that, in many cases, registered dietitians and other nutrition pros don’t recommend their use for general health and illness prevention. Indeed, a 2018 position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on the subject states that “the routine and indiscriminate use of micronutrient supplements for the prevention of chronic disease is not recommended, given the lack of available scientific evidence.” Often, generally healthy people can get all the micronutrients they need from food.
Still, there are times when diet alone simply doesn’t supply therapeutic doses of specific vitamins and minerals certain people need. Some supplements may contain ingredients that aren’t commonly found in foods, and health conditions may mean your vitamin and mineral needs are higher than usual. While supplements may not be the answer to every health woe, they may have a beneficial role to play in your self-care health routine.
Be sure to check with your doctor before you start any supplement or make any major dietary change. Remember, too, that because supplements are not fully regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s wise to do your own homework before you buy. Look for products with third-party quality testing, and refer to the FDA’s Dietary Supplement Ingredient Directory to find out whether the agency has issued any statements about a supplement’s ingredients, health claims, or safety.
If you’re given the green light from your doctor, the following eight situations may warrant a supplement.
1. You Have Anemia
Iron-deficiency anemia is common, occurring most often in women of childbearing age, who lose iron each month when they menstruate, according to Mayo Clinic. But anemia can affect anyone at any age. There are other causes of iron-deficiency anemia, so be sure to get evaluated and tested to determine the root of the problem. Without enough iron in your diet, your body can’t create hemoglobin, the protein that helps your blood carry oxygen to all your tissues. For this reason, iron-deficiency anemia can leave you feeling weak, fatigued, dizzy, and headachy.
Fortunately, this condition is usually easily treatable with supplementation. Oral elemental iron is typically recommended when your doctor diagnoses you with iron-deficiency anemia, according to Cleveland Clinic. Your doctor may also advise you to add vitamin C to boost iron absorption.
2. You Have Type 2 Diabetes
Diabetes is a serious disease, and it must be treated with a medical doctor’s guidance. Additionally, research into supplements that may help fight this disease is ongoing, and currently, the American Diabetes Association’s 2023 diabetes standards of care guidelines state that there is no clear evidence that dietary supplementation can improve outcomes in people with diabetes who do not have underlying deficiencies.
“There are many supplements that claim to help manage diabetes. Some have more research to support their use than others,” says Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, the founder of Milk & Honey Nutrition in Houston. “Some supplements with positive research results to ask your doctor about include berberine and vitamin D.”
A systematic review published in 2019 in Endocrine Journal found that berberine reduced fasting glucose in people with type 2 diabetes, and that it enhanced the efficacy of glucose-lowering medications. Since berberine isn’t found in foods, it’s necessary to take it as a supplement, but additional research on its potential uses is needed. Keep in mind that supplements are not regulated like prescription drugs, and you should always clear any supplements with your primary care physician before taking them.
Other research has shown a link between vitamin D levels and glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in BMC Endocrine Disorders in January 2023 found that vitamin D supplementation might be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes who are deficient in the vitamin. According to the American Diabetes Association, low vitamin D may contribute to insulin resistance. If you’re unsure what your vitamin D levels are, talk to your doctor about getting tested, and ask them about nutrition and how to make sure you have healthy levels of vitamin D and other essential nutrients.
3. You Have Chronic Trouble Sleeping
Sometimes it feels like you’d do anything to get a good night’s rest. Many people are turning to supplements. Victoria Maizes, MD, the chief of the integrative medicine division at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has several to recommend. “I am a big fan of melatonin, especially in older adults when melatonin levels decline,” she says. Just make sure you’re aware of the potential side effects, and discuss melatonin and typical doses with your doctor.
If racing thoughts are the cause of your tossing and turning, a supplement like valerian may help lull you to sleep. “Valerian has been used traditionally for sleep disorders and anxiety,” Dr. Maizes says. “In a small randomized controlled trial of 100 post-menopausal women with insomnia, 530 milligrams of valerian taken twice daily demonstrated improvement in quality of sleep among 30 percent of participants, compared with only 4 percent having improvement in the placebo arm.” A systematic review and meta-analysis in the January–December 2020 Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine that included more than 1,000 subjects showed valerian to be effective in sleep quality and also reducing anxiety. While research suggests that valerian is generally safe for short-term use (up to 28 days) by most adults, the long-term effects of valerian and of its use during pregnancy or breastfeeding are still unknown.
4. You Follow a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet
A vegan or vegetarian diet can have impressive health benefits for health, including weight loss and lower cholesterol. Still, cutting out animal products can lead to some nutrient gaps. “Vitamin B12 supplementation is a good idea to consider when following a vegan lifestyle,” says Lauren Manaker, RDN, a dietitian, writer, and personal trainer in Charleston, South Carolina. “While it is entirely possible for people who follow a vegan lifestyle to take in enough vitamin B12, it is much more challenging than it is for those who consume animal products.” Without sufficient B12, you might feel tired, weak, or, with more severe deficiencies, experience breathlessness, reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Often, however, mild deficiencies may not have obvious symptoms at all and can only be found through lab testing. Manaker says that anyone following a vegetarian diet who consumes eggs or milk may not require supplemental vitamin B12 the way someone following a vegan diet would.
Other nutrients to consider supplementing if you’ve gone veg include calcium and vitamin D. “These should be considered for those who avoid dairy milk,” Manaker says. And, because fish and shellfish are the best sources of DHA omega-3 fatty acids, anyone who avoids seafood may look into supplementing DHA under a doctor’s guidance.
5. You’re Pregnant or Breastfeeding
“Pregnant women have different nutritional needs than people who are not ‘eating for two,’” says Manaker. Necessary supplements during pregnancy can vary from person to person, based on factors like whether you’re carrying multiples, entering your pregnancy with any nutrient deficiencies, or have major nutritional gaps. Generally, during pregnancy, prenatal vitamins can help fill in those gaps. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists several nutrients of concern, including folic acid, iodine, iron, calcium, vitamin D, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Consult your ob-gyn about what kind of supplement is best for you. Be aware that once you enter your second trimester, your iron needs increase.
6. You’re Going Through Menopause
“My first choice is black cohosh,” says Maizes. This plant in the buttercup family has been studied as a treatment for menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, but the research is not of the highest quality, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Although in clinical trials, black cohosh appears to be safe for up to 12 months of use, there have been rare cases of severe liver damage in the public of unclear cause. It is also unclear whether black cohosh is safe for women who have had hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, or anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding.
St. John’s wort is another possible menopause symptom-tamer. A past meta-analysis found that this herb improved menopausal symptoms with fewer side effects than a placebo. More research is needed, according to the NCCIH, and this herb may interact with several different medications, so make sure to consult your doctor before taking it. The effects on people who are pregnant or breastfeeding are also unknown.
And rather than kick back with a beer to calm menopause mood swings, consider one of its ingredients: hops. “Hops has a long history of botanical use as a nervine and relaxant,” Maizes says. “In a small randomized controlled trial of 120 women using 500 milligrams of hops, menopausal symptoms and hot flash number decreased significantly compared to placebo.”
7. You Have a Wound
Vitamins and minerals play a surprisingly significant role in wound healing. If you’ve had a recent surgery, or have a wound, some supplements could get you back on your feet faster. Maizes suggests vitamin C and zinc, both of which play a role in wound healing, per the NIH. A systematic review published in Antioxidants (Basel) in August 2022 found that supplementing with vitamin C improved healing from certain pathologies, especially bedsores.
Some research supports the use of the marigold flower extract known as calendula. “Calendula helps wounds heal by reducing inflammation and promoting wound granulation; it also has topical antibacterial effects,” Maizes says. One systematic review published in the September 2019 Wound Repair and Regeneration of seven animal studies and seven clinical trials found some evidence for using calendula for wound healing; additional research is needed.
8. You’re Having Digestive Problems
Dozens of supplements claim to treat everything from short-term tummy aches to chronic digestive disorders. With all the possibilities to choose from, it’s important to select according to the evidence. Some to discuss with your doctor include:
- Gingerroot According to a January 2020 study in Nutrients, ginger may improve nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, reduce inflammation, and boost overall digestive function.
- Probiotics Certain strains of live bacteria, or probiotics, may improve gut health by supporting a healthy and balanced gut microbiota, research indicates. “Taking probiotics has been shown to help people have regular bowel movements, too,” says Manaker.
- Prebiotics Prebiotic fiber “feeds” the good bacteria in your gut, supporting digestive health, per research in the March 2018 Current Developments in Nutrition.
- Digestive enzymes To properly digest food, the body relies on certain enzymes. “Most of us produce enough of these digestive enzymes, but for those who don’t [as determined by a medical specialist], digestive enzymes can be an important part of a person’s supplement plan,” Manaker says.
As with any new addition to your wellness regimen, be sure to ask your healthcare provider about appropriate dosage of these and other dietary supplements. It’s also important to discuss your health goals, and if changes in your diet or lifestyle may be as effective as a supplement.