Pills, capsules, powders, gel tabs, extracts, liquids… supplements are a multi-million-rand industry. For patients who don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods, some supplements might help them get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. However, supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet.

Before recommending supplements, or dispensing medications, always check to see what other medications your patient is on and warn patients against taking dietary supplements to treat a health condition they’ve diagnosed themselves without consulting a healthcare professional.

“Supplements are never a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet,” said Dr JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “And they can be a distraction from healthy lifestyle practices that confer much greater benefits.” According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements, “Scientific evidence shows that some dietary supplements are beneficial for overall health and for managing some health conditions. For example, calcium and vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong and reducing bone loss; folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects; and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils might help some people with heart disease.”

We have different nutritional needs throughout our lives and most older adults take some kind of over-the-counter dietary supplement. Patients over age 50 may need more of certain vitamins and minerals than younger adults do. If they aren’t able to get these through their diet their doctor may recommend they take a vitamin or mineral supplement.

According to the National Institute on Aging the most common of these include:

  • CALCIUM: Calcium works with vitamin D to keep bones strong at all ages. Bone loss can lead to fractures in both older women and men.
  • VITAMIN D: Most people’s bodies make enough vitamin D if they are in the sun for 15-30 minutes at least twice a week. Older patients may not be able to get enough vitamin D that way.
  • VITAMIN B6: This vitamin is needed to form red blood cells.
  • VITAMIN B12: Vitamin B12 helps keep red blood cells and nerves healthy. While older adults need just as much vitamin B12 as other adults, some have trouble absorbing the vitamin naturally found in food. However, it’s important for patients to understand the potential safety risks of supplements.

According to the NIH, some supplements:

  • contain active ingredients that can have strong effects in the body;
  • can increase the risk of bleeding;
  • if taken before or after surgery, can affect the person’s response to anaesthesia;
  • can also interact with certain prescription drugs in ways that might cause problems, for e.g.: o St John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many drugs (including antidepressants and birth control pills) and thereby reduce these drugs’ effectiveness. o Antioxidant supplements, like vitamins C and E, might reduce the effectiveness of some types of cancer chemotherapy.

Before recommending supplements, or dispensing medications, always check to see what other medications your patient is on and warn patients against taking dietary supplements to treat a health condition they’ve diagnosed themselves without consulting a healthcare professional. Also check whether they are scheduled to have any surgical procedures.