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Dr. Diane Hood, St. Luke's Hospital

Many things to consider when deciding to take vitamins and supplements

"Which vitamins and supplements should I take?" This is one of the most common questions women ask their primary care physicians. If they're sold over-the-counter and say they can provide health benefits, they must be safe and effective, right? No.

A vitamin is a nutrient required by humans that the body cannot make in sufficient quantities and must be consumed through a healthy diet. A dietary supplement is a preparation intended to provide vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber or fatty acids.

Over-the-counter supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means the makers of supplements do not have to prove their products are safe or effective. The FDA can force a product off the market only if a supplement is proven unsafe, and that process can take years.

The first ingredient to good health is eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. Vitamins and supplements should be used only to fill in nutritional gaps.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the amount of a vitamin you need to stay healthy and avoid a nutritional deficiency. The RDA is specific to women, men and age groups. It is important to remember that if your total daily doses through your diet and vitamins/supplements are too high, you can create health problems for yourself. Specifically, vitamins A, D, E and K can build up in your body and become toxic.

Your doctor may recommend you take more than the RDA of a particular vitamin if you have a specific health problem. For most women, however, one multivitamin daily is sufficient.

When choosing a vitamin or supplement, ask yourself a few important questions: What health benefit am I trying to get by taking this? Is there medical proof it works? Do I have another health condition it would affect? Does it interact with my current medications? What is the recommended dose, and for how long should I take it? Should I take it all at once or divided throughout the day?

To protect your health, it is always best to talk with your doctor before you start taking a vitamin or supplement.

Dr. Diane Hood is a board-certified internist at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6399 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 16, 2010.