When you step into the pharmacy, you will see rows and rows of all kinds of bottled wonders. Some claim to boost your immune system, others promise to give you clear skin, or help you shed unwanted kilos. Yes, we are talking about dietary supplements. Although about a third of the Malaysian population are said to take supplements regularly, how many of us really know about these pharmaceutical marvels?

Here are five basic but important things to consider before you pop those pills.

Do they even work?
Generally speaking, yes. Many studies have already established the benefits of dietary supplements, such as helping you get adequate essential nutrients, and better manage pain or existing medical conditions. Antioxidants like vitamin C have a protective effect against free radicals, while expectant mothers know folic acid plays an important role in the prevention of neural tube defects in unborn babies. What’s important for every consumer is this – find out as much as you can (not just the potential benefits) and always make informed decisions.

Check with your doctor first.
Start by consulting a healthcare professional who knows your medical history. It’s important to discuss your options thoroughly, since a supplement’s safety and effectiveness often depend on your specific health condition. Here are some questions you should ask: Are there safety issues I should know? What is the proper dose? How, when, and for how long should I take it?

What’s the combination?
While supplements are generally good for you, many have active ingredients that can cause unwanted consequences. Taken in combination with other medication, supplements can trigger horrible side effects or increase your risk of bleeding. If taken before surgery, they can also alter your response to anaesthesia. For example, vitamin K and gingko are known to affect blood clotting, while St. John’s wort can reduce the effectiveness of certain antidepressants, birth control pills, and even heart medications.

It’s cheaper online!
Did you find a fantastic online deal for your favourite vitamin? That’s great! Just make sure you’re buying from verified shops and pharmacies and only purchase products that have been approved by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA): these carry the NPRA holographic sticker and come with a unique Malaysian registration number. Don’t buy something just because it’s cheap: if the product has not been approved, it may do you more harm than good.

Sounds too good to be true? It probably is.
If something claims to be a miracle cure for cancer, don’t be so quick to believe. Tread with caution and a little suspicion. Even if a supplement has proven safe and effective, never replace actual medication with it, or attempt to be your own doctor. Remember – no supplement can substitute professional medical treatment.

Information sourced from: The Malaysian Dietary Supplement Association, Medical Journal of Malaysia, US Food and Drug Administration, The National Institutes of Health UK, Penn Medicine