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Should you take supplements?

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 2:59 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:51 p.m. CDT

Doctors for USA WEEKEND

Recent news and research about vitamins and supplements can be confusing: One recent study, for example, said low levels of vitamin D may damage the brain, and higher levels of D have been linked a reduced risk of certain cancers. Yet a new research review found little health benefit from taking vitamin D supplements.

Multivitamins made headlines as well: Based on findings from three studies, a group of experts said that using multivitamins to prevent a chronic condition is a waste of money for well-nourished adults.

Supplements aren't meant to substitute whole foods; we should get our nutrition through our diet, but even a person who eats well can become deficient in micronutrients, says Dr. Jennifer Ashton, recurring co-host on The Doctors and board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist. Plus, every person is unique, adds recurring co-host and urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman: Depending on your age and lifestyle, and if you have a particular ailment or other factors, you might benefit from a supplement.

Here are a few guidelines to consider; but before adding any vitamins or supplements to your regimen, talk to your doctor.

Supplements can help replenish certain deficiencies.

Older adults are often low in B12, Dr. Ashton says. People with disorders that lower nutrient absorption, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, may need iron or folate. Folic acid supplements are also recommended for women before and during pregnancy. Other examples: Older, postmenopausal women may benefit from calcium supplements, says Dr. Berman; vegans or strict vegetarians might consider a multivitamin, Ashton adds.

More is not better.

Any vitamins taken in too-high doses can lead to problems. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and E, are stored in the body for longer periods of time and tend to pose a greater risk for toxicity. Too much vitamin A can cause nausea, headaches or even coma; excess vitamin E can thin your blood, raising your risk of bleeding. And overdoing it on zinc may lead to stomach cramps and diarrhea, and it might affect levels of good cholesterol.

Cross-check drugs and supplements.

It's important to make sure there are no potentially dangerous interactions, Dr. Ashton suggests. Zinc may interfere with antibiotics, for example; St. John's Wort can decrease the effectiveness of common anxiety drugs and birth control pills, as well as many other serious drug interactions.

The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon, health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels and psychologist Wendy Walsh. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.

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