July 21, 2021
Nearly 30% of Americans are taking more supplements today compared to their pre-pandemic habits, according to a new survey by The Harris Poll.
The survey, which was conducted on the behalf of the Samueli Foundation, found that 76% of all Americans are now supplement-takers.
The biggest reasons for the increased supplement use were a desire to improve overall immunity and for protection specifically against COVID-19 – despite no studies proving that supplements can protect against the coronavirus. Other common reasons cited were a desire to have more control over personal health, to improve sleep and improve mental health.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is a catalyst for increased supplement use," said Dr. Wayne Jonas, executive director of Integrative Health Programs at the Samueli Foundation.
"Supplements – when used under the guidance of health care professionals – can be beneficial for one's health. Unfortunately, however, many people are unaware of the risks and safety issues associated with their use."
A concerning finding of the survey was that 52% of Americans taking supplements mistakenly believe that most dietary supplements have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Almost one-third of supplement-takers believe that if a supplement was dangerous, it wouldn't be allowed to be sold to the public. And less than half of those who take supplements consulted with their health care provider first before use.
"Contrary to what many believe, the FDA does not regulate supplements. In fact, many supplements are not identified as dangerous until after people are negatively affected by them," Jonas said. "There are benefits to one's health from supplements, but also risks, so I encourage anyone who is taking a supplement or thinking of taking one to discuss it with your health care provider first."
In general, there is still a lack of consistent data on the safety and effectiveness of different supplements. For example, one recent analysis linked high doses of fish oil supplements to atrial fibrillation, a dangerous heart condition. This contradicts earlier studies showing that the supplement improved cardiovascular health.
Melatonin, which is used as a sleep aid, is another supplement on which little research has been conducted, especially on possible long-term effects. It is also not clear what the safest dosage would be for different age groups or the best time to take it.
Because supplements aren't heavily regulated in the U.S., not all ingredients are required to be listed on the labeling, making it difficult for consumers to identify potentially harmful components. Some studies have also found that dietary supplements can be contaminated with heavy metals, bacteria and fungus.
According to the survey, another concern with their use is the potential interactions between prescription medications and supplements. Forty-six Americans taking prescription medications say they didn't discuss with their doctor what supplements they were taking when given a script for medicine.
It's not that there isn't a desire to have this discussions with their health care provider though, the survey results show. A majority of those polled said they would be comfortable talking to their doctor about their supplement usage.
However 41% of the supplement-takers polled said it just didn't occur to them to start the conversation and 35% said they didn't think their doctor cared about their supplement use.
Another 32% said that they didn't think their health care providers were knowledgeable enough about supplements to advise them. Some supplement-takers are also concerned that their doctor would judge them based on the supplements they are taking.
"As more people begin taking supplements, we need to be sure that they have the information needed to make informed and healthy decisions," Jonas said. "My obligation, as a physician, is to help patients understand which supplements can play a safe and effective part of their overall health and well-being goals. The good news is that patients are willing to discuss this topic, but it is up to providers to ask."
The online survey conducted in June 2021 included responses from more than 2,000 U.S. adults.