A survey by The Harris Poll shows that since the pandemic, nearly three in 10 Americans have initiated or increased their use of supplements, bringing the percentage of daily supplement users to more than 75% of adults.

The poll also revealed an alarming level of misinformation and ignorance about the benefits and dangers of nutritional supplements, which should be a signal to physicians that we need to better monitor their use as part of our commitment to promoting our patients’ health.

Among the poll’s main findings:

  • Two-thirds of those who increased their use of supplements cited a desire to boost their overall immunity (57%) and protect themselves from COVID-19 (36%). Other common reasons cited were to take their health into their own hands (42%) and to improve their sleep (41%) and their mental health (34%).
  • More than half of Americans taking supplements (52%) mistakenly believe that most have been declared safe and effective by the FDA. Nearly one-third of supplement-takers (32%) think if a supplement was potentially dangerous, it would not be allowed to be sold in the US.
  • Fewer than half (47%) report that they consulted with their healthcare provider before using supplements. Further, 46% of those currently taking prescription medicines say they have not discussed with their providers any potential negative interactions with supplements.

Our patients are taking a vast array of substances at widely varying dosages. We know that some vitamins, supplements, and other treatments can be safe and effective, but they also can be dangerous and disrupt the function of prescribed treatments.

The good news in the survey is that 80% of all adults said they would be comfortable talking to their doctors about supplements and believe it is important to do so. Yet, more than two-thirds of supplement users say that it had not occurred to them to discuss it with their providers, or that they don’t think providers are interested enough or qualified enough to talk about supplements.

We hope these findings can be a wake-up call to providers about the value of having conversations with their patients about supplement use. In my practice, I try to do much more than simply ask the patient “What’s the matter?” Instead, I will ask, “What really matters to you?” This question often elicits revealing responses about what my patients really seek in terms of physical, mental, and social well-being, along with their goals for diet, exercise, and sleep.

Frequently, these conversations lead me to engage patients on the potential value of alternative and complementary practices. Patients benefit from knowledge of supplements that restore depleted levels of vitamins and minerals and can sometimes reduce the use of pain or sleep medications, among other benefits. We can also urge care in making sure they are purchasing reputable brands and using proper dosages.

Our survey shows that patients are willing to talk, engage in self-care, and will listen. In fact, about 40% said they have changed their use of supplements based on conversations with providers. Let’s have more of those conversations.