Among the less-noted consequences of COVID-19, many Americans have become more health-conscious than ever and more aware of the value of self-care. A new national survey by The Harris Poll shows that since the pandemic, nearly 3 in 10 Americans have initiated or increased their use of supplements, bringing the percentage of daily supplement users to more than 75 percent of the adult population.

But the poll also revealed an alarming level of misinformation and ignorance about the benefits and dangers of these nutritional supplements, a finding that should be a signal to physicians that we need to do a better job in monitoring their use as part of our commitment to promoting the health of our patients.

 

Americans’ Increasing Use of Supplements

As a practitioner for more than 40 years, I have become a strong believer in the benefits of a whole person, integrative health approach that combines conventional medicine with evidence-based complementary and alternative therapies and self-care. That’s why we at Samueli Foundation commissioned a Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in June 2021 to assess the ramifications of the increasing role of supplements in the Covid landscape.

Among our 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 dietary supplements available for purchase have been declared safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. Nearly one-third of supplement-takers (32%) also think if a supplement was potentially dangerous, it would not be allowed to be sold in the U.S.
  • Fewer than half (47%) report that they consulted with their health care provider before using supplements, despite national guidelines that strongly recommend doing so. Further, 46% of those currently taking prescription medicines say they have not discussed with their providers any potential negative interactions with supplements.

Our patients – often without our knowledge – are taking a vast array of substances at widely varying dosages: fish oil, glucosamine and/or chondroitin, probiotics and prebiotics, melatonin, Coenzyme Q10, echinacea, cranberry extract, garlic supplements, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and many, many more. 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 prescription blood thinners, corticosteroids, heart medications, and other treatments.  

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An Opportunity to Be a Part of the Conversation

The good news in the survey is that 80 percent of all adults said they would be comfortable talking to their doctors about supplements, and believe it is important to do so. Yet the barriers to these conversations remain high: 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 that these findings can be a wake-up call to providers about the value of having conversations with their patients about supplement use. This is an important element of good health care – to actively partner with patients to prevent disease, to relieve their chronic pain, and most importantly, give them the tools and confidence to improve their own health.

 

Guiding Our Patients

In my practice, I try to do much more than simply asking the patient “What’s the matter?”  Instead, by getting to know the whole person, 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 including yoga, massage, acupuncture, mindfulness, biofeedback, and more, such as herbal remedies and supplements. 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 patients need us to guide and encourage them on the path to health. Our survey shows that they are quite willing to talk and engage in self-care and that they will listen. In fact, about 40 percent said they have changed their use of supplements based on conversations with providers. Let’s have more of those conversations.

I hope our survey serves as an eye-opener for physicians. Most of our patients are taking supplements, often without full knowledge of what they are doing. Many don’t mention this to us. It’s up to us to initiate these conversations.