If you take supplements, you’ll want to read this
If you occasionally pop the 5-milligram melatonin tablet every now and then, you’re not alone. According to the Sleep Foundationjust under a quarter of adults take melatonin as a sleep aid, ea small number of children and adolescents take melatonin even when they can’t sleep.
As far as sleep aids go, melatonin is generally thought of as a more natural way to cope with the occasional sleepless night, since it’s still a hormone that we produce naturally in our brains. Recently, however, the researchers watched at 25 different brands of melatonin gummies and found that 22 of them were mislabeled, a sample size that suggests that about 90 percent of melatonin supplements do not contain the amount of melatonin they claim to include.
Some of the discrepancies in the study results were disturbing but not entirely insane: For example, one brand contained only 74 percent of the amount of melatonin it claimed to contain. Other labeling inconsistencies were more alarming, with one brand containing 347 percent of the claimed amount of melatonin and another containing 31.3 milligrams of CBD but no detectable melatonin.
These numbers are frightening, especially for parents who can give their children melatonin from time to time to help them sleep. They also point out that the supplements aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so supplement manufacturers aren’t required to share the exact amounts of what each supplement contains. This means that it can be difficult to figure out exactly how many of certain nutrients are actually in your supplements (if any).
Why most US adults (and a third of children) take dietary supplements, we asked doctors to share their best tips for figuring out what’s actually in all those supplements lining the aisles of your local drugstore. Here’s what they had to say:
Make third-party verification labels your best friend.
While the FDA doesn’t approve supplements, third-party verification labels — the most common being the US Pharmacopeia (USP) — will let you know that a supplement has had some level of testing.
“USP tests to make sure the product contains what’s on the label in the same amount and potency and that it doesn’t contain any contaminants,” said Dr. Jeff Chen, CEO and co-founder of Radicle Science. “They also run tests to make sure the product breaks down and is absorbed by the body. They verify that the product was manufactured under current FDA Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well-controlled procedures and that the supplement will be produced with consistent quality from batch to batch.
There are other verification and third-party testing companies like The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), Clean Label Project, and the USDA Certified Organic Label, Chen added, noting that some types of supplements have specific certification.
“For example, fish oils have International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS), a set of quality standards that analyze the specific purity and accuracy of fish oils,” he said.
Check for randomized controlled trials.
If you’re willing to do a little more leg work, it can be helpful to check whether the supplements you’re thinking about buying have been subjected to randomized controlled trials or RCTs, according to Chen.
“When I look at supplements, I only look at those that are evidence-based and provide a plausible mechanism of action, which means it makes sense that the supplement could work as well as it claims,” Chen said. “To that end, they need to be tested for safety and efficacy, with at least one RCT on the finished product.”
Consumers may look for supplements that say “clinically tested,” but it’s important to review the fine print. You want to look for key terms from a rigorous, gold standard study, including phrases like “placebo,” “blinded,” and “randomized” in the explanations. The RCT should also be large-scale, Chen added, meaning it uses a minimum of 200 people to ensure the results are statistically valid and not random.
“The trial should ideally be conducted on a relevant population of Americans, inclusive of many genders and ethnicities,” he said. “That’s because most clinical trials in America have studied only Caucasian males, and many clinical trials are conducted in India, whose population genetics, lifestyle, and environment don’t resemble ours.”
Watch out for allergies and check expiration dates.
Feeling confident about what’s in your supplement is only one piece of the puzzle, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic in California. To make sure your supplements are safe and effective, it’s important to check allergens and expiration dates as well.
“When shopping for supplements, read the ingredients,” Trinh said. “If you have any allergies or medical conditions, it’s important to check the label for any contraindications. You should also make sure you are aware of the recommended dosage and follow it closely. Taking too much of a supplement can be harmful, and taking too little may not have the desired effect.
Finally, do not take expired supplements. “Expired supplements may not be effective and may even be harmful,” she said.
Remember that it’s best to get your nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet.
While dietary supplements can be helpful in making up for any nutritional deficiencies, Trinh said she always tells her patients to seek out food first when trying to get needed vitamins and minerals.
“In general, I believe it’s best to get nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet, but there are some situations where supplements can be helpful, such as for people who are deficient in certain nutrients, have a medical condition that affects absorption of nutrients, or are following a specific dietary pattern that may be deficient in some nutrients,” Trinh said. “The supplements I recommend to my patients vary according to individual needs and health goals.”
And in the case of melatonin, well, it’s always a good idea to practice good sleep hygiene before you indulge in it, but if you have to, make sure it’s been sufficiently tested and researched.
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