Drugs vs. Supplements: What’s the Difference?

How much do you know about the supplements and drugs you're taking?

Your regular doctor suggests taking a supplement to improve your overall health. And then your specialist recommends a completely different combination of drugs and supplements.

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed. Which one’s right for you?

Navigating the Maze

As you sort through the options, one question is particularly important to answer: What’s the difference between a drug and a supplement?

The big difference between the two is how they’re viewed – and handled – by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Defining Drugs

Drugs are tested by the FDA. They’re defined as substances intended to diagnose, treat or prevent disease. Medications must pass clinical trials before being released to the public and the tests need to prove each drug is safe, performing just as the manufacturer claims. After these trials, your doctor can prescribe the drug to you.

The general rule is drugs are considered unsafe until they’re proven safe.

Defining Supplements

Supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), the FDA treats supplements like food and the DSHEA defines supplements as “products taken orally for supplementing the diet.” Supplements can include minerals, vitamins or other natural biological substances and they’re available in a variety of shapes and sizes, including concentrates, extracts, capsules, tablets, liquids and powders.

Keep in mind, herbs and vitamins don’t have to be tested for safety. Self-regulated by the manufacturer, no proof is required to demonstrate their effectiveness.

The general rule for supplements is they’re considered safe until they’re proven unsafe.

Dangers and Due Diligence

Once a supplement causes some kind of health problem, the FDA steps in. Their duty is to prove the supplement poses a health threat, which is difficult to accomplish, meaning suspect supplements can remain on shelves for years.

You should complete thorough research before taking any supplement and always practice caution when mixing drugs and supplements. It’s extremely risky to assume that, since a supplement is “all natural,” it doesn’t cause adverse effects. Many drugs and supplements interact poorly with each other and can negatively impact your health. Be sure to consult your physician before taking anything over the counter…better to be safe than sorry.

Image Source: iStock