Are you one of the millions of Americans who currently take one or more dietary supplements and are also on prescription medication? In today’s world, the likelihood of taking both dietary supplements and drugs are quite high: studies show that about 50% of Americans use a complementary therapy like foods, herbs or vitamins and minerals. And that may underestimate the reality. Many folks are not very forthcoming about their supplement use when talking with healthcare providers. Consequently, the actual numbers of those who take both supplements and their prescription medications are still unknown.

Herbs, vitamins, minerals and amino acids are nutritional supplements that support the function or structure of the body; they should be taken along with a healthy diet. These substances are regulated by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) although rules of their formulation and sale are not the same as prescription medications. Both the FDA and the FTC can stop the marketing of dietary supplements that make false claims or pose a danger to the American public. These agencies can also prohibit manufacturers from distributing adulterated products. Less well known is that many of the herbs on store shelves today have been under the supervision of the FDA since 1906. Subsequently, users can rely on a 100 year history of safe, effective and supervised use of herbs.

All in all, dietary supplements have an excellent record of safety. Researchers shows that that the use of dietary supplements poses only minimal risks and that interactions are not serious (Arch Intern Med. 2004 Mar 22;164(6):630-6).  In a study at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, 458 veteran outpatients were surveyed and potential supplement/drug interactions were identified. The study found that most of the interactions were insignificant. Millions of Americans are also finding this to be true.

Unfortunately, media reports of dietary supplement and drug interactions are often confusing and generally accompanied with inappropriate hysteria. Clearly, taking both supplements and multiple prescription medications simultaneously should be done cautiously. If side effects do occur, sorting out the source can be confusing and difficult. Unfortunately, the supplement  often receives the blame for ill effects when it’s much more likely the prescription medication at fault. Always check the established side effects of medications before jumping to the conclusion that an herb is causing problems.

The depletion of vital nutrients often result from taking prescriptions. For instance, statin drugs deplete the body of CoQ10 which can lower energy levels and cause of fatigue. It can also cause weight gain and compromise muscle performance. In addition, reduced levels of CoQ10 can ultimately lead to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and death.

Antibiotics such as Sulfa drugs, deplete the body of folic acid and Vitamin B12; the result can increase homocysteine levels, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reduced folic acid and B12 also contribute to anemia and fatigue and increase the incidence of some types of cancers.

Taking estrogen for a year or more can reduce vitamin B6. That may result in anemia and tiredness as well as elevated homocysteine. It can also cause depression, insomnia and nerve inflammation. In addition, estrogen therapy depletes body stores of magnesium and increases the calcium/magnesium ratio. That can lead to kidney stones and increased clotting as well as muscle spasms and contractions. Magnesium deficiency can also cause constipation, fatigue and high blood pressure. The general recommendation for women taking estrogen: 250 to 350 milligrams of magnesium daily.