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VCU Massey Cancer Center


Supplements, vitamins, herbals and more

Written by Masey Ross, M.D., M.S., medical director of Massey’s Integrative Health Program

Beginning this month, Health in Harmony will feature information for you about supplements, vitamins, herbals and over-the-counter preparations used to support health. The information is not intended to endorse or recommend; the purpose is to educate you more fully about these products, especially if you are in treatment for cancer. We’ll introduce you to resources for more information and share some of the apps we’ve found that are reliable and based on solid evidence or research.

In the United States, supplements are extremely popular. Consumers are demanding health and wellness products more than ever, with estimates of between 77 to 86 percent of Americans using at least one type of supplement (1, 2) and spending nearly $30 billion each year on vitamins, minerals, herbal products, and other over-the-counter preparations. (3)

The Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) ability to regulate products marketed as supplements was restricted quite sharply in 1994 when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed. This piece of legislation allows manufacturers to advertise their products as “supporting” health as long as they don’t say they are for the prevention, treatment, or cure of whatever ails you. Thus, you may see a product label that claims “supports digestive health” or “supports memory.” The problem is, many consumers think “support” is the same as “benefit,” when in reality it’s not. Furthermore, many supplements are derived from plants which can have variable potency and differential effects depending on the plant part. “Manufacturers can sell these products without submitting evidence of their purity, potency, safety, or efficacy.” (4) So please, buyer beware.

There is support for taking supplements for the correct reason, in the correct dose and at the correct time. Your healthcare provider – whether primary care or oncologist, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant – has the entire picture of your health history, treatments and medication history and is better informed to know when a supplement, vitamin, or mineral may support your health. If they suggest it, it’s in your best interest. For example, to boost your bone health – by reducing bone loss and improving strength - your provider may recommend you take Vitamin D and calcium. There is strong research that shows certain vitamins prevent birth defects. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for those with heart disease. (5) Overall, though, vitamins and minerals are absorbed much better when they come from the foods you eat than by pills you take. So pay good attention to your dietary habits and follow guidelines recommended by your healthcare providers.

Your takeaway: always let your health care provider know about all medicines, including supplements, vitamins, minerals, herbal products and over-the- counter preparations you are taking, in addition to prescription medicines. Some products may be hazardous in combination while others may result in your cancer treatment being less effective or even cause unwanted and/or dangerous side effects. Next month, we’ll look at Melatonin, a frequently used sleep aid. Until then, sweet dreams!

1. Council for Responsible Nutrition (2017). Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements.
Retrieved from
2. American Osteopathic Association (2019). Poll finds 86% of Americans take vitamins or supplements yet only 21% have a confirmed nutritional deficiency. Retrieved from
3. Supplements: A Scorecard (2012). Harvard Medical Publishing. Retrieved from
4. Brody, J. (2016). Studies show little benefit in supplements. The New York Times.
5. National Institutes of Health (2020). What you need to know: Dietary supplements.
Retrieved from

Massey's Integrative Health program combines cutting-edge medical care with evidence-based complementary therapies that address the physical, mental and spiritual needs of our patients. Integrative approaches can help ease treatment side affects, relieve stress and support overall well-being.

Massey does not endorse all integrative and complementary practices. We only recommend those that are known to be safe and have the potential to improve health when used alongside, and never in place of, professional medical care. All cancer patients are advised to consult with their physician before starting any integrative practice, as some may interfere with medical care.

Written by: Massey Communications Office

Posted on: November 4, 2020

Category: Prevention & control