I’ve been a little sick lately, and I’ve been taking some different medicines and supplements. I’m feeling better, which is great! But I am kind of curious about how I got to this point–sometimes, medicine feels like magic to me. I’m curious: what is the difference between a medicine and a supplement? Why do I have to go to the pharmacist for some things, while I can just buy other stuff at a convenience store? I’m particularly curious about whether or not supplements are actually proven. Are they tested and approved? If not, then why are they freely available in the way that they are (if they were dangerous, I’d assume they’d be harder to get, not easier)? Experts, can you break this down for me?
We certainly can!
Being as healthy as possible means doing a lot of different things besides taking medicine when you’re sick. As we’re sure you know, a healthy lifestyle includes a healthy diet, frequent exercise, regular visits to the doctor, and a host of other good daily decisions and habits. Supplements, natural medicines, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications all have a role to play in our health. They play different roles, though, and they are regulated differently by our government.
Let’s start with medicine. A medicine is defined as a substance used to treat a disease. That’s the dictionary definition, but it’s pretty close to our relevant legal definitions, too: the idea of a medicine is that it’s supposed to fix something that is actively wrong with our health. Our government regulates medicines pretty carefully through the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. Research and trials are regulated by law, and medicines must be proven to be effective and reasonably safe before they can be put on the market.
Medicines are further divided between “over-the-counter” medicines, which you can buy without a prescription, and prescription medications, which you’ll need a doctor’s okay to get. Generally speaking, the medicines that are available over the counter are old, long-proven treatments for common ailments. Medicines that are newer and designed for more serious and less common ailments tend to be prescription medications. Medicines that can be easily abused are also more likely to be prescription medications (some over-the-counter medicines can also be abused, of course, and there are laws to limit the purchase of some non-prescription drugs).
So what about supplements? Well, it’s a very broad category. Generally speaking, supplements do not claim to specifically cure illnesses. However, there are plenty of supplements that do help with specific ailments. For instance, Tremor Miracle is a dietary supplement that offers treatment for essential tremors by addressing root causes. Other supplements, like multivitamins, simply provide our bodies with things we need in order to be healthy. Others may encourage sleep or help us stay awake. The line may seem blurry, and that’s because it is: supplements can give our bodies a boost or a push in the right direction by supplying us with nutrients, vitamins, and other substances. They can work like medicines in some ways. The only true difference is that supplements do not claim to cure underlying conditions directly with drugs.
So are supplements safe? For the most part, yes. The FDA does not regulate supplements as strictly as it does medicines, but there are regulations in place, and the FDA can remove unsafe supplements from the market. You should be safe as long as you do not excessively combine supplements. Of course, you should always talk to your doctor about any supplements you want to take before you start taking them.
“It is health that is true wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” — Mahatma Gandhi