Do I Really Need an Ashwagandha Supplement?

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It’s an interesting experience going to the supplement section of stores. Along with the multivitamins, minerals, and fish oils, you can find a wide variety of nutritional and herbal supplements, all with a specific purpose to improve health. Some names are familiar, like cranberry, oregano, and echinacea, but others are a little more exotic, like ashwagandha. Is it important to take dietary supplements, and are they safe?

Dietary supplements are different from prescription medications in that they are not required by law to be tested for safety or effectiveness. Supplement makers may choose to have their products third-party tested, but this is not as thorough as a clinical trial for a medication. Supplements are considered a food product, which is why they don’t require regulation, but they are often sold alongside medicines. The lack of oversight allows supplement makers to possibly exaggerate their product’s ability, have doses that may not be safe, or not even contain the product it claims to be. Numerous reports have come out over the past few decades of certain dietary supplements having misleading labels, and some have even caused death.

Consumers should be cautious when considering taking a dietary supplement. One of the biggest misconceptions about supplements is that they are safe because they are natural, but just because something is natural does not make it safe. For example, amygdalin is a naturally occurring compound in apple seeds, apricot kernels, and other fruit pits that contains cyanide. When it is consumed, digestion frees the cyanide, and too much of it can lead to cyanide poisoning. This is one reason why it is typically not recommended to eat apple seeds or other parts of fruits that contain a large amount of amygdalin. There are currently no regulations for the term “natural” in food products and supplements; keep in mind it is not synonymous with “safe” or “healthy.”

Supplements have the potential to interact with medications or foods, and can cause side effects, just like prescription medications can. If you are considering taking a supplement, research from a reputable source the possible interactions it may have, what side effects it can cause, and any other precautions indicated. The Office of Dietary Supplements website ( is a great research-based resource. Always inform your doctor if you are taking dietary supplements. This information helps him give you the best care. Incidentally, the health-promoting quality of supplements is due to the fact that they are, or are parts of, food. Before buying a supplement, think about why it is you want to take it, and if you can get the same effect from a slight change in diet. Whole foods contain more good-for-you nutrients than supplements, so you get additional benefits from choosing food over capsules.

Nutrition and health are a great concern to most people. It may be tempting to use supplements, especially when you hear stories of people taking many supplements and reversing diseases or not needing medications. Keep in mind that these are highly atypical cases; there could be other contributing factors at work in the person’s life. Eating a well-balanced diet and being physically active are the safest, and most economical, way to go.

Written By: Alyssa Wassil, Dietetic Intern, Lenoir-Rhyne University