What Is the Difference Between Medication and Supplements?
Medication and dietary supplements can have similar sizes and shapes. This can lead people to think they both serve the same purpose and are under the same regulatory laws. But this is not true.
This article will explain the main differences between medication and dietary supplements. Read on to learn more.
What Is a Medication?
A drug is a substance that acts on the body and affects its functioning. They can be used to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent diseases.1
Medication (also called medicine) is a pharmaceutical product designed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or relieve symptoms of a condition. It is a finished dosage form that contains the drug. 1
At some point in life, everyone needs to take medication. And as you may have noticed, there are several forms available, like capsules, pills, syrups, injections, etc. 1
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates human drugs (prescription and over-the-counter). New drugs must be FDA approved before they are marketed. This means the company must demonstrate that the product is safe and effective for its intended use. Manufacturers must also prove that they are able to make the drug product according to federal quality standards.2
When a drug receives FDA approval, it means its benefits outweigh the risks for its intended use.2 But adverse events can always occur. Therefore, it is important to consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication.
What Are Dietary Supplements?
You've probably already taken dietary supplements or at least know someone who has. But do you know exactly what they are?
The FDA defines a dietary supplement as “a product intended for ingestion that, among other requirements, contains a "dietary ingredient" intended to supplement the diet.”3
Dietary supplements can contain vitamins, minerals, herbs and other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and live microbials, and many other ingredients. 3 They come in various forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, powders, drinks, and energy bars. 3
Products sold as dietary supplements must include the term “dietary supplement” or equivalent on the label. The label must also contain a list of the active ingredients, the amount per serving, and other ingredients such as fillers and flavorings. 3
Usually, the manufacturer suggests the serving size. But your healthcare provider may suggest a different amount based on your needs.4
Are Dietary Supplements Effective?
Popular supplements include vitamins D and B12, minerals like calcium and iron, herbs such as echinacea, probiotics, and fish oils. 4
These products can help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients.3 They can be particularly helpful for those unable to eat healthily or have health conditions affecting how their bodies absorb nutrients from food.
That said, dietary supplements can improve overall health and help manage certain conditions. For example:4
- Calcium and vitamin D keep bones strong and help reduce bone loss.
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid) decreases the risk of congenital disabilities.
- Omega-3 protects against heart disease.
The FDA does not determine if dietary supplements are safe or effective before they are available for consumers. So, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before taking them.3
Are Dietary Supplements Safe?
The active ingredients in dietary supplements can have varied effects on the body. As we said earlier, the FDA does not test dietary supplements for safety. Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products meet safety standards.3,4
Many people believe that because they are natural products, dietary supplements don’t cause adverse events. But this is not true. Some supplements can increase the risk of bleeding or change your response to anesthesia. They can also interact with some medicines, making them less effective.4
For example, vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner warfarin to prevent blood clotting.4
You can contact the manufacturer directly if you need more information about a product.3 If you think you had an adverse event after taking a dietary supplement, talk to your healthcare provider. You may also report your reaction to the manufacturer or to the FDA.4
The FDA inspects facilities that manufacture supplements periodically to check compliance to good manufacturing practices (GMPs). This helps prevent adding the wrong ingredient or adding the right ingredient in incorrect amounts, contamination, and improper packaging and labeling.4
In addition, independent organizations offer quality testing. Products that pass this test display a seal of quality assurance.4
Below is a summary of the principal differences and similarities between medication and dietary supplements:
|Used to cure, treat, or prevent diseases||
Used to supplement the diet and provide an adequate amount of nutrients to the body, with benefits to one's health.
|It has to be FDA-approved before
being marketed to consumers.
There’s no need for FDA approval; manufacturers are responsible for assuring safety and efficacy.
|It can cause adverse events and interfere with other substances or medicines.||
It can cause adverse events and interfere with other substances or medicines.
|Need medical advice before use.||Need medical advice before use.|
- National Cancer Institute. Available: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/medication. Access: 02/02/2023.
- Is It Really 'FDA Approved'? FDA, 2022. Available: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/it-really-fda-approved. Access: 02/02/2023.
- Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements. FDA, 2022. Available: https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/questions-and-answers-dietary-supplements#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20dietary%20supplement,intended%20to%20supplement%20the%20diet. Access: 02/02/2023.
- Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know. NIH, 2023. Available: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WYNTK-Consumer/. Access: 02/02/2023.