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5 health products that are worth the money (and 5 that aren’t)

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Supplements can sound like a quick, convenient way to get nutrients your diet might be short on. But don’t pull out your wallet until you hear what experts think.
Written by Hallie Levine
Updated on October 10, 2022

Doesn’t it seem that more people than ever are taking some kind of vitamin or supplement? It’s not just your imagination. Almost 60% of American adults use at least 1 dietary supplement.

That adds up to a big chunk of change. In 2021, Americans spent close to $50 billion on vitamins and dietary supplements. But did they get their money’s worth? Unfortunately, a lot of the time the answer is no.

We asked experts for 5 supplements they think are worth buying — and 5 they think you should leave on the shelves. Remember, though, what supplements you choose depends on your own health and health goals. You should always talk to your doctor about anything you’re thinking of taking.

Stock up on all your health essentials, including vitamins, supplements, cold medication, first-aid supplies and more at the Optum Store.

Supplements to consider

Vitamin D

You might know D as the “sunshine vitamin.” Your body produces it naturally when sunlight hits your skin. We must not be getting out much, because research shows that over 40% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.

“Almost everyone could benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement,” says Arielle Levitan, MD. She’s an internal medicine doctor in Highland Park, Illinois. She recommends between 800 and 2,000 IUs of vitamin D a day for most of her patients.

Supplements are especially important for people who may not get enough of the vitamin. That includes those who are overweight, have dark skin or have intestinal diseases. Certain digestive issues prevent people from absorbing enough D from food.

Magnesium

This mineral is important for several processes in the body, among them improving how well the cells in your muscles perform. That means it may help with body aches and tiredness, says Dr. Levitan. Research shows that magnesium can also help with migraines and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also lower your blood pressure. Most people need between 100 and 300 milligrams daily, she says.

Vitamin B12

Your body needs B12 to make red blood cells and DNA. If that sounds important, it’s because it is. Dr. Levitan says she sees B12 deficiency in people who don’t eat a lot of meat. If that describes you, the vitamin might be worth adding to your routine. (Again, check with your doctor before you take any supplement.)

Dr. Levitan also recommends B12 for people over 60. Older adults often have a harder time absorbing B12 from foods. Other good candidates: people who have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and take an acid-blocking medication to control it. Most people need between 250 and 1,000 micrograms a day, Dr. Levitan says.

Recommended reading: Common signs you are deficient in minerals and vitamins.

Omega-3s

Omega-3s are a group of fatty acids that your body can’t make on its own. And since they’re a health powerhouse, you may want to make sure you get enough of them. How do they help? Well, for starters, a June 2022 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that consuming about 3 grams of omega-3s every day reduced blood pressure. That’s why Dr. Levitan often recommends them for people who are at risk for heart disease.

They’re also anti-inflammatory, so she suggests them for arthritis sufferers. Research shows they can also help with memory and brain health. And they may improve depression and anxiety, she says.

Probiotics

If you’ve struggled with digestive symptoms, you’ve no doubt been pointed toward probiotics. They’re closely linked to good gut health. And some promising research suggests they can help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

That all sounds pretty good, right? But what we don’t know is which of the hundreds of probiotic products out there actually work, says Dr. Levitan. There are different strains of bacteria and different combinations of those strains. It’s all too easy to choose something that won’t work for you. Try a product that has published research behind it, says Dr. Levitan. Two that do are Align® and Florastor®.

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Supplements to skip

Vitamin A

Maybe you’ve heard that supplementing with vitamin A, also called retinol, helps prevent heart disease or cancer. Not so, said the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) after reviewing the evidence. Instead, vitamin A has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease. Perhaps this isn’t a supplement to spend your money on. (Besides, it’s easy to get enough vitamin A from our food, Dr. Levitan says.)

Vitamin E

The same report from the USPSTF found that vitamin E isn’t helpful in heading off heart disease or cancer either. And some research suggests that it can raise your risk of having a stroke. Until more is known, you may want to pass on this supplement.

Multivitamins

Your body may not need every vitamin that’s packed into each pill. So that’s basically a waste of money because those nutrients go unused, says Emma Laing, PhD, RDN. She’s the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia.

Taking a multivitamin might seem to be a smart “one and done” supplement. But Laing points out that it really depends on your specific needs and the brand’s specific mixture. Multivitamins “tend to provide considerable amounts of some things, like B and C,” she says. “Yet they often lack certain minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium.”

According to the USPSTF, there’s not enough evidence to say that a multivitamin helps prevent heart disease or cancer.

Vitamin C

Mega doses of vitamin C have been touted to boost immunity. But the amount you’d need to prevent a cold is so immense that it can cause side effects. You could experience nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain, says David Foreman, RPh. He’s a pharmacist in Tampa, Florida, who runs the website The Herbal Pharmacist. It would also cost a lot to buy that much.

CBD (cannabidiol)

This derivative of marijuana has been touted to do everything from relieve pain to improve sleep. But Foreman says most CBD products contain between 5 and 25 milligrams in a dose. Research shows that you really need 200 to 600 milligrams a day for it to be effective. That would be costly and would come with the risk of unpleasant side effects. You could expect symptoms such as diarrhea, sleepiness and feeling lightheaded, he says.

The bottom line: Those supplement pills, powders, capsules and gummies can seem appealing if you’re looking to improve your health. But do your homework before you commit. That includes looping in your doctor. He or she can help you figure out what might actually help you and what’s just a hit to your wallet.

No matter how you manage your health, Optum Perks wants to help you save at the pharmacy. Here’s how it works.

Additional sources:
Stats on supplements: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Vitamin D deficiency: Cureus (2018). “Prevalence of Vitamin D Deficiency and Associated Risk Factors in the US Population”
Magnesium and migraine: American Migraine Foundation
Benefits of Omega-3s: Journal of the American Heart Association
Benefits of probiotics: Food & Function Journal (2016). “Cardiovascular benefits of probiotics: a review of experimental and clinical studies”
Multivitamins: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force