Tell your doctor about your dietary supplements

Amy Higgins

Filling out forms at the doctor's office is time-consuming and maybe a bit intimidating. From habits to health history, you're asked to disclose everything. So when your doctor wants to know what medications and supplements you're using, you can't help but wonder whether it's really necessary you divulge it all, especially if what you're taking is "all natural." Yet you need to disclose these nutritional supplements, experts say. In fact, it's risky not to.

No discussion may mean repercussions

About one in every three adults uses some form of complementary and alternative medicine, according to the National Center For Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Examples include creatine supplements, herbal supplements and mineral supplements.

The AARP and NCCAM teamed up in October 2010 to conduct a telephone survey to find out whether Americans over 50 discuss the use of complementary and alternative medicines with their health care providers. Using a random sample of 1,013 people 50 and older, the survey showed 53 percent reported using complementary and alternative medicines at some point in their lives. Of that group, more than 40 percent said they had not discussed them with their doctors.

They might be all-natural, but supplements and alternative medicines are not always harmless. They can interact with other drugs your doctor prescribes, according to NCCAM. Therefore, communication is vital to ensure that your doctor can take your supplements into account before diagnosis and treatment.

For example, in an August 2010 article, Consumer Reports medical adviser Dr. Orly Avitzur recalled seeing a 44-year-old patient who complained about headaches and muscle cramps. Avitzur was surprised to see his patient's lab work showed an elevated muscle enzyme level, and it was only then that he was able to determine the patient was taking creatine supplements. The patient hadn't thought to disclose it.

The point is, supplements may appear so harmless that you forget to tell your doctor about them. However, if their effectiveness and safety haven't been studied long-term, you could be harming your body. In 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory warning that kava-containing dietary supplements (used to relieve stress) could cause severe liver injury.

NCCAM suggests doing the following to make sure you're communicating with your health care providers:

  • Make a list of all the supplements you're taking. Bring it with you when you visit the doctor, and add everything from the list to the patient history form your doctor asks you to fill out.
  • Don't wait for your doctor to ask you about any nutritional supplements you're taking. Bring them up yourself.
  • If you're thinking of adding a new supplement to your regimen, ask your doctor first. Ask whether it will interact with any medicines (prescription and over-the-counter) that you're already taking.

Insurance coverage for supplements

Despite the fact that they can bring about adverse reactions and interactions with other drugs, alternative medicines can be beneficial. In fact, your doctor may suggest you look into using them, along with other alternative treatments like acupuncture. Just don't expect your health insurance to cover them.

CIGNA and Aetna list numerous dietary and nutritional supplements and alternative treatments on their websites that they won't cover, including hypnosis, yoga and megavitamin therapy. Both insurance providers state that the treatments they exclude are considered experimental and investigational -- and therefore not proven to be effective. Aetna, for example, defines alternative therapies as those "based on no common or consistent ideology, therapy of illness, or treatment."