If you’ve had a stroke or heart attack, or are at risk of having one, your doctor has likely prescribed you medication to help manage the condition. They’ve done so by combining years of experience with thoughtful and diligent consideration of your unique needs, health history, personal circumstances, and of course, any other medications you might be taking.
As tempting as it may be to alter that treatment regimen as you see fit, it could pose real danger to your health. If you’re considering adding medications, vitamins or supplements to your routine, it’s always best to run it past your doctor first.
Here’s what you need to know before you consider taking a supplement.
The Benefits of Heart Supplements Rarely Outweigh the Risks
Clinical trials conducted by John Hopkins Medicine revealed that heart supplements do not reduce a patient’s risk of heart disease. In fact, they could do more harm than good.
“Your body chemistry is very much based on your diet and anything else you’re ingesting,” said Abigail Witthuhn, Advanced Practice Clinician with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Supplements really can wreak havoc on your system. I can’t tell you how many times the use of a heart supplement has created blood clotting issues for patients, putting them at increased risk of bleeding. They can cause very serious complications if people aren’t careful.”
Even simple, widely used, over-the-counter medications – such as a daily aspirin or cough syrup – could pose problems. Witthuhn gave the example of a water pill, something most individuals would consider harmless.
“If I prescribe a certain kind of water pill to a patient, and they decide to change which water pill they’re taking or how they’re taking it, there may be just enough differences between them to cause significant issues,” she said. “Even worse, the issues may not be noticeable to the patient until they become severe, or even life threatening.”
Heart Supplements Don’t Require FDA Approval
While research does support potential benefits of supplements like omega-3 or fish oil capsules for reducing the risk of a heart attack, even that can be a grey area.
Unlike medications, supplements don’t have a federally-recognized quality and purity measure. Therefore, the FDA doesn’t perform the same kinds of detailed studies on vitamins and supplements that are required for medications. The only saving grace are non-government funded approvals administered by groups like the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or ConsumerLab.
“If I have patients who are taking supplements for anything, I recommend they look for that seal because it at least gives me confidence the supplement contains what it says it does,” said Witthuhn. “That’s one of the biggest dangers I see with supplements – the dosage can vary from capsule to capsule.”
Your Provider is Here to Help
With any kind of supplement, vitamin or medication, one size doesn’t fit all.
“People may assume that just because a friend or relative is benefitting from a supplement, they will have the same experience,” said Witthuhn. “But there are so many variables that can impact a person’s reaction, from their medical history to other medications they may be taking.”
Your doctor, and even your pharmacist, are great resources for determining if a supplement will provide any added benefit to your health.
On a related note, if a patient stops taking a medication or supplement recommended by their doctor, they should let that provider know.
“Patients need to have open, honest communication with their provider to ensure they can receive the safest, most efficient treatment for their specific situation,” said Witthuhn. “We aren’t here to judge your decisions; we just want to take the best possible care of you that we can, and that starts with everyone being on the same page.”
Above All, Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
It’s never too late to start practicing a healthier lifestyle, including finding a primary care physician, having regular checkups, and participating in recommended preventive screenings. Talk to your doctor about your diet, lifestyle, and the importance of routinely checking your blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, blood sugar and body mass index.
Choosing foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium can make a big difference in how you feel and reduce your risk for heart-related illness and stroke. A healthy diet should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish (preferably oily fish) at least twice per week, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, and if you’re going to eat red meat, choose the leanest cuts possible.
“Cutting down on alcohol and fast food, eating home-cooked meals, giving up tobacco use and exercising regularly can all make a big difference in your heart health,” said Witthuhn. “It’s important to remember, the more essential nutrients you incorporate directly into your diet, the less likely you are to need supplements in the first place.”
Wondering if a supplement is right for you? Our heart specialists are here for you. Learn more about our personal approach, expertise and treatment options.