Supplements Vs. Medications: Understanding The Key Differences

Supplements and medications are two products used excessively today for better health and well-being. 

And while both serve health purposes, they cannot be more different. While supplements are just extensions of dietary nutrients, medicines are chemicals specially formulated to treat and cure diseases. 

Keep reading to learn some of the major differences between the two. 

What Are Supplements?

Supplements are defined under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) as oral products that supplement the diet. Supplements aim to improve the health and wellness of an individual. 

The FDA treats supplements as food. Also, supplements are made from food but are available in non-food formats like tablets, capsules, liquids, powders, extracts, and concentrates. 

It includes minerals and vitamins meant to improve or enhance a person’s diet and fulfill the body’s nutrient requirements. They are harmless and non-addictive, and they have known medical benefits like bridging the gap caused by a lack of minerals and vitamins. However, supplements are not medicines and are not used for the treatment of any diseases. 

Also, supplements are considered safe unless proven otherwise. So they are not regulated by the FDA. They do not undergo any testing or evaluation by the FDA, nor does the FDA inspect supplement companies or look into their manufacturing practices. 

Supplement manufacturers self-regulate, so there is no need to provide evidence of their efficacy. However, many companies do pay for a third party verification to ensure the purity of their product.

Supplements can be taken after meals or during specific intervals depending on what they are made of and what affects their absorption. They are utilized when the body exhibits signs of deficiency or an imbalance of nutrients. 

The use of supplements has increased dramatically recently, with one in three Americans taking one or more supplements. It is especially popular among pregnant and lactating females and the urban and geriatric populations.


Types Of Supplements

The most common types of supplements are:

1. Minerals And Vitamins 

These are the most common types of supplements used. These include multivitamins, vitamin C, vitamin B complex, vitamin D and calcium. 

2. Specialty Supplements

This class of supplements is used when a person has a medical condition. For example, omega-3/fatty acids are used when a person has rheumatoid arthritis or low blood pressure. Other examples are probiotics, CoQ10, fiber, and glucosamine/chondroitin.

3. Herbals And Botanicals

Herbals and botanicals are natural ingredients that regularly boost immunity and provide necessary nutrients. Examples include green tea, garlic, ginseng, Echinacea, and cranberry. 

4. Sports Nutrition And Weight Management

These supplements help manage weight and provide the necessary nutrition to keep up with the exercise needs of the body. Examples include protein supplements, green coffee, energy drinks, hydration drinks, and garcinia cambogia. 

Benefits Of Taking Supplements

Among the advantages of supplements are:

  • Improve and maintain overall health
  • Meet the body’s daily requirement of essential nutrients
  • Provide high nutrient content in small volumes
  • Pure product without undesirable accompanying substances like cholesterol and fats

Risks And Precautions Of Using Supplements

Most times, the only risk associated with supplements is overuse or when supplements are used as the sole source of nutrition. 

It is important to note that supplements complement the diet and can never replace a well-balanced, healthy diet. 

Also, too much consumption of supplements can be toxic for the body and lead to severe health risks. Increasing the dosage also reduces the effectiveness of the supplements and forces the body to work harder to eliminate excess supplements in the system. 

Other risks associated with supplements are interference or reaction with medications and lab tests. 

Also, some supplements strongly affect the body and can only be taken by people of a specific age group, weight, or sex.

And while supplements are considered safe, taking high doses for long periods can lead to liver and kidney damage (protein overdose), hypervitaminosis (fat-soluble vitamin overdose), the inability to form muscle proteins (high doses of fatty acids), and more. 

As preventive measures, take supplements only after consulting with a health professional and only when necessary. It is best to get what you need from your nutritional intake. Even though they are “natural” the packaging can have preservatives and other chemicals in the capsules so read labels carefully. Also, immediately stop intake if you notice any adverse effects.

Risks And Precautions Of Using Supplements

What Are Medications?

Medicines are chemicals used to diagnose, prevent, halt, or cure diseases. They ease symptoms and maintain or improve the body’s current condition. 

Medicine can be prescription drugs or over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Prescription drugs are drugs you can obtain only if you have a prescription from a doctor, while OTC drugs do not need a doctor’s prescription. This is because prescription drugs are for major illnesses; even the smallest mistake can lead to adverse side effects. OTC drugs, on the other hand, are medications for more minor issues like pain or tropical injuries. They also, however, can have side effects.

Medicines are sourced from a wide range of substances. They can be made from plants and other natural substances, as by-products of organisms, and also by genetically engineering organisms. 

Medicines are available in many forms, like pills, capsules, liquid, powder, drops, injections, inhalers, ointments, creams, gels, and patches that are stuck on the skin. 

Medicines are strictly regulated and only sold after the FDA has approved them. Only after they have undergone rigorous testing and trials and shown positive results without any adverse side effects, does the FDA allow them to enter the market. But if the risks outweigh the benefits, the medication is not allowed to enter the market. 

Types Of Medications

Medications can be classified in many ways depending on their effect, mode of action, therapeutic use, and more. However, the most common types of medications are:

1. Antibiotic Drugs 

These drugs stop infections and cure illnesses by killing or halting germs like viruses and bacteria. Examples include medications the doctor gives for an ear infection or sore throat.

2. Cardiovascular Drugs 

These drugs treat heart disorders like chest pain, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. 

3. Stimulants

This class of drugs increases the activity of the central nervous system (CNS) and the body. Examples include drugs with sympathomimetic effects and drugs with invigorating or pleasurable effects.

4. Opiates

Opiates are substances that cause sleep or treat pain. They affect the CNS and produce morphine-like effects.

5. Antidepressants

These drugs treat depression, anxiety disorders, addiction, and pain. They affect the level of neurotransmitters in the body to bring about the desired effects. 

6. Tranquilizers 

These are drugs that calm and soothe the body. They are used to treat anxiety and insomnia.

  • Benefits Of Taking Medications

    Some of the benefits of taking medications are:

    • Cure illness 
    • Relief pain
    • Prevent and treat diseases
    • Maintain and improves body’s condition
    • Approved by FDA
    • Tested and proven for safety and effectiveness
    • Reliable ingredients 

    Risks And Precautions Of Using Medications

    Even after rigorous testing, medications still involve risks, so precautions must be taken. Some of them are:

    • Immediately stop taking your medication if you feel worse and consult your doctor
    • Follow the directions of your doctor or those given on the label
    • Double-check to make sure you have the proper medication
    • Take medicines as prescribed. Never take too much or too often than prescribed.
    • Inform your doctor about any other medicines you take and ask for possible side effects.
    • Never share prescription medicines with anyone
    • Inform your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
    • Avoid alcohol when taking medicines
    • Take the entire course of the medication and never discontinue once you start feeling better.

    Key Differences Between Supplements And Medications

    Some of the key differences between supplements and medications are:

    Ingredients And Composition

    Medicines have to list every ingredient and the composition of the drug on their Drug Facts label. These are further confirmed through quality control analysis by the FDA. 

    Supplements, however, do not require any such mention of the ingredient and the composition. They enter the market without any approval from the FDA. Due to this, some manufacturers fail to list prohibited substances or misidentify them. Choosing supplements that have been verified by a third party is prudent.

    Regulation And Safety

    The biggest difference between medicines and supplements is how the FDA regulates them. While the FDA has a comprehensive procedure for dealing with medicines right from manufacturing to packaging, it does not evaluate or test any process involved in manufacturing or packaging supplements. 

    Every medicine is examined for safety before going on the market. The FDA ensures they have minimal side effects and offer more benefits than risks. 

    Supplements, on the other hand, reach the shelves without any testing. They are only tested if they prove harmful or toxic to consumers. And until supplements are proven to be harmful, they remain on shelves. Nevertheless, comparatively supplements are very safe with a low risk profile. They can interact with each other and other medications so make sure you disclose all the supplements you are taking to your practitioner.

    Effectiveness And Efficacy

    Medicines are used to cure illnesses and diseases. When taken in the right dosage for the prescribed duration, they effectively cure the illnesses they are meant for.

    Supplements fulfill the body’s nutrient deficiencies. While not used for treating diseases, supplements help improve and maintain the body’s health.

    Dosage and Administration

    The physician prescribes the exact dosage of medicine. They decide the dose’s amount, number, and frequency and how long it is to be taken. A correct dosage regimen is important for curing illnesses and achieving the desired effect. 

    On the other hand, the dosage for supplements follows strict guidelines from the FDA. They are defined mainly by age and sex and have a recommended value, above which the supplements become toxic.

    As for the administration, medicine can be administered orally or intravenously, while supplements are mostly administered orally.

  • When To Choose Supplements Over Medications

    Supplements prove more helpful in the following health conditions:

    Chronic Conditions

    Medications are often used to treat chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. However, they have negative side effects, are expensive, and do not provide high efficiency. In addition, many lifestyle changes including optimal nutrition and supplementation can be used to treat those chronic diseases negating the need for the medication.

    Dietary and herbal supplements are safe and cost-effective options for treating chronic issues and are highly efficient. They are an additional treatment that reduces symptoms.

    Mild Symptoms

    While supplements do not offer a cure, they can be used to reduce the severity of many illnesses. These supplements help the body fight infections and recover faster. A 2021 study found that supplements were effective in the treatment of mild COVID-19.

    Alternative Therapy

    Alternate therapy includes massages, cupping, Tai Chi, and acupuncture. They offer whole-body treatment but can be dangerous when used with medication. Hence, supplements are a better option.  

    Natural Remedies

    Natural remedies include the use of natural herbs for the treatment of illness and improving overall health. However, many herbs and medicines are known to interact negatively, so people under such medication are discouraged from using natural remedies. 

    On the other hand, supplements are vitamins and minerals that can safely be taken, along with natural remedies. 

    When To Choose Medications Over Supplements

    It is better to choose medication over supplements when suffering from the following issues.

    Acute Conditions

    Acute conditions are severe and have a sudden onset. Medicines offer quick and effective results during such times, which is the need of the hour. Medications are used to treat infections, manage acute pain, and lower blood pressure.

    Severe Symptoms

    Severe symptoms are intense and can even be fatal if not managed immediately. At such times, medicines help control the situation and relieve the symptoms. 

    Prescription Required

    A prescription from a medical practitioner is required for illnesses and diseases. Supplements do not require a prescription, but cannot treat diseases. 

    Medical Supervision

    It is best to choose medication when medical supervision is available so that the person can be monitored when receiving a new medicine to treat an illness. 

    The Importance Of Consultation With A Healthcare Professional

    Consulting a professional before starting a new medication or supplement is important because:

    Medical History And Health Status

    Your family doctor or the doctor you consult will consider your medical history, possible side effects, allergies, and more. They are aware of any health conditions you are suffering from and can carve out a treatment plan and prescribe medicines that do not interfere with your health or cause adverse side effects. 

    Personalized Recommendations

    The doctor will prescribe medications that will best suit your body. They will ensure they are safe for you and have minimal side effects. 

    Monitoring And Evaluation

    A physician will be able to determine the perfect dosage and even adjust it if necessary. They can evaluate its efficiency and monitor your body for positive and negative effects. 


    Both supplements and medications are taken by a large number of people. It is important to understand why you are taking whatever pill you are taking and to make sure they are not interacting negatively with each other. The best way to deal with chronic disease is by lifestyle changes. If you can treat your illness with nutrition, that is the safest and best way to get better and to stay healthy. Both supplements and medications are foreign to your body so only take them if it is necessary to keep you well.


    What Are The Most Common Supplements Used For?

    The most commonly used supplements are vitamins, proteins, minerals, herbs, and botanicals. 

    Can Supplements Be Taken With Medications?

    Some supplements can change the absorption, metabolism, and excretion of medicines. Thus, unless prescribed by a doctor, supplements are not used with medications. 

    How Do I Know If A Supplement Is Safe To Use?

    Supplements are generally safe to use unless proven otherwise. However, if you are suffering from a medical condition or are on medication, it is better to consult your healthcare provider before taking them.

    What Is The Difference Between A Supplement And A Vitamin?

    Supplements are substances that provide nutrition to the body and improve health. Vitamins are a type of supplement.