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OTC Medications That are "Not Worth It," Says Pharmacist

Learn which over-the-counter medications and supplements are not worth your money and why. 

Whether you're trying to lose weight, eliminate pain or maintain overall health, there's an endless supply of over-the-counter medications and supplements that promise great results. But not all are effective and safe. Many are a waste of money and Eat This, Not That! Heath spoke with Dr. Swathi Varanasi, PharmD Integrative Health Pharmacist who shares which ones to avoid and why. As always, speak with your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Should People Know About Taking OTC Meds?

Pharmacist wearing protective hygienic mask and making drug recommendations in modern pharmacy

Dr. Varanasi tells us, "Over-the-counter, or OTC, are medicines that can be purchased without a prescription. Examples of these include but are not limited to dietary supplements, herbs, and homeopathic medications. A misconception is that they are not regulated, but this is untrue. The FDA does not approve dietary supplement claims or labeling before they are available for purchase in-store or online; however, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and FDA both oversee dietary supplements–the former responsible for advertising and the latter responsible for safety. Before taking an OTC medication, it is important to learn about the company's ethical standards and values as many companies have entered the market for the wrong reasons (read: money), rather than with an overarching goal of improving patients' lives. Many people also do not know that supplements could have interactions with prescription medications you may be taking–sometimes resulting in adverse effects (like nausea or stomach discomfort), but also could pose fatal risks."



Woman taking medication at home

Dr. Varanasi says, "Although this is often one of the first (and perhaps only) OTC medications people are taking, multivitamins often contain too little of each of the ingredients to really make a positive impact on the human body. If you think about it, how is it possible that that many ingredients (sometimes upwards of 30-50 vitamins and minerals) can fit into one capsule or gummy per serving?! As a pharmacist, when looking at any OTC medication, I weigh the benefits and the potential risks. Everyone is unique–with their prescription lists, diet preferences, and other lifestyle factors that decisions to incorporate any supplement must be made on an individualized basis. In the case of multivitamins, when weighing the benefits and risks, there are likely little to no benefits and little to no risks–making it not worth it. The best way to get the nutrients you need is through a balanced, nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet."



Collagen supplements

Dr. Varanasi states, "This supplement seems to be next to everyone's bathroom sink these days. The main issue with collagen supplements (and many other supplements) is that it is difficult to control gold standard randomized studies as there are many factors at play in joint and skin health–not only collagen. Research on collagen in humans supports that collagen supplements can improve skin elasticity or joint mobility, but we do not know whether this improvement was simply from the addition of collagen or if results were skewed based on industry funding. When weighing the benefits and risks, there are likely more benefits to using collagen than a multivitamin and little to no risk. The best way to get the proposed benefits from collagen is to consume foods with high amounts of amino acids and minerals (like Zinc and Vitamin C) that can nurture collagen production–this includes grocery list items like fish, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens."


Vitamin D2

vitamin D3

Dr. Varanasi explains, "Although Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) are similar, they vary in chemical structure, how they work in the body, and where they are sourced–D2 is plant-based while D3 is from sheep lanolin. If you have received a prescription (not OTC) for Vitamin D, it is Vitamin D2. Research shows that Vitamin D3 is more effective and potent in raising Vitamin D levels in the bloodstream long-term. What's even better than D3 on its own is the Vitamin D3 / Vitamin K2 combination–these fat-soluble vitamins promote the absorption of one another, potentially amplifying the overall benefits.

The best way to get Vitamin D is from the good ol' sun–whether this is a 30-minute lunch break on your balcony, a 2-hour hike, or a day at the beach, your body will appreciate it. Low blood Vitamin D levels, also known as Vitamin D deficiency, has been linked to fatigue and difficulty concentrating as well as increased risk of cardiovascular disease."


Proprietary Blends


Dr. Varanasi shares, "I see more and more supplements with proprietary blends everyday. When looking at Supplement Facts on an OTC label, it may list a number of vitamins, minerals, and herbs under a 'proprietary blend', but this makes it nearly impossible to know how much of each of these ingredients is actually present. This could mean there is 1 mg of ashwagandha or 1,000 mg of ashwagandha per serving, but that information is not publicly disclosed. As a healthcare professional, this poses an issue–I cannot effectively determine benefits nor risks without knowing the quantities of each ingredient. In place of these blends, I recommend seeking out formulations from trusted brands that have each herb listed per serving."


If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is


Dr. Varanasi warns, "If you see a supplement that promises 30 pounds of weight loss in one week or tripling your bicep size in one month, then this supplement and the brand are not to be trusted. These misleading claims are what have been resulting in a number of FDA Warning Letters–these are public (easily Google searchable) notices from the FDA often resulting in irreparable damage to a brand's reputation and future growth."


Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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