I often give nutritional and supplementation advice to my patients. One of the biggest questions I often get is, "Am I taking the right supplements?" In order to properly answer that question, I think we should first think about the reasons we supplement. Some people have certain diagnosed deficiency syndromes, such as iron deficiency anemia, Calcium/Vitamin D deficiency related bone density loss, Iodine deficient thyroid problems, etc. For certain, those patients should be using supplements to prevent further disease development. Other patients choose nutraceuticals (nutritional and dietary supplements) to avoid taking pharmaceuticals. But even more patients actually have no idea why they are taking a particular supplement besides the notion of "it's supposed to be good for me."
Not everyone needs supplementation. If you eat a healthy, balanced whole-food diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy sources of protein, you probably don't need to be taking a multivitamin. People who probably should be taking supplements are usually people who have poor diets, or for whatever reason can't get enough complete nutrition from their diet, or the chronically ill or aged person.
I have patients who want to take supplements to prevent things like cellular aging, cancer, oxidation, and brain function decline, and I can and do make certain recommendations for herbal, vitamin, or other nutritional supplements. But I think it is very easy to go overboard with supplementing. One patient I recently spoke to, young, active, no serious internal or metabolic issues, told me that she takes upwards of 12 different types of supplements per day for preventative reasons. You have to keep in mind that even though supplements are not medication, it does not mean they are harmless. Everything that you put into your body has to pass through your liver, intestinal system, and kidneys. You can absolutely do more harm than good when you over supplement.
There's a lot of negative media on big Pharma. And legitimately, all pharmaceuticals can be expensive, some can have few to no results, and can come with a whole host of side effects. This is one of the major reasons I got into Chinese Medicine. But do keep in mind that the supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry as well. And being nutritional supplements, there is very little regulation from the government. We are essentially relying on the good-will and honesty of the supplement manufacturers when it comes to the safety and reliability of nutritional supplements. While that may sound scary, there are quite a lot of conscientious, responsible, and quality companies out there that make very good products. As the average consumer, we simply need to be more astute in picking these companies to find the best products that may benefit your body.
Tips when picking supplements
1. Read the label! Knowing the ingredients is vital. Laws for labeling food and nutritional products are not always in the consumer's favor. For example, the word "Natural" does not imply that it is a good product. Natural ingredients does not imply any health benefit, and does not mean that an ingredient is organic or pure at all. In fact, natural ingredients can even be synthetic (like food coloring), or can be ingredients that have been sprayed with pesticides, exposed to certain types of chemicals, or even radiation. How would you like an all Natural cup of chamomile tea with a side of Roundup to calm your nerves?
2. Why should you buy the more expensive supplement?
Because often the higher price reflects the company's care in selecting better, more pure, organic ingredients, and takes extra steps to ensure the quality and safety of their products. Though not always the case, take time to evaluate the difference between two seemingly similar products. It may actually even out, or even save you more money in the end.
Case in point, my mother loves to buy fish oil from Costco. The bulk packaging and volume discount certainly is enticing. But when you look at the active ingredients (for fish oil, that normally means EPA and DHA, the two main Omega-3 fatty acids that aid with lowering inflammation, cholesterol, and improve brain and nerve function), in a dose that claims to contain 1500 mg of fish oil, there was really only around 600 mg total of the DHA and EPA combined. That bottle from Costco costs about $20 for a 30 day supply. Nordic Naturals, a company that I have been using for their fish oil products for some time now, sells for an average of about $35-50 for a 30 day supply. But the purity and concentration of EPA and DHA in their average bottle ranges from 850 to 2000 mg per dose. Who's getting the better deal in the end?
3. Purity and good manufacturing practices matter!
I worked in the herbal medicine industry for about two years when I first graduated Acupuncture school. One of the most important lessons I learned from that stint was how important good manufacturing practices are. Did you know that the pharmaceutical limit of the heavy metal lead is about 1 ppm (part per million). But the food grade (which applies to supplements) can be up to 10 times that amount? Also, when sourcing something like herbal medicine, especially when they originate from China, it is very easy to mistake one plant for another unless specific chemical tests are done to properly identify the species. This is the reason why I only don't like using certain herbal supplements, even when they cost significantly less, because there is no way to be certain of what you are taking.
Always consult your health care practitioner when you are unsure of the supplements you are taking, or if you should actually be taking supplements at all.