If you want to supplement wisely, ask yourself this question. Are your supplements helping you or hurting you? I read a Facebook post today that presented that question, and wanted to weigh in.
To begin with, all of our supplements should be supplemental. This means that their use should be to replace deficiencies, or to support parts of our biology that are not running well. They should supplement a healthy diet.
As a physician who has focused on functional medicine for more than a decade, I have had the opportunity to see so many examples of how supplements have helped my patients.
I have also seen how many people have been hurt.
When a supplement causes disease
When I was just starting my Chattanooga practice I was offering free 20 minute consults to get the word out. A woman came in complaining of extensive fatigue and asking if I could help. I asked her to review what she had tried, and what changes she had considered.
At that point she opened up a bag. She had brought it to the office to show me the supplements she was taking. She had perhaps 25 different bottles of, well, almost everything.
There were vitamins and minerals, adaptogens, herbs, and several combinations of the above. In short, she was spending some $700 monthly on a health and wellness crapshoot.
We spent some time looking at the different bottles and examining what they contained. Here’s where things got interesting.
For starters, her sources that made these recommendations was all over the map. She had read naturopaths and doctors, websites and solicitations, she was even taking a supplement recommended by her housecleaner. There was no rhyme or reason in her choices. She was unfortunately grasping at straws.
About 20 different companies made the supplements, and I would guess that on average there were 10 ingredients in each supplement. In short, she was taking some 250-300 herbal/natural/beneficial ingredients daily. Wow.
When fewer supplements drive more mealth
Here’s the punch line. I instructed her to stop all of the supplements, to return in a month and to see how she felt at that time. She never returned to the office But I received a nice note in the mail telling me that her health had been transformed. She no longer felt the need to ask for a doctor’s help. “Cured” she said.
She had dropped down to just two supplements, vitamin D and magnesium, both produced by a reputable supplement company. That was it.
So what happened?
To begin with, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. She had been blindly supplementing with the hope of finding a needle of cure in a haystack of possibilities. She had done no studies to determine her needs, and I believe had developed a degree of toxicity to the multiple ingredients.
I have always promoted directed supplementation. This means using a specific supplement to address a defined biological need. Don’t just guess.
Four thoughts to supplement wisely
1: Find a respectable guide who can help to direct your testing and treatment so you supplement wisely. I may be biased, but generally a MD or DO with fellowship training in Functional Medicine will generally have the greatest degree of knowledge and experience to help to optimize your choices.
Years of practice, advanced degrees and established authority really do make a difference. If you are using supplements based on a self-proclaimed expert who lacks certifiable credentials or from a flashy website, I would strongly suggest, “Buyer beware.”
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is
As a rule, I feel that the grandeur of the claim is inversely proportional to the actual effects of the supplement or intervention. Yes, I have seen severe disease reversed with natural, non-pharmaceutical interventions. But the “devil is in the details,” and it is important to be detail-oriented.
2: Be sure to obtain your dietary supplements from a company that has Good Manufacturing Practices, sources their raw materials and can demonstrate third party audits of purity and content. I use Thorne and Metagenics almost exclusively with my patients. And I measure directed lab tests before and after to ensure there is no guesswork.
3: Consider the combined totals of the different components of your supplements. For example, if 10 of the supplements contained even moderate amounts of B6, you could easily have a supratherapeutic level of the vitamin on lab testing. And it could cause very real toxic side effects.
Additionally, it is hard enough to find and interpret good research for many of the more natural interventions. I can assure you that nobody will ever know how this woman’s 250 different substances were interacting with one another. If you felt sick, would you start randomly taking different pills from your medicine cabinet?
I recommend that you begin to start thinking about nutritional supplementation the same way.
4: Don’t unnecessarily put your health (and your bank balance) at risk.