There are soooo many supplements on the market. You can buy them over-the-counter and take whichever ones you want. But are they all safe? And how do you know which supplements are right for you?
This week we’ll talk about the potential pitfalls of supplement use — and how to make sure you’re choosing the ones that will help (and not hurt) your healing journey.
In my practice, I recommend supplements to my patients all the time. Supplements are a great way to fill in nutritional gaps, bring your body back into balance, and address the root cause of symptoms without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.
Most of us can benefit from wise and careful supplement use. You can read more about why in this article.
But not all supplements are helpful. And we don’t all need the same ones. And if you’re taking the wrong ones, you may not see the changes you hope for. But that doesn’t mean that supplements are not effective tools for healing and wellness.
Do supplements work?
If you google “do supplements work?”, you’ll get a wide array of answers. There is a lot of positive research on the use of supplements. But you have to dig a little to find it for a few reasons:
- You’ll see fewer studies on supplements than you will on pharmaceuticals because there isn’t much money in researching natural substances.
- Studying nutrients is complicated because they react with other chemicals in the body. So isolating all the variables to get an accurate result is challenging.
- There are a lot of poor quality supplements out there. If tests are being performed with supplements that are not absorbed well or utilized well by the body, then the results will not reflect whether or not supplements “work”.
Just because a supplement was not definitively proven to achieve a specific goal doesn’t mean it wasn’t beneficial for health.
We see studies with headlines like Multivitamins Did Not Extend Life or Ward off Heart Disease or Memory Loss. But while the study can’t prove multivitamins extended life, science demonstrates that multivitamins do support overall health & wellness and fill in nutrient gaps. And these are the 2 main reasons people take multivitamins!
When supplements do more harm than good
It’s a common misconception that supplements are completely harmless. They’re available over-the-counter without a prescription. And they’re supposed to be safe, right?
Sometimes supplements can cause problems. There are a number of red flags to watch out for:
🚩 Watch out for added ingredients (excipients)
Supplement companies use ingredients other than just the nutrient on the label. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some supplements need these excipients to stabilize the formula, improve the appearance, or to make them easier to digest. But these added ingredients can cause problems as well.
🚩 Watch out for allergens
If you have problems with gluten, dairy, corn, soy, or nightshades, it’s important to be very careful when choosing supplements. Check the labels and do your research to make sure your allergy triggers weren’t used to grow the nutrient or added later.
🚩 Watch out for contaminants
It’s important to buy your supplements from a company with exacting quality standards. You need to do your research before trusting a supplement company. Or better yet, work with a practitioner who’s done the research themselves. And be careful where you buy your supplements. Counterfeit supplements are out there. And if you end up with a counterfeit, you have no idea what you’re actually putting in your body.
🚩 Watch out for bioavailability
Supplements need to be formulated so that your body can access them during the right stage of digestion. That’s why some pills are “buffered”. There are certain nutrients that need to make it past the stomach acid so they can reach your intestines. A supplement that isn’t formulated with this in mind can end up doing you no good at all.
Recommended Daily Allowance
If you read the label on your supplements, you’ll see the recommended daily allowance or RDA. This is how much “the body” requires of this nutrient each day. But whose body are we talking about? The 220 pound linebacker? A 25-year-old woman who weighs 110 pounds? An 80-year-old woman with osteoporosis?
The RDA is an estimate based on the EAR (Estimated Average Requirement) of a particular nutrient. It’s an estimate. And for most people, it’s probably off the mark.
You may also see DRIs (Dietary Reference Intakes) on supplement bottles. These are based on estimates as well.
In reality, every body is different. And there are countless factors that determine how much of a nutrient you need:
- Your health status
- Your dietary habits
- Your medications
- Your deficiencies
- Your genetics
- Your body size and type
- Your age
- And more…
The RDA on the back of your supplement bottle is a rough (very rough) guideline.
If you want to get the full benefits of taking a supplement, you need to know how much you need. And that takes testing and an overall health plan. That’s why it’s so important to work with a qualified practitioner when you add supplementation to your diet.
How do you know what supplements you need?
Lab tests are the most reliable way to measure your nutritional needs.
Sounds simple enough, right? But there’s a catch. Labs have to be interpreted. And the standard interpretation doesn’t always give you a clear picture of what’s going on.
When your doctor looks at your test results, they are usually comparing your levels to what’s called the standard range. Standard ranges are determined by looking at averages in the population. But just because your levels of a certain nutrient — vitamin D for example — fall within the standard range, doesn’t mean your levels are actually where they should be.
A functional practitioner uses optimal values when they look at your test results. This is usually a much narrower range and is more indicative of good health, not just an average.
So for vitamin D, the standard range is 20 and 100 ng/mL, while the optimal range is 40-70 ng/mL. And that’s a significant difference.
So if you think you might need supplements, my best recommendation is to get tested. But make sure you get those tests through a functional practitioner (like me).
Brand Choice Matters
Unfortunately, not every supplement is what it seems or claims to be.
😲 Some products contain contaminants.
😲 Others contain far less of the nutrients than they claim.
😲 Some don’t contain any of the advertised nutrient at all.
Good quality supplements are expensive to make. They require careful sourcing and handling to maintain the efficacy of the nutrients. And some companies cut corners — even brands you can find at the vitamin or health food store.
Consumer Labs has tested OTC (over-the-counter) products and have found that many contain contaminants, do not contain the ingredients in the amounts they say, or have low quality.
So be careful which supplements you choose. They are not all the same! Functional practitioners do have access to high quality supplement brands that are not available to the public. So if you are partnering with an RDN or functional doctor, they can get you the high quality supplements that will make a genuine difference in your health.
The best strategy to improve health and reduce symptoms is to look at the big picture. Functional Practitioners dig into your test results to see where your body is out of balance. We pay attention to what your body is communicating through your symptoms. And then we work with you to formulate a plan to get you back in balance and feeling your best.
If you’ve been:
- Told your test results are normal, but you still don’t feel good
- Buying supplements through the mail or at the store without researching the sourcing and ingredients
- Frustrated with your digestion issues and unable to find the answers
I’ve got you. I work with patients all the time who’ve been told there’s nothing wrong with them. But in my practice we dig deep with functional testing and solutions that get to the root of the problem. If this sounds like what you’ve been looking for, click the link below and schedule a consultation. Let’s get you feeling better!