Patient: “I take these supplements (pulls out 10+ bottles from a bag).”
Me: “Have you noticed any improvements in your health concerns since starting these?”
Patient: “Not really. But the functional medicine doctor [or health coach] I was seeing said that I needed these, so I just keep taking them.”
The above is a common scenario in my practice.
Don’t get me wrong – supplements can make a difference in health! But many times, since supplements are readily accessible and have few (or no) side effects, we end up having a lot of supplements in our pantry but no way of really knowing if they are doing us any good.
Most of the time, a supplement won’t likely cause harm. After all, the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) have rules in place on supplement production that protect us. All supplement manufacturers are required to prove that there are no side effects, but they do not have to prove EFFICACY (this is opposite in the pharmaceutical world).
However, my biggest concern is that we have limited studies on what happens when we combine supplements. Most studies are on single ingredients. But what happens when we take 20+ ingredients all at once? Here’s a great article (written by one of my IFM instructors, Dr. Deanna Minich) about the ways that vitamins and minerals can interact (and this doesn’t include herbs and other nutraceuticals!).
No one – not even healthcare providers – can answer this.
A supplement is only going to work if your body can use it.
For a supplement to exert beneficial effects, we must think about the person who is consuming it. Is he/she able to absorb it and use it?
Have you ever tried to grow anything from a seed?
When you place a seed in soil, the goal is to grow a plant, right? A seed can only sprout and grow if the soil conditions are right.
The same holds true for a supplement – a supplement (the “seed”) can be beneficial if the person consuming it gets enough nutrients/enzymes from good food, has a balanced lifestyle, has optimally functioning phase 1 & 2 detox pathways, and has a gut microbiome that can use the supplement.
And more seeds does not necessarily grow more plants.
We cannot out-supplement a bad “soil”!
My approach to supplement use.
When I recommend or review supplements, these are 4 things I keep in mind:
- WILL IT TACKLE SYMPTOMS? Are there any supplements that can address a patient’s symptoms, until we can address the triggers of the symptoms? This is typically noted by using single-ingredient supplements and determining response (most responses are not immediate, and can take 1-6 weeks to note changes).
- IS NUTRITION AND LIFESTYLE SUPPORTING HEALTH? This question is why I rarely check nutrients via labs until I’ve discussed nutrition with my patients. If a lab shows a lot of nutrient deficiencies, is this because the patient is not consuming nutrients through diet (which is common, since most people do not consume 4-9 cups of non-starchy fruits/vegetables)? Or are they unable to absorb nutrients from their diet due to imbalances in the gut and nervous system (e.g. stress lowers the ability to break down foods, and many of us are rushed or multi-tasking when we eat)?
- IS SOMEONE TAKING TOO MANY PILLS AT ONCE? Back to my concern over combining supplements. How many capsules might a patient be taking, and is a patient taking multiple supplements together?
- WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF THE SUPPLEMENTS? An entire article or book could be written on this topic! In particular, I look at the form of the vitamin and the additional ingredients. For example, many capsules used in supplements have ingredients that can coat the gut (e.g. magnesium stearate). The affects absorption of the ingredients in the supplement.
If another practitioner recommends a supplement, or you buy on your own.
In addition to the 4 things noted above, if you are going to purchase a supplement on your own, or another practitioner is recommending the supplement, here are a few questions to ask:
- What are potential risks?
- Will the supplement change how I feel (i.e. address symptoms)?
- Do I have take this with food or on empty stomach? Why?
- Does the practitioner profit off the supplements they are recommending? (not necessarily a bad thing, but can be a potential “conflict of interest”)
- Is there research (done on humans) that shows a benefit to taking this?
- Do I have to take these for a short time or a long time?
I’m gland that we can purchase supplements without the need for a prescription. I use and recommend supplements when I feel they are needed.
But they need to be used wisely.
The above recommendations can help, but ultimately we each have to be our own advocate. No one – not even me or any other healthcare practitioner – truly knows how a supplement will affect one unique individual.
If you need guidance, starting in January 2021, I’m joining the amazing team at Parsley Health (which also focuses on a “less is more” approach to supplements) and I will be accepting new patients. Click here to learn more.
Best in health,