Should You Be Taking Supplements?
I have many discussions with my clients regarding supplements. The majority of them are taking at least one, most often because they read about or heard about a specific nutrient that might help with a certain health condition or symptom. Every time I meet with a new client, I try to explain how supplements may or may not be needed…. so here’s my spiel!
The first line of defense for the majority of symptoms or disease should be addressed through diet and lifestyle, period. (I’m not one to beat around the bush.) Unfortunately many healthcare professionals and the lay person turn to supplements (or medication) as the FIRST step in addressing an issue, and sometimes even using pharmacology as a prevention method (such as antibiotics following certain surgeries). Unfortunately this is becoming the norm in our society. We often turn to this because it’s the “easy” way out, and now many people utilize supplements (and medication) as a crutch and prevention method. Any pain in your body? Take an NSAID. Not getting enough of X nutrient in your diet? Take a supplement.
Only until I get to do a dietary assessment of my clients’ usual food intake do I suggest any supplements (and often, I tell them they can STOP taking something - what’s the point of taking a probiotic supplement if you don’t need to?????). My usual first step is helping them understand what’s lacking in their diet and what foods can be increased and why. This part is beyond the scope of this blog post, but essentially I help my clients see they might be getting too much or too little of one nutrient and how they can address the issue through FOOD. Furthermore, if they are experiencing any symptoms whatsoever, my first suggestion is usually food- or lifestyle-related. Every client is SO DIFFERENT. That being said, the most common supplement I recommend is Vitamin D (because there are so few foods that contain vitamin D and everyone is either scared of the sun or just do not get outside enough, but they also need to have their levels tested first.
Yes, it can certainly be easier to pop a pill than to identify and fix the underlying issue, but there are several flaws to utilizing supplements rather than addressing the ROOT cause of an issue.
Supplements will NEVER work the same way that food does
This is such a simple concept yet is overlooked by many. A synthetic form of a nutrient (such as vitamin C, for example) will never ever work the same way that it does when you consume that same nutrient through food (take oranges, for example). There are several OTHER nutrients and antioxidants found in an orange that work in mysterious ways when eaten together. Furthermore, the orange contains fiber, a vital component to a healthy diet. This is called food synergy. Technology and research is pretty awesome, but they will never be able to mimic the full effects and potential from REAL food!
That leads me to my next point… No matter how many supplements you ADD to your diet, it will never make up for your eating habits.. EVER.
In other words, if you live off of McDonalds on the daily, and all of the sudden you start adding a multivitamin to your routine, do you REALLY think the multi is going to do much for you??? No. A person who eats a nutrient poor diet will most likely have several health conditions or symptoms (anything from poor digestion to inflammation, and sometimes they are asymptomatic, meaning you can’t even feel the symptoms). None of this will be fixed by adding in a supplement (not even a ginger capsule!!), because this is not fixing the ROOT cause of the issue — POOR DIET (and probably several other things). As another more realistic example, if you have high cholesterol, adding in a supplement that is supposed to improve your cholesterol will most likely not produce any effects for you, if not at all. Cholesterol is tied to many different factors, and until you address these factors (aka the root causes) adding in one ingredient (either through supplement OR food) won’t do much for you. Sorry.
Nutrients interact with each other (and usually only through supplement form).
Best example - taking excessive iron through supplements will interfere with the absorption of zinc and copper (and vice versa), essentially causing other deficiencies. Vitamin A and E interfere with Vitamin K absorption and role of vitamin K. Here’s the kicker - these nutrient interactions usually ONLY occur through synthetic forms of nutrients (supplements), not through food sources. The body is one smart cookie, and it knows how to determine and metabolize what it needs. Of course, if you aren’t getting enough nutrients through food and refuse to make dietary shifts, supplements can become invaluable (see below) - but - that doesn’t mean they don’t have any interactions among each other.
You can experience toxicity through supplements.
Similar to point #3 - there are various forms of nutrients, and the forms most often found in synthetic nutrients are in the most highly absorbable form. For example, the best vitamin D supplement is D3, because it is better absorbed than D2. The point however, is that many supplements on the market are in the most absorbable form and in amounts WAY higher than what we REALLY need. Many people don’t know that there are “Tolerable Upper Intake Levels” (ULs), for most nutrients. These levels represent the maximum usual daily intake levels at which no risk of adverse health effects is expected. Taking a supplement once (even at very high levels) might not produce these toxic effects. Taking supplements day after day (long term) are usually the culprit of toxicity symptoms. That’s why it’s important to have your vitamin D levels checked before, during, and after taking supplements - so you can readjust the amounts. Many people are quick to look up nutrient deficiency symptoms, but usually never interested in nutrient toxicities. Here’s another kicker! 99% of the time - toxicity only comes from supplement form! Very rarely do people experience nutrient toxicity through food. These toxicities also vary depending on the person and their health conditions (for example, food nutrients usually do not produce toxicity because the kidneys help excrete excess through urine. However, this protective mechanism doesn’t work the same with supplements, and especially with someone who has impaired kidney function).
Some supplements are not as safe as you think.
Listen, supplements are not as regulated than you might think. According to the FDA, supplement manufacturers “are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before marketing to ensure that they meet all the requirements of DSHEA and FDA regulations.” This means supplements are introduced into the market without any inspection whatsoever, and the FDA is only “responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.” If you ask me, there’s a huge gap in that logic. Several supplements contain ingredients not shown on the label, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Not adding the amounts stated on the label might be intentional (this is a huge issue for CBD supplements right now). Heavy metals are usually unintentional, but it’s something to think about.
You might create even more issues for yourself - including wasting your money.
Well, if you read through all of my points above, you can see that supplements come with many different risks. Oftentimes (okay, all of the time) it’s a matter of calculating those risks versus benefits. And this takes some effort and knowledge. Unfortunately many people read about a supplement online/on the internet and they are way too quick to go out and buy it. Again, if you read through my previous points, this can create even more issues than what you started with. One example is magnesium. For a while it was a craze (and still might be actually). “Magnesium helps with X,Y, and Z” they say, so now everyone is going out and buying magnesium! But… the UL for magnesium is 350 mg. Just google magnesium supplements - and most of them start at 400 mg! Toxicity symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping. Not only could you be causing even more health issues for yourself, but you could essentially be wasting your money!
So when are supplements warranted, you might be wondering?
Well, as mentioned previously, I need to do an assessment and evaluation first, in order to point clients in the right direction. Even though I give them education related to diet and nutrients, not all of my clients are willing or able to improve their diet. And most often change takes time. Furthermore, there are several medications that interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption and it’s a necessity to take a supplement. They may have a specific health condition (acute or chronic), or even a recent surgery that requires supplementation. These are the times where supplements are absolutely necessary. But this is usually not the case with the average person. My goal of this post is to help educate others that supplements are not completely harmless - and most often than not they are risky. If anything, see a registered dietitian in your area so they can give you the best guidance! Hope this sheds some light. :)