In the instant gratification society where mainstream medicine has us believe that pills can fix health problems, we have to mistakenly believe that supplements or natural products can do the same. Often times, this is to our detriment.
As a general rule, you will get better results and effectiveness if you consult a qualified practitioner who understands your history and typically uses quality supplements in their practice.
I do believe that some supplements are necessary. In addition, our stress levels and special needs (such as exercises or some health conditions) may indicate increased needs for certain nutrients.
In this blog post, I discuss 5 common mistakes you may be making with your supplements that can prevent them from getting the desired results.
1. Thinking you can out-supplement poor diet and lifestyle
First, I need to emphasize that the role of supplements is to supplement. You should be taking it to supplement an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle. Sometimes, when life gets in the way, it may be okay to use supplements to mitigate the harms when one occasionally slips off healthy habits. (I certainly am not perfect and have been guilty of this many times thanks to graduate school.) But taking supplements is generally not a ticket to health, bikini physique, disease resolution or successful (permanent) weight loss for that matter.
Supplements can often do a few things beyond foods, as I like to summarize them as the acronym 4R – replace, repair and remove. The most common use of supplements is to replace the missing nutrients. For example, most Canadians are deficient in vitamin D, and it is often beneficial to replace it with supplements. Some supplements can support the body’s repair process from injuries, leaky gut or are sore from exercise, but they still need to eat nutritious foods and sleep well. Antimicrobial herbs, for example, can remove harmful pathogens when someone has an infection, while herbs like cilantro may help with removing heavy metals.
Remember, supplements do not give you superpowers. There is no such a thing as biological free lunch. If you want to get results, you have to make changes in your diet and lifestyle.
The sports supplement or bodybuilding industry, for one, is notorious for staging their brands in a way that make customers believe that their products are the golden ticket to the dream results. For example, they will sponsor physique competitors (or simply good looking people in great shape) to promote these products. Many highly-visited websites feature these physique competitors as users of these products and link to sales pages.
Even the product titles are misleading. Ironically, weight gainer shakes are meant to supplement an otherwise ridiculously high calorie diet. A “pump” product will get the drinker a pump during and perhaps a day or two after the workout before it subsides. Some of these substances may increase performance and provide results for well-trained people who are looking to improve the last 5 – 10% of their results. However, they are often completely unnecessary, distracting, and may even be harmful to the general population.
Needless to say, I am both disenchanted and amused with the sports supplement industry.
2. Buying supplements to self-treat a self-diagnosis or health problem you read about online
To follow up on the last point, when colleagues, friends and family saw that I had visible health improvements, I started getting health questions about how I did it. Of all the questions I got, 95% of them started with “What did you take for (insert health conditions here)?
There are times and places where natural remedies like herbs and vitamins can be used to self-treat simple health problems. These can be safe and effective, and sometimes even more effective than their conventional counterparts.
For complex chronic health problems like acne, eczema, most other skin problems, sleep problems, digestive issues, hormonal issues and stubborn weight gain, the solutions usually involve much more than just supplements. Most sufferers of these problems often have blindspots because they are not aware of the complexity of the problem. As a result, they end up adding supplements one by one based on what they find on Google. When each of the supplement fails to immediately produce any relief or visible results, these supplements end up in the “do not work” pile. Understandably, many of these people end up with piles of hundreds of not thousands of dollars’ worth of supplement graveyards in their homes.
The most time and cost-effective thing to do is to see a qualified practitioner who can evaluate the whole picture, identify key areas to be addressed with the most effective use of supplements. In addition, some supplements, especially ones that are used for repairing and removing, are more beneficial for a short period of time or may be harmful if taken beyond a certain periods of times.
3. Following dosages written on the bottle, or just taking 1 pill (or capsule, or softgel)
By law, supplement manufacturers are required to put dosages on the supplement bottles. They may be the recommended daily allowance (RDA) doses, which are simply sufficient for survival but not enough for optimal health. These doses may also bear no physiological relevance for you. In order to get results (and prevent harm from potential overdose), see a qualified practitioner to determine an optimal dose for you rather than following the dose on the bottle.
For example, my vitamin D is 1000 IU per softgel. The manufacturer recommends taking 1 softgel per day on the label. However, I personally need up to 5000 IU per day in the winter and 3000 IU per day in the summer to maintain a healthy blood level of vitamin D.
4. Supplementing based on genetic mutations
A human genome has about 3 trillion base pairs, and between any two people who are non-identical twins, we are 0.01% different. So, to do the math, there are 30 million SNPs you can find and supplement for. There are also numerous other types of genetic variants, some have yet to be discovered.
I say this not because I am ignorant, but rather because I have a PhD in molecular genetics. It is my area of expertise. As I wrote in a previous blog post, there are numerous other ways that epigenetics and the environment can influence your health. In addition, (with some exceptions) the state of the technology is about a decade or two premature to use these genetic information to determine supplementation protocols.
5. Purchasing supplements from a pharmacy, Walmart, Amazon or other websites that show up when you Google your health problems
The range of quality of products and profit margins are huge in this industry because of the rather lax regulation. In order to get good results from your supplements, you have to be a smart consumer.
In the US, the FDA claims that “the manufacturers are responsible for the safety and effectiveness” of these products. These products are often treated and regulated similarly to food, where the manufacturers and vendors can still get into trouble for safety issues. This means that some companies literally put cornstarch in capsules and market them as supplements (see example here). While it is true that these companies can get into trouble with false advertising, they may only get caught when someone decides to test the supplements or when someone is harmed. So, don’t be a guinea pig.
In Canada, the manufacturers have to apply for the Natural Health Product numbers (NPN numbers) and stay in compliant with Health Canada regulations. They must follow Good Manufacturing Practices on their manufacturing sites and provide evidences of safety and effectiveness to support their health claims. However, not all products will have solid evidences following gold standards such as large randomized controlled trials (as do drugs) to demonstrate safety and effectiveness of these products.
The problem with purchasing supplements from the wrong places:
Remember, also, that the safety and effectiveness of supplements depend on more than just the amounts of active ingredients. For example, the more active forms of many B vitamins are much more expensive than the less active forms. Several well-known brands of vitamins are in a format that is very difficult to break down and absorbed in the digestive tract. Even worse yet, some of these products (including ones for prenatal and children) contain harmful ingredients like titanium dioxide, FD&C colors and sodium lauryl sulfate (AKA liquid soap).
Unfortunately, the supplements that can afford a high portion of their profit margins to be in the pharmacy or the national supermarkets tend to use the less expensive and less effective forms of vitamins. They add inedible chemicals to the products and also pay no attention to using responsible ingredients that will ensure no allergic reactions.
What to buy instead:
I usually recommend professional brands of supplements. A supplement company is considered professional brand if they require a professional training or licensing to purchase and sell. This means that end users can only access these products through their practitioners. These companies do not use national TV or other common means of advertising to the end consumers, which means that they can keep their pricing reasonable while providing high quality products. Because these practitioners have the skills and knowledge to evaluate the quality of the supplements as well as observe for clinical effectiveness, the supplement companies have to maintain rigorous production and quality standards to stay in business.
As a holistic practitioner, I remain unbiased in terms of supplement brands so I can focus on what give my clients the best outcomes. That means I am not committed to one brand and will even recommend a few different options that have the same effects. The professional brands that I have personally used and recommended to my clients include Thorne Research, NFH, Douglas Laboratories, Progressive, Genuine Health, Designs for Health, AOR, Metagenics, Physician’s Exclusive, Gaia Herbs, Biomatrix and Restorative Formulations. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
The problem with buying discounted stuff off the internet.
Even if you are aware of the distinctions between professional brands and other kinds of brands, you want to purchase them from reliable and reputable dispensaries like Emerson Ecologics, BMS Resources or a good health food store. Some professional brand companies will allow you to purchase directly from them if your healthcare professional has an account with them.
When I opened my accounts with many of these companies, I was required to sign an agreement that I would not re-sell these products on third party websites like Amazon or eBay. Therefore, unless the companies themselves list on these products, the odds of these products being legitimate on Amazon can be quite low.
Keep in mind that on these websites anyone can list anything for sale and make them cheaper than any other listings on there. That means that people can make counterfeit products and re-sell expired but relabeled products on there as legitimate.