Supplements are around us everywhere. You cannot open a magazine or your email inbox without being splattered with ads for these natural things that you can buy without a prescription. The claims range from making you smarter and rich to becoming Superman.
Supplement sales were $132 billion dollars globally in 2016. This number is only expected to grow. Are these things really necessary for good health? And if so, how in the world do you know what to buy?
The following chart shows why they are necessary.
The majority of the people in the US do not get anywhere close to the number of vitamins and nutrients that they need. These vitamins and nutrients are crucial for every chemical reaction that takes place in your body. It is like having a car with gasoline, but no oil or grease or antifreeze. The fuel is there, but the machine will not run very well. And eventually, it will break down and not run at all.
A common point raised is the following: “Our ancestors never heard of supplements, and they survived, so why do we need them now?” Or, “I eat a healthy diet. I get my vitamins in my food.”
Both statements are valid. Our ancestors (even just two generations ago) ate very different foods than what we eat today. They ate fresh, whole foods. Not processed, food-like substances that come off an assembly line in a factory. The standard American diet is lacking in most vitamins and minerals.
Also, the Standard American Diet has resulted in a change in our microbiome. This is all the bacteria in our intestines. These bacteria are critical for the absorption of many vitamins. In patients that we test, we often see deficiencies in these crucial bacteria.
The other problem with our current food supply has to do with nutrient depletion. Our soil has been farmed over and over so frequently that our current crops have nowhere near the nutritional content that the same foods had just 50 years ago. The soil has been depleted of nutrients. We then spray our crops with chemicals to help them grow. Or genetically modify them so they can adapt to poor soil conditions. A green bean today does not have same vitamin content as a green bean your grandparents ate.
Therefore, even if we eat as healthy as possible, most of us can still use a little boost to ensure that we are getting enough vitamins and minerals.
How do you know what you need, how to get it, and how to be sure what you are buying is safe? These are the big questions every consumer wants to know. A report from Consumers Lab showed that up to 30% of supplements do not contain what the label states.
The best way to know what you need is to be tested and examined by a health practitioner that is trained in nutritional medicine. Rest assured, what is taught in medical school does not scratch the surface as to know how to prescribe supplements and diagnose and treat nutritional deficiencies.
There are no limits as to who can produce, market, or sell supplements. Thus, the common disclaimer: “These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” So, you don’t want to prescribe yourself based on advertising.
Once you know what you need, it is important to be sure that you get what the label says you are supposed to get. There are labels on the bottle which can help you navigate these waters.
Ones to look for are USP (US Pharmacopeia), NSF, ConsumersLab, UL (Underwriters Labs). These labels mean that the supplement has been tested for quality. That is, it contains what it says it is. These tests are by independent labs and paid for by the manufacturers. That is why most supplements out there do not carry these labels.
Another concern with lower grade supplements is what they have added to them. This is a big concern to people with chemical or food sensitivities. Often, the filler used in the pills or capsules is made with gluten or corn or dairy products. These need to be avoided by many people.
When buying from unsure sources or supply chains, one cannot be sure where the supplement may have been, and for how long. If they are sitting in a hot warehouse for months; the effectiveness may be diminished. This is especially true for probiotics.
Therefore, where and what you buy is critically important if you are truly interested in improving your health. Not all Vitamin D the same out there. It is not uncommon to see patients improve once they switch from supplements of unknown quality, to name brand, high-quality supplements. We strive to be cost conscience in the supplements we prescribe.
Part of this awareness is trying to not let patients waste their money on cheaper supplements that do not help them or even hurt them (if they contain gluten, for example).