To supplement or not to supplement? That, is the question.

And a good question at that.

We’ve all been there – standing in front of the “Health and Body” section of our grocery store or pharmacy contemplating how we’re going to “rejuvenate,” “detox,” and “enrich.” In fact, most of the bottles lining the shelves are covered in claims that they will do just that. So we pick our poison, pay a ridiculous amount for a bottle of 60 tablets, and walk out, excited about the “new, healthier me.”

But, are these supplements all that they’re cracked up to be? Do they really make our skin glow, melt our fat, and boost our energy? More importantly, are they even safe?

Let’s first address the following: are you actually getting what you paid for?

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test supplements to make sure that they actually contain what is written on the label. So, while you might think you’re buying a bottle of 5000 IU tablets of vitamin D, you could really be buying a bottle of 1000 IU tablets of vitamin D, or a bottle full of sugar tablets (aka placebos), or worse, a bottle full of tablets contaminated with toxins like mercury or lead.

Why would a supplement company do this? Maybe they're greedy and want to make a larger profit margin. Maybe they're totally oblivious and the error is due to shear negligence. Whatever the reason, it happens.

You see, the problem with supplements is that there isn’t much in the way of regulation. According to the FDA, supplements fall into their own category – they aren’t considered food and they aren’t considered pharmaceutical drugs. And, unlike drugs that must be proven safe before sold to consumers, supplements can hit the shelves without any real scrutiny. It is upon the manufacturer to have a safe product, but there is no trial done by the FDA to ensure it. The only time the FDA really gets involved is in reaction to the discovery that a supplement is dangerous. For those affected, this could be too little too late. 

But, aside from being mislabeled, supplements can just be straight up dangerous. 

One day, while I was working in a hospital for my dietetic training, a girl came in and presented with all the signs of liver damage – her enzymes were elevated, her eyes were cloudy, and her skin had a yellow tone to it. I had seen liver failure with patients who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, obesity, and cancer, but this girl was different. She was otherwise completely healthy, yet when asked about her medication and supplement regimen she said that a few months prior she had decided to start taking a supplement. Little did she know, that supplement was taxing her liver, the organ that processes all of the drugs we ingest. After a while, her liver gave out and her health rapidly declined. 

Supplements can also negatively interact with conventional therapies that could otherwise be life saving. Take green tea extract for example. While most people might assume that green tea extract would help with cancer treatment due to its high antioxidant content, taking green tea extract can actually be dangerous as it can inhibit the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments.

Finally, more is not always better.

In fact, for fat-soluble vitamins (think: A, D, E, and K) it may actually be hazardous. Because fat-soluble vitamins get stored in our bodies, we have the capacity to absorb more than we need. While having a small reserve may not be bad, this becomes problematic when too much builds up. In fact, too much can lead to toxicity. 

Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, water-soluble vitamins (think any vitamin other than A, D, E, and K) don’t really get stored in our bodies. Because of this, we absorb only as much as we need at that moment in time. Any excess leaves through our urine. So while the mega-dose of Biotin might sound like it’s worth the splurge, the extra 5 dollars you're spending is actually only going to make your urine more precious. You're literally and figuratively flushing your money down the toilet.

Verdict:

My first piece of advice is to try and get as many of your nutrients from your food.

The power of natural whole foods to keep us healthy is unparalleled. While the power of science should not be undermined, there is only so much that science is able to achieve when trying to mimic nature. This is because for every vitamin and mineral we know about, there could be millions of other nutrients that science has yet to discover. The nutrients in food – both known and unknown work together, which is why taking a nutrient in isolation may not actually work the way it does when we get it from our food.

But this is not to say that supplements have absolutely no place in your healthcare regimen.

Sometimes supplements are truly warranted. For example, some people might have allergies, intolerances, or very particular food preferences that require extremely restricted diets that lead to deficiency. Others might have a health condition or be taking a medication that causes a deficiency. And still others might not be deficient at all, but require a boost of particular vitamins and minerals that cannot really be achieved through food (think: prenatal vitamins).

When supplementing is necessary, talk to your doctor!

First, he or she can tell you if it is truly necessary. Second, you should make sure that it will not complicate any current health regimen you might already be on. And finally, he or she might be able to provide you with brand recommendations since, unfortunately as we discussed, not all supplement brands can be trusted.

PS- If you're concerned about getting enough of what you need from your diet, I may or may not know a dietitian who can help you out ;)

 

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