One of the most common conversations I have with clients is about using supplements as part of a balanced health routine.
Just about everybody has tried at least one supplement at some point, and some people have tried just about every supplement out there!
But there’s a huge amount of confusion out there about which supplements are best, if supplements are even effective, if you can take them with medication, and so on.
My goal with this post is to clear up all that confusion and create a one-stop resource for all the common questions you have on this important topic.
So let’s get started with the basics.
We’re going to cover…
- What are supplements?
- What are the benefits of taking supplements?
- Shouldn’t you get all your nutrients from food?
- Do you need a prescription to take supplements?
- How should you use supplements? Can they be misused?
- Are supplements safe? How do you know if a brand is good quality?
- What’s the deal with counterfeit supplements?
- What’s the difference between taking a multivitamin & taking specific individual supplements?
- Should everyone take a multivitamin?
- Once you start, do you have to take the supplement forever?
- Do supplements have side effects? Do they interact with medications?
- Are there situations where you shouldn’t take supplements?
- How do you know if your supplements are working?
What are supplements?
Nutritional or dietary supplements are tablets, capsules, powders, gummies, chewables or liquids that include one or more ingredients of vitamins, minerals, herbs, phytonutrients, amino acids, probiotics, or enzymes.
Ideally, they are intended to improve one or multiple aspects of your health by providing substances that will help to create normal, and even optimal, function in the body.
What are the benefits of taking supplements?
There are a few key benefits to taking supplements:
- Fill nutritional gaps in your diet: for example, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and don’t get enough B vitamins or iron from your current diet
- Prevent or correct nutritional deficiencies: for example, if you take a medication that leads to nutrient deficiencies, such as birth control pills depleting B12, B6, B2, magnesium, folate, zinc, and vitamin C (you can check this site to see if your medications are associated with a nutrient deficiency)
- Improve and optimize the health and function of your body: for example, magnesium to optimize sleep quality
- Reduce your risk of acute and chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (in both men and women) and cognitive decline.
Shouldn’t you get all your nutrients from your food?
In an ideal world, yes. But it is unrealistic to think that this is possible for all people, all the time.
Even if you take special care to calculate all of your nutrient needs in your diet, this doesn’t account for the actual nutrients in food grown in nutrient-depleted topsoil. Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows.
It’s very difficult to calculate how much of a particular nutrient you are eating, and honestly, if you’re looking for ways to optimize your health, spending your time trying to figure out your micronutrient intake is probably not the best use of your time.
It’s far more effective to put that energy into eating a healthy diet, exercising and monitoring your progress — and taking a good quality multivitamin or work with your healthcare provider to identify the nutrients you are most likely to need to cover any gaps.
It’s also important to mention that you can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet. Multivitamins are meant to supplement a balanced diet.
They are a secondary support system to the rest of your health strategy. They are not magic pills. They work best in conjunction with a healthy diet, consistent exercise routine and good sleep hygiene.
If you’re spiking your insulin all the time with lots of sugar or flooding your liver with a bottle or two of wine every night, for example, addressing those habits will have a much greater effect on your health than a supplement ever will.
Do you need a prescription to take supplements?
In most cases, you don’t need a prescription to buy supplements (as you can see from the thousands of supplements available for purchases in stores and online).
Often a doctor or health professional will recommend a supplement as part of your overall health strategy. In some cases, the recommendation won’t require any prescription and you will be able to get the supplement directly.
However, some individual supplements and supplement brands require the prescription of a healthcare professional and do not sell directly to the public.
These high-quality supplement brands do this to ensure that their products are taken safely and correctly. This also controls the supply chain so that they are stored properly to maintain their quality, are not expired when they reach customers and so on.
How should you use supplements? Can they be misused?
As with anything related to your health, you should consider your individual needs and goals before stocking up on a new supplement.
It is important to take into account your health history and current medications to look for any contraindications.
Just because it’s natural or a supplement doesn’t mean that it can’t cause harm. For example, Vitamin D (and all the fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, E and K) can accumulate in the body and lead to toxicity when taken at high doses for too long.
Consider your source for health and supplement information.
Just because Dr. Google, a well-intentioned grocery store clerk or even your ‘healthy’ friend recommends it doesn’t mean that it’ll work for you or will be safe!
Of course, in many cases, you’ve done your research and know that you want to take a shot at improving an aspect of your health with a particular supplement.
Choose a high-quality brand and test it out at the recommended dosage. Sometimes the recommended daily intake will be more than you personally need, so you can also experiment with scaling it back until you find the amount that gives you a good result.
You can also do a blood test, like this one for Vitamin D, to check whether a particular supplement or dosage is right for you.
Are supplements safe? How do you know if a brand is good quality?
Good quality supplements are safe when they are used correctly and in the right circumstances.
Unfortunately, there are some supplement manufacturers who don’t prioritize the best outcomes for their customer’s health (and we’ll go over that in more detail in the next section).
So it is important to choose a supplier that really does care about the impact of their product on your health, and is doing everything they can to provide you with a quality product.
There are a few key points I consider when I’m assessing if a supplement company meets my standards or not.
1. Manufacturing practices and compliance
I have clients emailing me all the time asking what I think about a particular supplement company or product. This seemingly simple question is always a bit more complex than they realize. Information is needed on the manufacturing practices and ongoing third-party testing and certifications of each facility in the supply chain.
The manufacturing facility and the products produced must be compliant with that country’s regulatory body, such as the current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) set by the FDA from the US or the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) from Australia.
(The TGA is widely recognized as the toughest regulatory agency in the world and when a supplement company has TGA certification you can be sure it is a high-quality product.)
NSF in an international organization that conducts third-party testing on nutritional supplements and personal care products. The NSF certification lets you know that the company complies with strict standards and procedures and the company has undergone extensive product testing and material analyses, as well as unannounced plant inspections.
Here are some certifications to look for on the website or directly on the bottle of your supplements that would indicate that they are holding themselves to the highest standards.
The company must source high-quality ingredients that are highly absorbable, validated by clinical research to be safe, and are without common allergens.
They should conduct third-party testing at several different points in the manufacturing process. This should happen for all products to ensure identity, potency, and purity.
It’s a major plus for me if the company is also thinking about sustainability in the ingredients they use, their packaging, and their shipping.
I recommend that my clients buy their supplements from Fullscript. Fullscript offers high-quality brands sold only to health practitioners.
Remember to purchase straight from the producer or a licensed supplier. In general, it’s good to avoid Amazon — more on this below.
What’s the deal with counterfeit supplements?
You might be excited to find one of your physician-prescribed supplements at a much cheaper price on Amazon, but be warned, because you may not be getting what you asked for.
Many popular products on the Amazon marketplace are counterfeit knockoffs, including supplements.
And counterfeit Amazon listings are not the only problem. In 2015 the New York State attorney general’s office exposed widespread labeling fraud in the supplement industry:
“The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels.
The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.”
What’s the difference between taking a multivitamin & taking specific individual supplements?
Multivitamins contain a formula of essential vitamins and minerals in amounts similar to the dietary reference intakes (DRI).
These reference values are used to plan and assess nutrient intakes of healthy people and can be formulated to fit the specific needs of different groups (men, women, prenatal, elderly, children, etc.).
If you have a particular need (such as increased calcium for the treatment of osteoporosis), individual supplements may be chosen with the necessary dosage to create the desired result, since this will often be higher than the amount you would find in a multivitamin (or might not be included in a multivitamin at all — someone with osteoporosis, for example, may be instructed to take 1000mg of calcium citrate in several divided doses daily while your multivitamin may only have 30mg).
Here’s a checklist for identifying a good multivitamin:
- Uses highly absorbable forms of nutrients — avoid those containing magnesium oxide, folic acid, and D2 (ergocalciferol)
- Contains approximately 100%+ of the RDA for most vitamins and minerals (B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 12, calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, iron (only as needed with diagnosed anemia), magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, vitamins A, D, E and K, vitamin C and zinc)
- Does not contain milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans
- Does not contain fillers, artificial colors, additives, or sweeteners
- Has the cGMP, NSF, or TGA certification
- Avoid hard tablets as they are more difficult to digest than capsules
My favorite iron-free multivitamins are (for worldwide shipping) Thorne Research Basic Nutrients 2/Day for very basic support and Advanced Nutrients for more comprehensive support. And for US shipping, I recommend creating an account with Fullscript and search for: O.N.E. Multivitamin for basic support or DFH Complete Multi for more comprehensive support.
Should everyone take a multivitamin?
The short answer is no. It really depends on your current diet, current health, health risks, and health goals.
A basic blood test can go a long way to tell you if you are meeting your current nutritional needs through your diet.
That said, most people benefit from taking a high-quality multivitamin from time to time, especially after a period of illness and during times of high stress.
If you do not eat a balanced diet or if you follow a specific dietary regimen such as keto, vegetarian, or vegan, it may be necessary to supplement certain nutrients.
If you haven’t had a recent blood test, here are some potential signs that you are low in one more vitamins/minerals and could benefit from a high-quality multivitamin:
- Easy bruising
- Slow wound healing
- White spots or brittle nails
- Poor vision at night
- Dry eyes or dry skin
- High blood pressure
- Lack of taste or smell
- Bleeding gums
- Cognitive decline
- Leg cramps
Once you start, do you have to take the supplement forever?
Some supplements are meant to be taken long-term to support a specific health situation and to mitigate certain health risks. Others are intended to be taken until a health issue resolves, or as your particular needs call for it.
Long-term: Taking CoQ10 to prevent a deficiency while taking a statin drug to lower your cholesterol and cardiovascular risk
Short-term: Taking d-mannose + Vit C to help clear up a mild urinary tract infection
As needed: Taking magnesium to support sleep, or Vitamin D to support immunity during times of stress
Do supplements have side effects? Do they interact with medications?
Yes, they can have side effects.
Examine is a great resource for reading about the research related to different supplements as well as any side effects or things to be cautious of.
Some side effects are temporary and harmless (such as facial flushing with niacin), while others could be quite damaging (such as too much vitamin A, which can lead to liver damage).
And yes, they commonly interact with medications.
This is why it’s a good idea to work with a health professional who is trained in the use of medications and supplements so that you are taking a synergistic combination and don’t run into any complications.
Here is a basic online drug-nutrient interaction checker by Medscape but your doctor or pharmacist will likely have a more complete resource.
Are there situations where you shouldn’t take supplements?
Pregnant women do best to limit their intake of herbs and supplements as much as possible apart from a prenatal vitamin and DHA.
Other supplements and herbs can be used safely in pregnancy but you should work with a healthcare professional to make sure that they are not interfering with the pregnancy.
How do you know if your supplements are working?
Some supplements work right away (such as digestive enzymes), while others need some time to build up in your system to have the desired effect (such as fish oil to reduce inflammation).
There is an endless list of supplements to choose from so it is best to come up with a plan for what to take, how long, and how you will know if it’s working (improved symptom, improved blood test), etc., and then regularly check in to make sure it’s still needed and working.
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Supplements can be a powerful addition to your health strategy. They can significantly improve your quality of life, reduce your risk of lifestyle or chronic disease, and support your performance goals.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to taking supplements, and it’s important that you consider your personal needs. Work with a healthcare professional to make sure you’re taking the right combination for your individual situation, and to ensure there won’t be any complications.
I spend a lot of time working with clients on tailored supplement plans to support their needs and goals. To explore working together on your own personalized health plan, click here.