Have you ever found your cupboards to be overflowing with vitamins and nutritional supplements? A nutritionist friend of mine recently told me about her typical client’s first visit: “They walk in with these giant bags – sometimes three or four bags – and ask me to go through them all, one by one,” the client often lugging massive supplement-bottle-loaded bags. Sighing, she said, “I tell them, more times than not, they are simply wasting money.”
Keep in mind my nutritionist friend is pro-supplement. I am pro-supplement. Yet we both agree: A lot of supplements are a waste of time, money, and effort.
Among numerous problems, many commercial brands are poorly regulated, utilize inferior ingredients, and sometimes sit on drugstore shelves for months or years (thereby losing their efficacy).
We hate seeing people waste money on what are usually “bargain-basement” nutrients that in the long run drain your wallet and potentially damage your health.
Supplement Spending in America
Americans love their nutritional supplements: In 2015 alone they spent over 20 billion dollars on them.(1) Some purchases prove perfectly legit, especially when you purchase quality brands from a reputable professional. For the most part, however, people often massive hard-earned amounts of money on empty claims, unsubstantiated promises, and inferior quality products.
It’s 2017. Let’s get back to basics and do this correctly. We call these supplements for a reason: They should supplement a quality diet, rich in whole foods, high fiber, and low in sugar. Deep down, I do believe you should get your nutrients from food.
Supplements aren’t “magic pills” that transform your health (or midsection). Instead, they can provide therapeutic amounts of nutrients that fill in the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you might not be – OK, probably aren’t – getting in your diet.
Supplements vs. Whole Foods
“Can’t I just get all the nutrients I need from food?” someone will occasionally ask. “After all, my grandparents ate nutritious food, and I don’t remember them swallowing pills, yet they lived till their 90s.”
Good question. Unfortunately, today farmers grow less nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables compared with even few decades ago. A 2004 study looked at Department of Agriculture data for 43 crops from 1950 to 1999. Researchers found statistically significant declines for protein, calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamins B2 as well as C.(2)
That makes sense when you consider numerous things, including transit time (produce might arrive in your supermarket days or weeks after it grows) coupled with conventional farming practices including the uses of pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Buying organic becomes crucial. Research shows organic produce is more nutrient-dense with fewer pesticides and heavy metals than conventional produce.(3) They also have more nutrients like vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.(4) Even then, you might not get optimal nutrient quantities. Much depends on what your body needs — and we’re all different.
Quality matters with food, and that goes triple with supplements. Not all supplements are created equal. I’ve personally toured supplement manufacturing plants which utilized quality controls that were not requirements, according to U.S. regulations. This is the type of manufacturing company from which I want my supplements coming! In my opinion, the more quality assurance testing for purity, the better.
I personally am a fan of supplements made available in professional product lines through health care practitioners. Here, the testing and quality controls are much better — far beyond what you’d find in vitamins sold at the bulk food store. Yes, they cost more, but these companies also uphold an integrity most commercial supplements don’t. If you can, find an integrative physician or nutritionist who can help you navigate the murky supplement world. That might cost more initially, but you’ll save money on supplements you might not need.
If that’s not possible or you’d rather go it alone, this guide will show you what to choose, what you might consider, and a few supplements you can more than likely trash.
Take These Nutritional Supplements
These foundational nutrients provide basic nutrient support you’re probably not getting from food. They can optimize nutrient status, reduce inflammation, and provide many other health benefits. For nearly everyone, I recommend some basics.
1. A full-spectrum multi-vitamin/mineral
A quality multi contains optimal nutrients in their most absorbable form in the correct ratios. They usually include vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, all B vitamins, calcium, iron, phosphorus, iodine, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, and potassium. Higher-end multis might also include things like alpha lipoic acid, inositol, grape seed extract, Gingko biloba, and N-acetyl-L-cysteine. Among their many benefits, studies show a daily multi can contribute to the prevention of cancer (5) and osteoporosis.(6)
Recognize that many studies use “one-a-day” multivitamins: Hardly the best option to optimize nutrient bases. Professional-quality multis typically include two to six (and sometimes more) capsules a day. Swallowing a few extra capsules to get therapeutic amounts of nutrients – not “minimal wage nutrition,” as many one-a-days contain – becomes worth your extra time and effort.
2. Fish oil
Inflammation plays a role in nearly every disease on the planet, including obesity.(7) Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are “essential” by definition because your body cannot make them. EFAs fall into two categories: Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3s are mostly anti-inflammatory and Omega 6s are usually inflammatory (with a few exceptions). Whereas our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed about an equal ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, today we consume up to 50 times more inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids.(8)
Wild-caught fish becomes an ideal way to get more of these crucial essential fatty acids, but most people don’t regularly eat fish. Even if you do, you could benefit from taking a fish oil supplement. Among the numerous benefits of taking omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) include brain, eye, heart health, and joint health, and cognitive function.(9, 10, 11)
Quality especially becomes paramount here, as many commercial fish oils can become quickly rancid and contain mercury as well as other toxins. (12, 13) From a dietary perspective, don’t forget there’s one other way to balance out your Omega 3s and Omega 6s — starting with reducing consumption of Omega 6-dominant grain-fed beef (as opposed to grass-fed beef) and most farmed fish (as opposed to most wild fish).
3. Vitamin D
Many people are deficient in this vitamin that’s actually a hormone. Darker-skinned people such as African Americans and Hispanics especially have deficiencies (14), but if you’re not living in a sunny most-of-the-the year climate (most of us aren’t), you’re probably deficient. Overall, researchers estimate about half the world population being carries vitamin D deficiencies.(15) Among its roles, vitamin D contributes to immune system function, brain health, digestion, cancer protection, hormone production, and bone formation. (15, 16) Researchers link deficiencies to many chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer. (17)
To determine exactly how much Vitamin D you should be taking, ask your doctor for a 25-Hydroxy Vitamin D Test. Individuals who test deficient can take a higher-than-typical dose of Vitamin D (for example, 10,000 IUs per day) until falling into an ideal category, and then shift back to 2,000 – 5,000 IUs daily to maintain ideal levels in the body which can be monitored through this testing. (18, 19)
You are probably not surprised that the number one health complaint and reason people visit a doctor is because of gut issues.(20) Gut health’s connection with overall health has become a hot nutrition topic, and rightly so: A healthy gut participates in brain function, digestion, vitamin and mineral absorption, immune function, and overall health.(21) There are a number of factors which can contribute to the depletion of good gut flora — everything from the overuse of antibiotics overuse to chronic stress — so, a quality probiotic crucial for most people. Look for one that has billions of microorganisms with several bacterial strains. (In comparison, basic yogurt at the grocery store might only offer 1 or 2 bacterial strains and far fewer overall microorganisms.) Shelf life particularly matters here: These are live bacteria that can die out quickly. Therefore, keeping your probiotics in the fridge is a good idea.
Over 300 enzymatic reactions require this underrated mineral (22), in which upwards of 80 percent of Americans are deficient. (23) Besides not getting enough magnesium in foods (nuts, seeds, and leafy greens are good sources), everyday culprits like chronic stress and caffeine can deplete what little magnesium we do get. Magnesium is a bulky mineral, so even a good multi will contain some but probably not optimal amounts — that’s why Magnesium on its own is a good idea. I recommend a chelated magnesium supplement or powder. Start gradually and increase, since taking too much at once might leave you running to the bathroom.
You Might Need These
Beyond the basics, a few supplements can step in and provide support you for certain conditions, hence we call these “conditionally essential nutrients.”
Working with a nutritionist to address individual health concerns becomes paramount because unlike the above nutrients, not everyone needs these supplements. A complete list is beyond this article’s scope, but among the most important include:
- Digestive enzymes. Post-meal gas, bloating, and “running to the bathroom” become cues you aren’t completely breaking down your food. Chronic stress and age are among the culprits that reduce your body’s digestive enzyme production, making supplementing worth a shot. Research shows digestive enzyme supplementation can help digestive and absorption disorders (24), something I often see in people over 30 or people with chronic stress — which is a lot of people. This said, there are other ways to spark your body’s enzyme production on its own, by addressing food sensitivities and, as simple as it sounds, chewing your food, eating it slowly, and being careful what other foods you combine it with.
- L-glutamine. In addition to its popularity for leaky gut syndrome, research shows this conditionally essential amino acid might benefit patients with weak immune systems — L-glutamine can help strengthen the immunity. (25) For trauma of major surgery, glutamine can potentially speed up healing and recovery time. (26) Athletes might also benefit using L-glutamine to speed up recovery times.
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). This powerful antioxidant particularly benefits heart muscle health. It is well-recognized that statin drugs (to reduce cholesterol) interfere with the production of mevalonic acid, a precursor of CoQ10 in the body, making CoQ10 supplementation crucial for individuals taking these types of medications.(27) CoQ10 also works within your energy-producing mitochondria, so fatigue sufferers might benefit. CoQ10 also becomes ideal for vigorous athletes. (28) Like fish oil, quality matters here, since most CoQ10 supplements are poorly absorbable. You’ll want to find one in a lipophilic carrier to enhance absorption.
- Glucosamine. This naturally occurring substance helps synthesize and maintain cartilage and other connective tissue. Glucosamine supplementation can protect joints against athletic wear-and-tear and aging. Studies show supplementing can increase the amount of cartilage and fluid that surrounds the joints to prevent joint deterioration and reduce pain.(29) Some supplements combine glucosamine with other joint-protecting, anti-inflammatory nutrients like chondroitin and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). These are perfect legit additions that might provide more benefits. (30, 31, 32)
- Curcumin. The primary compound found in turmeric can provide powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. (33) Curcumin can benefit many chronic illnesses, including brain, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, and autoimmune diseases. (34) Like CoQ10, find a curcumin supplement in an optimal lipophilic carrier. (35)
Pass on These
“Lose 10 pounds by this weekend!” “Get shredded without hitting the gym.” “Get your high school sex drive back and wow your woman!”
You’ve probably read similarly outlandish claims, perhaps tempting you to give them a go. Supplement companies know nearly everyone wants fast weight loss, increased muscle mass, or amazing sex drive (or all of the above!), and they’ve cashed in with a massive array of products to provide those boosts.
In 2012 alone, Americans spent $20 billion on diet books, diet drugs, and weight-loss surgeries. (36) Unfortunately, these as well as athletic-focused and libido-boosting supplements are among the most overhyped, under-science-supported markets. To cover them all would take a book, but caveat emptor: Few will do any good. Frequent offenders you’ll find include:
- Garcinia cambogia. This so-called miracle supplement carries no real science to support its weight loss claims. Animal studies show minor benefits, but unfortunately they haven’t been replicated among adults. (37)
- Raspberry ketones. Another supposed weight loss “miracle,” raspberry ketone occurs in small amounts in blackberries, cranberries, and kiwis, yet supplements typically contain synthetic raspberry ketones. (38) Most studies involve animals. One human study combined diet, exercise, and a nutrient-blend supplement that contained raspberry ketones. The results were impressive, though we aren’t sure exactly what created that weight loss, and it probably wasn’t raspberry ketones alone. (39)
- Testosterone boosters. Frequently promoted for muscle strength, recovery, and of course, increased sex drive, NDMA and “boosters” frequently fail to show they increase testosterone production. (40) Sorry, you’re not going to pop a few of these and suddenly turn into Raging Bull or have the sex drive of a horny adolescent.
- Junk supplements. This spans a broad category, including one-a-day multis that contain synthetic forms of nutrients and artificial sweeteners or colors. Watch out for cheap supplements available in the grocery aisle. I’ve always felt it’s best to not buy your vitamins where you buy potato chips! Access your supplements from a knowledgeable nutritionist or other healthcare professional who stands by what they sell. In most cases, if your professional-grade supplements don’t work out or if they cause you adverse reactions, nutrition professionals are likely to work with you and make amends. Don’t expect this service from the supermarket!
In a nutshell: Do your research, use your best judgment, and listen to the advice of a competent health practitioner with experience in natural supplements. Less is more: You probably don’t need tons of supplements, and a few quality well-chosen basics work best for most people.
If you supplement, what would you add to this list? What benefits have you personally seen from supplementing? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.