My Doc says I need more…
So you went for your annual physical and got your blood work done. It came back and your doctor said you’re lacking in one or another nutrient. Not enough to qualify as a deficiency, where you’d get a prescription level supplement; but enough that your doctor recommended adding a supplement to your diet to boost your levels. Before you hit the corner drugstore and grab whatever is on sale, I have some helpful tips on approaching supplement shopping.
Last year I wrote a post called To Supplement or Not to Supplement. It was a really good article on the basics of supplementation; what they are and why we might need them. I won’t cover that information here, so I suggest you read or re-read that article for more background.
Today I want to take it one step further. I’m starting with the premise that you have been given a recommendation by your doctor to increase or add a given nutrient to your diet. As I discussed last year, our food supply isn’t providing the levels of nutrients it used to, even if you are eating a healthy, nutrient-dense food diet. I, for example, strive to eat a nutrient-dense diet for purposes of assimilation (of nutrients by my gut), excretion of toxins, strengthening and maintaining my immune system and hormone balance. Unfortunately, I’ve been struggling for almost two years now with energy levels. Not so much general energy levels, although those sometime wane. I’m talking about energy at the cellular level.
Mitochondria are the little energy production facilities within our cells. They can be damaged by toxins or drugs like statins, antibiotics and chemotherapy. I’ve been working so hard to build up my detox capabilities and immune system, and have done a great job. I’ve even balanced my hormones and feel great in that respect. But I still haven’t felt “normal” yet. After going through the checklist of functional medicine systems, I realized that energy (made sense) was the one area I have overlooked. I guess I thought it was all the other things like toxins and hormones that just needed to be addressed. But once those were tacked, here I am, still not doing the things I was able to do two years ago. So now I am addressing my mitochondrial health.
This step is going to require some fine tuning to my supplements. It turns out that I have been taking all the right things, just not in the right quantities. And quantities are an area you definitely want to get guidance on from your doctor. Everyone is unique in their health. You wouldn’t want to take something that interacts with something else you are taking. Nor do you want to exceed safe levels, or take things in quantities that throw other nutrients or systems out of balance. I’ve been working with a functional medicine doctor who is aware of my background and is confident I know how to choose quality supplements. But it got me thinking. What does everyone else do (who doesn’t have this knowledge), when they are told to add specific nutrients to their diet?
I remember, not too long ago, I would just go to the corner drug store and see what was on sale. My favorite? BOGO’s. Who wouldn’t love paying half price by buying two of something? It never occurred to me that paying so little for vitamins and minerals was actually costing me in the long run? It’s like food and many other things. You get what you pay for.
How they are made matters
The manufacture of high quality supplements is not a cheap process; so if you’re paying next to nothing for them, what are you getting?
There are three ways supplements can be produced:
- Whole foods based
Synthetic supplements are the more common form on the market. Like most pharmaceutical drugs, they are created in a lab to mimic the active, individual compounds found in nature. The active ingredients are isolates that have been separated from whole foods through processing. The current debate is whether these isolates are readily absorbable and usable by the body in the same way as nutrients from whole foods.1 This is one reason it’s best to look to food first for nutrients, and supplements second.
There is magic to whole foods that can’t be replicated in the lab. We cannot duplicate nature itself. When we eat an apple, for example, we are not only getting the vitamin C it holds. The apple also has phytonutrients, fiber and other nutrients that together form the whole package. These elements all work together to bring us what we need. We’ve talked about the importance of fiber to digestion and blood sugar regulation. The same principal is at play with nutrient absorption. All the keys need to be there to unlock the myriad of events that need to happen for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. And if you are dealing with issues like leaky gut, you may already be having issues with inadequate nutrient absorption. Whole food supplements may bring greater success.
Supplements made through fermentation harness the bioavailability created by bacteria. Remember, bacteria help us digest our food. The fermentation process creates metabolites from bacteria. The metabolites can be other vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients. The role of bacteria in our health is enormous. If you’re just tuning in, I recommend going to the article that started us on the path of examining gut health.
Getting what you pay for
Okay, back to this all-important topic and what you can do to ensure you are not just investing in expensive urine.
The rules around supplements are not as stringent as the rules around pharmaceutical drugs. Sidebar: most pharmaceutical drugs are tested for short periods of time and it isn’t until they are approved, mass-produced and taken by consumers for long periods of time that we find out the long-term, adverse side effects. But I digress.
When purchasing supplements, you want to do your homework or consult with someone who has; such as a doctor well-versed in supplements. If you’re like me, you like to research what you’re spending your money on. So here are some things to look for when researching supplements. After all, this is what you came here for:
- Sourcing – where does the manufacturer get the ingredients they are using in the supplements? Are the food sources organic and non-GMO, have they been tested for contaminants and heavy metals from the soil in which the food was grown?
- Additives and fillers – know what the inactive (other) ingredients are that are listed below the list of nutrients. You don’t want to be taking anything that is unnecessary, could cause a reaction, or add to your toxic burden. Artificial flavors and colors? Put it right back on the shelf. Something that is meant to be health-promoting should not contain ingredients that are health depleting.
- Testing – does the manufacturer offer test results of its supplements by third party certifiers? Examples of third party certifiers are USP Verified and NSF International.
- Efficacy – how effective are the supplements, do they need other nutrients to make them absorbable/bioavailable, or are they made to be bioavailable?
- Research – does the manufacturer provide clinical or general studies on their supplement or identical supplements? Do they employ scientists or doctors that guide their product development, testing, etc.?
You may be leery about doctors selling supplements. If you trust your doctor, you can probably trust the supplements they are selling. Plus, you can ask questions of your doctor about the supplements that you couldn’t otherwise ask the person selling them at a store. You can ask your doctor why they have chosen this particular line. Perhaps, you ask them about the five categories above in particular. It’s my hope that any given doctor would be recommending something because they have seen it work with their patients.
Supplements can be powerful tools of the wellness process when used properly and effectively. Be sure to do your homework and work with your doctor in deciding what is best for your health needs.
I’m off to get some vitamin D the old fashioned way.
Yours in Wellness,