Are supplements useful or useless?

Over past 3 years I have learned a lot about supplements and I still do learn. Before I became a parent, I was never rigorously taking any supplements, once in a while perhaps I got a low quality multivitamin from a drug store. Of course I have never noticed any significant effect. After my second daughter was born, I was not only deficient in sleep, I was deficient in various vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. At one point I decided to try a mineral and trace elements formula, of high absorption. And I was blown away, on the days I took it I felt and functioned much better, and I even looked much better. My nutrient deficiencies became obvious then. It was the time when I realized that proper supplementation can be quite powerful.

With the knowledge and experience I have now, I am quite critical as to what I supplement myself and what I recommend to my clients. I always look for high quality, high purity, high bioavailability products, and preferably hypoallergenic. No trash supplements are on my list. In general, I think that it does not make sense health wise and wallet wise to take poor quality supplements.

If you do use supplements, do it wisely. Take the supplements that have the potential to help you.

The first question many of you might have: Do we need to take supplements at all?

If we lived in a perfect world, ate nutrient dense foods, had no chronic stress, no sleep issues, no environmental toxins and chemicals, if we had plenty time to relax, if we were born naturally to a healthy mother, if we were breastfed for few years, if we used no drugs and antibiotics - then none of us would ever need to take supplements. Does it describe your life?

It does not mine and I am afraid there are only very few lucky ones who would fit this description. Unfortunately, for most of us - being chronically stressed, malnourished, sleep deprived, and over-medicated is normal, rather than exceptional. It is always essential for your wellbeing to build a healthy foundation by eating a clean diet, reducing exposure to toxins, managing stress, cultivating a positive attitude, having a quality sleep and getting most nutrients from foods. If you are able to get and absorb sufficient amounts of all essential nutrients naturally from foods, and your body is able to utilize them, that's the best way to go. Sometimes however - it’s not optimal, especially with chronic health problems. Then, the right supplementation can be very valuable in achieving good health. On the contrary, if you focus only on taking supplements without addressing your stress, sleep, attitude and a diet – the supplements will not be enough to sustain good health. Some people do well without supplements but they would do better with them. For some people, supplements are completely out of discussion as it does not feel right to take them. That’s ok. If you are open to taking supplements, at first try to find out what you need and what you want to achieve. The best way is to use supplements as a supportive tool to enhance health, prevent disease, and/or reach certain health goals.

Maintenance supplementation vs therapeutic supplementation?

Nutritional supplementation incorporates the use of vitamins, minerals, other various molecules and botanicals to promote good health and to prevent or treat disease. You can take supplements as a form of a maintenance regimen or to meet some specific therapeutic goals. Maintenance supplementation involves supplementing with basic micronutrients that may be difficult to obtain from a healthy diet. Examples might include vitamin D, vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. Even if you eat a healthy diet, it can be very difficult to get all the required nutrients from food alone. Firstly, the vitamin and mineral content of conventionally grown foods has decreased over past decades. Secondly, not everyone can digest, absorb and assimilate nutrients very well. Therapeutic supplementation is focused on addressing a particular health condition or symptom, like anxiety or insomnia. Therapeutic supplementation is beyond the scope of this blog as it largely depends upon the individual health status and the problems to be addressed. Even though maintenance supplementation may also vary based on your circumstances, there are some common guidelines I want to share with you.

Nutrients and supplements worth to consider supplementing with

A high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement. It will provide you with the essential nutrients, can be highly effective in preventing common deficiencies and more convenient to take than few separate mineral and vitamin supplements. Multis are best taken with meals, for example breakfast or lunch. My favorite brands for synthetic multivitamins include Pure Encapsulations, Thorne Research, or a Dutch brand Vitals and from food based multi products consider Garden of Life or New Chapter.

Fish oil - Cod liver oil. It can be a quite potent food based supplement if you want to boost your immunity for example. It is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, vitamin D3, and vitamin A. My favorite brand at the moment is Rosita cod liver oil (CLO).

If you do not take a multivitamin and/or fish oil, consider individuals nutrients such as:

Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is quite common however get your vitamin D level tested before supplementation. We can get vitamin D from two sources: food and sunshine. Seafood is the only significant source of vitamin D, but you’d still have to eat a lot of it to get enough. The D3 produced after sun exposure, along with the D3 we get from food, gets converted by the liver into 25-hyrdroxy-vitamin D (25D), which is what typically gets measured when you have a vitamin D test. The optimal blood serum level of 25D level is around 50 ng/mL. One of the best sources of vitamin D is high-vitamin cod liver oil. It contains not only vitamins A & D, but also omega-3 and natural vitamin E and other quinones.

Magnesium. Magnesium is essential for activity of hundreds of enzymes within our body and most of us, to lesser or greater extent, is deficient in magnesium. High stress, poor diet and lack of sleep increase our need for this nutrient. Most multivitamin supplements do not contain enough magnesium to meet our daily needs. Magnesium is also difficult to obtain from food, nuts and seeds are the highest source. Therefore most people will benefit by supplementing with magnesium, for example between 250– 350 mg daily. Select chelated forms of magnesium such as magnesium glycinate, or magnesium malate because they’re better absorbed and tend to have fewer side effects. If you are constipated, try magnesium citrate.

EPA & DHA. EPA and DHA are omega-3 fats found primarily in cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, and halibut. EPA and DHA play an important role in fetal development, cardiovascular and immune health, weight management, cognitive function, and much more. Low intake of these important nutrients has been associated with a wide range of health problems. It’s a good idea to supplement with a high quality DHA/EPA if you do not eat fatty fish, approximately 500–1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined or have a cod liver oil as it contains EPA and DHA and fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A and D.

Plant-Based Antioxidants such as Flavonoid Extracts or “Green Foods”. Consider these supplements in particular if your diet is deprived in vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Consider grape seed extract, pine bark extract, green tea extract, ginkgo biloba extract, milk thistle extract, bilberry extract, Hawthorn extract, or spirulina.

Vitamin B-complex. B vitamins are essential to coordinate various processes within our body such as neurological function and energy production. Most B vitamins do not remain stored in the body, so they must be acquired daily from the diet to help maintain optimal health. Especially when you have chronic health issues, the chance is high you don’t get enough of them from foods to meet our daily needs.

Probiotics. Supplementing with probiotics may be very valuable if you have compromised gut microbiota due to a history of antibiotic use, poor diet, intestinal infections, or conditions like IBS or inflammatory bowel disease. Check this link for tips on how to select a probiotic supplement.

How to select a high quality supplement?

Not all supplements are created equal. It’s important to choose high quality supplements that contain bioavailable vitamins and minerals, high quality plant extracts, or alive beneficial bacteria in case of probiotics. You also want to use supplements that do not contain unnecessary additives, fillers, coatings, colorings, sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, allergens, heavy metals and other unwanted contaminants.

Form of supplements: select a powder or capsule form over tablets, if possible. In general, tablets contain more additives than powder/capsule forms, or liquid forms.

In addition to product quality choose the formula that’s right for you, a child formula for children, an adult formula for adults, or a prenatal formula during pregnancy.

Food based (natural) vitamins and minerals versus synthetic ones?

Sometimes natural is better (vitamin E, K), sometimes synthetic and sometimes it does not matter with respect to their activity. They all can be helpful at the right dosages and harmful at too high dosages. Most of us think that food-based vitamins are a better idea than synthetic ones. They do work for some people but not everyone will tolerate food-based supplements. For me, not all food based supplements work well as I can develop an allergic reaction. On the other hand, I see great results with high quality synthetics. If you tolerate food-based multivitamins, then take them. If you don’t, then try synthetic ones. Sometimes you just need to try.

What you should consider when taking food based vitamin and mineral supplements:

i) food-based products can cause mild to severe reactions (reactivity to foods) as they contain food based compounds

ii) many food based supplements contain - apart from food based nutrients - also synthetic ones, these products often contain misleading labels such as “natural”, “whole food based”

iii) food based supplements will not necessarily provide you more vitamin and minerals, dosages of vitamins and minerals are often inexact and low in food based supplements but you may get other plant compounds of potential health benefits

iv) food based supplements may be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead

v) food based supplement can consist of a dry extract from plants or a combination of purified compounds from plant food

vi) food based supplements are often more expensive

My favorite supplement brands

Some of my favorite supplement brands include Pure Encapsulations, Thorne Research, NOW Foods and Jarrow Formulas with their good quality and price ratio, Gaia Herbs, Bio-kult probiotics, from food based supplements I recommend Garden of Life or New Chapter, and from Dutch brands AOV, Vitals and Bonusan.

Category: Nutrition icon February 2 2018
Dr Joanna Krzeslak-Hoogland
Author: Dr Joanna Krzeslak-Hoogland

Being inspired by the effect of nutrition, lifestyle and mind on our health, I am dedicated to help people on their journey to wellbeing.

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