d

Find the silence
   which contains thought.
       --Hakuin       

    

To Supplement or Not to Supplement?

That is the question!

No matter if it is around food, medication, herbs, lifestyle or supplements, the one theme that I preach is awareness. If, through good education and a committed desire, you create awareness around the choices you make, the right path will reveal itself. And nowhere is this more true than in the overwhelming world of supplement use.

In a patient’s first or second visit with me, I have them bring in all their supplements and medications. At some point perhaps I’ll stop being surprised at the shopping bag full of stuff some people come in with! And invariably, people are unclear as to why they are taking a supplement or, more often, whether or not they feel well on it.

Why supplement?

By the mere definition, supplements are designed to supplement food. Food is and always should be the first medicine. It is often the first to hurt just as it is the first to help. There are two arguments you often hear in support of supplements:

1. “These days, the soil is so depleted and our food is far less nutritious than it used to be.”

I agree with this statement, to a point. Very few of us indeed are getting our food directly from farms. We do not see or know where it comes from. And there are so many genetically modified or contaminated foods out there, that it is easy to argue that the modern day apple is not as nutritious as it used to be. Yet, in our modern, diverse, choices-galore culture, if we choose, we can eat a diet made up entirely of 100% organic produce. We can even shop at farmers’ markets on a daily basis! Also, look around you. Does it look like people are under-nourished? Obesity is far more of a concern in the US than starvation. So when a patient comes in with labs showing vitamin deficiency yet they are eating a well-balanced diet, the first question that has to be asked, is whether they are actually absorbing their food well. If they are not, then why spend money on supplements that they cannot absorb?

2. “Food is not strong enough to treat conditions.”

This is also true, to a degree. Sometimes you do need to intervene with a strong therapeutic dose of something to help a patient. That is what herbs, acupuncture, medications, and supplements are for. In these instances, food is their to assist in the healing and may not in fact be strong enough to treat by itself. Yet, to prescribe anything without looking at one’s poor food choices is throwing good after bad. If you clean up the diet, a major contributing factor in most disease states, perhaps there will be less to treat. Perhaps, instead of giving someone a sleep aid, they need to get off caffeine. Perhaps, instead of prescribing an antacid, let’s find what foods cause the most discomfort and get them off them first. I have one pediatric patient whose mother got him off dairy and in 2 weeks his eczema cleared up by 80%! Always start with removing the greatest offending agent and then consider how to actively intervene. Less is actually more!

So when should you supplement?

1. A little information is dangerous. Know what you are taking and why. It is good to experiment, but do so with knowledge and guidance. Do not simply trust your friend’s anecdotal testimony or the health-food store cler's advice after speaking with you for 30 seconds. You may both get headaches but the causes of your headaches may be entirely different than theirs. Plus, sometimes people choose supplements because they have all sorts of alluring “healthy” and “natural” ingredients. If you do not know what it is for, do not put it in your body. Just because it is “natural” does not mean it is safe or appropriate for you. For example, if you have breast cancer or fibroids or another estrogen-related condition and your multi-vitamin has a bunch of estrogenic herbs in it, you are doing more harm than good by taking that supplement.

2. When you do add a supplement to your diet, add just one at a time. Tune in to how you feel on it and notice if there are any perceptible changes. Sometimes, you may not notice any change at all, and sometimes you will. But at least give yourself the opportunity to gather that information so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to continue its use.

3. Too much of anything can be dangerous. Even water! With anything that you put in your body, there is a time when it may be therapeutically beneficial (if prescribed correctly). But at some point, the effect becomes neutral and then it may transition into becoming harmful. The time frame is very individual. If you eat oatmeal everyday for breakfast, at some point it may become allergenic for you. Variety is the spice of life, they say. When I prescribe herbs, I change out 100% of your herbs every 1-2 months so you will have little chance ofgrowing toelrant or having an adverse reaction to them. When you do supplement, I suggest changing up your schedule: one week on one week off, every other day, etc. Take a vacation from your vitamins periodically. Perhaps you already instinctively do this by “forgetting” to take them. Honor that and listen to your body’s wisdom.

4. If there is something you wish to treat yourself, do your homework, choose correctly, and supplement for a short and focused period of time until your symptoms change and you feel better. In the meantime you can make the proper diet and lifestyle changes so that you can stop taking the supplements as soon as is comfortable.

5. When choosing supplements, keep it simple. Opt for products that have no more than 100% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and avoid products with more than just vitamins and minerals like herbs (See #1 above). Our livers and kidneys already have a hard enough job processing everything we put into our bodies, without having to figure out how to breakdown 1667% of B12. Even though that vitamin is water soluble and we pee out what we don’t use, your body still has to break it down. Besides, our bodies understand far better vitamins in food form than in such a highly concentrated isolated nutrient form. Companies that have such high potency vitamins claim that by introducing such levels to the body, you are bound to absorb some of it. Our bodies are challenged enough every day. Why overwhelm the body when you can get what you need from food?

6. Sometimes you may need the guidance of a qualified health care practitioner to more clearly interpret your health issues. Even for doctors, it is seldom wise to treat ourselves. When we do so, we lose any and all objectivity and run the risk of misinterpreting our condition. And for the lay person, this is even more of a problem. And sometimes, when you supplement, you may mask what is really going on. It gives you a false feeling of vitality and may even be harmful. For example, if you have an existing infection, just as vitamins may nourish you, they can equally nourish the bacteria or viruses dragging down your health.

One service I offer my patients is to test anything and everything they take to see what is supportive, harmful, or completely neutral to their health. Once again, less is actually more!

~~~~

There was a time when all we had as a resource for health information was our family doctor and may have felt paralyzed by not having enough information – no one person can be an expert on everything! Yet, these days it seems as if we may be paralyzed by having too much information thanks to the internet and 24-hour news. And the world of supplements is no different. I hope the guidelines above have helped to clarify the decisions you make for you and your family regarding supplement use. And as always, if you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

 

© Jordan Hoffman, L.Ac., Dipl. OM, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The information presented here is not medical advice, is not intended as medical advice, and is intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture and is not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of this information.

 
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This site and any articles on this site are not medical advice and are not intended as medical advice and are intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and acupuncture and are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of the information on this site and any articles.