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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.