Supplements: Hype or Helpful?
In an ideal world, people everywhere would be able to obtain the nutrition they require from diet alone without Supplements.
So many factors (no matter what country you live in) make this very unrealistic today. Some people simply don’t have access to good food, and food supplements are essential to their health (if they are fortunate enough to have access).
For those of us in wealthier countries, there are several environmental, genetic and clinical reasons why taking supplements may be necessary for your health.
Why Are Supplements Necessary?
Many supplements are purely born of health fads and hype, but some are essential. In some instances, supplements are life-saving and provide us with a level of health that we cannot achieve through diet alone. Below are several key reasons why supplements are necessary for modern humans;
- The quality of our soils has become depleted, and they are also naturally deficient in some vital nutrients. Food grown in soil depleted of nutrients, trace minerals and healthy soil microbes has a direct impact on plant, animal and human health
- Our world is more polluted than ever. Soil, water, air, the workplace and households expose us to heavy metals and other pollutants. A healthy diet will undoubtedly protect us from most of the harm these can cause, but specific supplements are essential to support our endogenous detoxification systems
- Our health history plays a huge part in our need for nutrient supplementation. Damage to the digestive system through leaky gut, antibiotic exposure, refined carbohydrate diets, foods laden with pesticides, caesarean section birth, substance and medication use, all increase our requirements for nutrients that may not be addressed through diet alone.
Integrative or Functional Medicine Nutritional Practitioners
Before taking supplements, it is essential to work with a certified nutritional practitioner (Naturopath, Nutritionist, Dietician, Doctor or Pharmacist) with specific education in nutrition. They are trained to prescribe based on taking a thorough case history and lab testing, and focus on treating the underlying cause in each individual. Integrative and nutritional practitioners are trained to treat the cause (e.g. address the inflammation causing the headache versus reaching for the aspirin). They should be able to state precisely why you need the supplement, and follow-up to measure outcomes. Depending on the case, supplements may only be required short-term or they may need to the taken on an ongoing basis.
An experienced practitioner can help you answer some key questions:
- Could I achieve my health goals in another way, e.g. diet, exercise, sleep?
- Is there clinical and scientific evidence for this supplement?
- Are the formulation and dosage correct for my condition, life stage and age?
- What else is in my supplement, besides the active constituents and ingredients?
- Will this supplement interact with my current supplements and medications?
- Has this supplement been formulated based on good quality control practices?
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Supplements from Retail Stores
There are some excellent OTC supplement products, but again, it is essential first to seek assistance from a professional who has studied them. Many practitioners recommend retail ranges, but they do so based on objective clinical opinions. If a store or clinic only supplies 1 or 2 brands, you might be wary as best clinical practice means prescription based on formulations, not brands.
Some OTC supplements are well-formulated, but some are not. The benefits are affordability and convenience. The risks are that formulations may not have clinically relevant levels of the vitamins or minerals (not high enough doses to make a difference) or they may contain inferior quality ingredients.
So, are practitioner-only supplements hype? Mostly, not!
“Practitioner-only” supplements are the gold standard based on excellent quality control practices and higher dosages that can have a more significant impact. They are formulations often put together based on studies, human biochemistry and nutraceutical research.
Again, it is essential to work with an experienced practitioner skilled in nutrient therapy who has years of education, clinical experience and knows how to conduct thorough case-taking. They should only be prescribed after an appointment with a health professional especially when dealing with chronic health issues (purchasing a supplement after a quick chat with a practitioner will probably not be enough time to ascertain exactly what will be the best protocol for your health).
Supplements containing herbal medicines should be prescribed by a professional with a specific qualification in herbal medicine, a highly specialised area of complementary medicine which takes years to master.
Supplements Purchased Online
Online supplements are a booming business globally due to convenience and cost. But if buying overseas, it is essential to consider that your country’s regulatory process has not scrutinised the products. Again it is advised that you work with a nutritional practitioner before shopping online.
Food-based supplements cover the spectrum of powders, liquids, gels, drinks, shakes and snacks. Before reaching for the latest superfood powder, be honest with yourself or with a practitioner about your sleep, stress levels, physical activity levels and lifestyle practices. Supplements may still be required, but you might need less than you think. As a general rule with food, fresh is always best (and so much more delicious). Many vitamins are delicate and may not have remained active or viable in a food supplement.
Modern living is responsible for a global phenomenon of nutrient depletion. We are all different with different genetic, hereditary and environmental factors impacting on our nutrient levels. The growing field of nutritional medicine offers the consumer access to experienced practitioners who can personalise nutrients and dosages for your specific needs. Consulting a certified nutritional practitioner a few times a year is a vital investment in your health and the best way to avoid the hype.
For a list of nutritional practitioners click here
Written by Annalies Corse BMedSc, BHSc
- Brevik, E. C. & Burgess, L. C. (2014) The Influence of Soils on Human Health. Nature Education Knowledge 5(12): 1
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2016). The Nutrition Source. Available at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/
- Herbert, V. (1973). The Five Possible Causes of Nutrient Deficiency: illustrated by deficiencies of Vitamin B12 and folic acid. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 26 (1): 77-86.
- Neu, J. (2011). Cesarean versus Vaginal Delivery: Long term infant outcomes and the Hygiene Hypothesis. Clinical Perinatology. 38 (2): 321-331.