It can be extremely confusing when trying to figure out which supplements to take. I’ll admit it; up until I started working in a health food store I had no idea just how many supplements were out there and where to even start learning about them. So what should you look for in a supplement? And which supplements are even worth taking? Should you follow the recommendations of a health food store worker? The number one thing to know about supplementation is that eating real food is always the best way to obtain your nutrients. Why is this? Read on for the answer to all these questions and more!
Why is it better to get your nutrients from whole foods?
Most vitamins and minerals require other nutrients to be properly absorbed by the body. For example, Iron is absorbed best with vitamin B12 and vitamin C (amongst other things). Conveniently, a steak provides you with adequate amounts of iron, vitamin C, and vitamin B12 along with many other nutrients and minerals that work together synergistically (source). However, supplement companies are starting to catch onto this. Now iron supplements contain more than just iron (usually B vitamins, vitamin C, and herbs) but is that enough? No. When you eat a steak you are receiving tons of other vitamins, minerals, essential fats, you name it. We may know which vitamins play a major role in iron absorption but we may not know many others that play minor roles. On top of this, you need proper stomach acid to absorb iron and your stomach acid increases after you eat a high protein meal (such as a steak). Your stomach will not respond the same way to an iron supplement and because of this your body won’t absorb it as well as it would from the steak. This is just one example, but what it comes down to is that nature is actually really smart. Many people like to think they are smarter than nature, but taking a supplement in place of food is not fooling your body.
It is also much easier to overdose on a supplement that a food. This is because many supplements are synthesized in a lab making them a pure substance. Because of this, they do not work quite the same way in your body as they lack their natural cofactors and are sometimes not even the same structure as the naturally sourced vitamin. For example, synthetic vitamin A should be avoided during pregnancy because it is known to cause birth defects, while natural vitamin A is critical for proper fetal development and is completely safe to obtain from whole food sources such as liver and eggs (source). Another example is folic acid. Folic acid is a synthetically made vitamin that is much more likely to be toxic to the body than its natural counterpart; folate. While folic acid has one specific chemical structure, folate is a group of vitamins with similar (but not identical) chemical structures. Once again, folic acid (the synthetic version) should be avoided when pregnant because its been linked to increased risk of cancer, while folate is critical for fetal development. You can read more on the differences between folate and folic acid here.
Supplements can also throw off the ratios of nutrients in the body. For example, copper and zinc are minerals that must be in a ratio of approximately 1:8 (copper:zinc) in the body (source). Supplementing copper without zinc will increase the ratio and can cause a relative zinc deficiency. Many other minerals (such as magnesium and calcium) work in the same way. Amino acids work in a similar fashion and supplementing a specific amino acid long term can also cause imbalances.
When should you take supplements?
If your diet is lacking in certain nutrients and it isn’t possible to get the foods that are rich in those nutrients into your diet, supplementing can help. For example, if you do not eat fish on a regular basis you might consider supplementing omega-3 fatty acids, or if you are in an area where you don’t see much sun you might consider supplementing vitamin D.
It is also possible to become deficient in a nutrient even when it is present in your diet. This can happen for many different reasons such as poor digestion or parasite. In this situation it would be best to supplement to help the root cause (the underlying problem that is creating the deficiency), instead of the deficiency directly. For example, if you have low stomach acid (a very common issue) it becomes more difficult to absorb minerals such as iron which can lead to deficiency (source). In this case you may need to supplement a hydrochloric acid supplement with meals. This will not only help you absorb iron but most other minerals as well.
If you are eating as healthy as possible and are still experiencing health problems supplementing is also a good option to try before resorting to pharmaceutical drugs. Supplementing certain things during pregnancy is also recommended!
When shouldn’t you take supplements?
If you are taking any prescription drugs it is best to check with your doctor before taking any supplements. It is also important to make sure you read the fine print on the bottle of supplements for warnings about any possible drug interactions. Natural products can interact the same as drugs, so don’t assume that it is safe just because it is natural.
Which ones are worth taking?
There are many basic supplements that are worth taking depending on what you are trying to achieve. Here are, in my opinion, some of the supplements that are most useful. I am only including a very brief description to keep this article from becoming an encyclopedia.
Great for inflammatory conditions, cognitive support, skin conditions, and much more! Read more on all the health benefits here. I personally like Critical Omega from Renew Life, but there are quite a few different brands of fish oil that work well.
Cod Liver Oil
This is my favorite supplement! Cod liver oil is a whole food source of vitamin A and D, and it also contains omega 3s! Great for skin conditions, strengthening teeth and bones, immune support, prenatal health, and much more. There are quite a few good brands of cod liver oil out there. Rosita and Garden of Life cod liver oil are both good options.
Many people have damaged gut flora from taking antibiotics or other pharmaceutical drugs. Probiotics help restore gut flora and can relieve digestive upset such as gas, bloating, stomach aches, and indigestion. Anyone suffering from frequent digestive disturbances and/or candida overgrowth should consider supplementing a good probiotic. One of the best probiotics is Prescript-Assist Broad Spectrum Probiotic.
Digestive Enzymes and/or Hydrochloric acid
If you suffer from chronic digestive issues such as IBS, you should consider taking a digestive enzyme. Low stomach acid is a common issue so if you notice you often have digestive problems after eating a high protein meal you should choose a digestive enzyme complex that also contains HCl such as NOW Super Enzymes. Another good enzyme complex that does not contain HCl is Garden of Life RAW Enzymes.
As we generally get vitamin D from the sun it is easy to become deficient during certain times of the year. Supplementing vitamin D can help people who experience mood issues such as seasonal affective disorder, it can also help skin conditions, support the immune system, and keep teeth and bones strong. Read here for more information on vitamin D.
Supplementing magnesium can help with muscle cramps, stress, headaches/migraines, hormonal issues, and sleep issues. Magnesium can also be taken to help constipation. Read more about magnesium here.
Vitamin B Complex
This is another supplement that can help with a wide range of health problems including hormonal imbalances, stress, and liver support. If you chose to supplement a B complex, make sure you get a good quality one such as Advanced B Complex
I love herbal supplements because they are whole foods! Unfortunately I am really not an expert on this subject. If you are looking for herbal supplements for specific health problems I recommend checking out this herbal database or making an appointment with a herbalist.
Which ones should be avoided?
Not all multivitamins are bad but many of them contain nutrients that compete for absorption, meaning you won’t absorb a lot of its contents. This puts more stress on your excretory organs that have to filter out the unabsorbed nutrients. Avoid buying cheap multivitamins like most of the ones found in department stores. Yes, that means Centrum too (read here for a break down of why). If you are really set on a multivitamin try to go for one that is extracted from whole foods such as MegaFood One Daily.
Iodine and other trace minerals
If you are thinking about supplementing iodine or any other trace minerals such as vanadium, silver, gold, etc. I recommend you talk to a professional such as a naturopath first. Supplementation of these minerals is controversial and can cause problems in some individuals. Read here for more information on iodine.
Weight Loss Supplements
Let’s face it; most of these don’t work. They are a waste of money, and some of them can even cause issues such as nutrient malabsorption. I’m sure there are a few out there that might help, but nothing is ever going to replace eating healthy and exercising. Sorry guys!
Low quality supplements
Pretty much any supplements that are sold in a general department store are going to be low quality. I was horrified to find out that our local dollarama actually had its own supplement line. I would say, if anything, these supplements may actually damage your health. Their prices may be appealing but you are better off saving your money until you can afford something that will actually help you.
How much is too much?
Many supplements can be used to help a specific condition, but taking everything isn’t a good idea. It is best to choose a few different supplements and take those instead of taking 10+ different things. This is because if you are taking fewer supplements, you will be able to take them in high enough doses for them to have a therapeutic effect. Taking too many supplements can actually have a negative effect on your health.
If you are currently on multiple supplements and have been feeling worse, it might be a good idea to take a break from everything to rule out the supplement itself as the cause of your worsening symptoms. Allergic reaction to supplements is common and should be watched for. Symptoms that a supplement may not be for you include fatigue, headache, digestive upset, or any worsening symptoms.
Should you follow recommendations given by health food store workers?
The short answer is no, and the long answer is maybe! Many health food store workers have great knowledge of the products and can help you decide between different brands and products. But there are many reasons you should be hesitant to take their advice. Here are a few reasons why:
Many supplement brands send representatives to the store to ‘train’ workers, and while this is helpful it is also very obvious that the health industry is still a industry based on money. Every brand representative wants you to believe their product is the best product so that you will sell lots of it. They often make claims that are untrue such as ‘everyone should be taking this product’. I once told a rep that I took their product and it made me sick and she told me that I just didn’t take it long enough or in high enough dose. This is an extremely dangerous thing to say because if I believed her I might have kept taking it and made myself sicker and sicker. The worst part about this is that many health food store employees do not have any training in the health industry except the training given by brand representatives.
Many health food store workers have ulterior motives for recommending the products they do. Clerks in the store are encouraged to sell certain products which mostly has to do with what makes the store the most money; not what works best for you. When your manager tells you to sell something you have to sell it or you will get in trouble. Also some clerks make direct commissions off certain sales so they will push those over others. Clerks will also sometimes recommend products that are close to expiring to get them out of the store before they have to be taken off the shelf. They may also try to sell you things you don’t actually need just to make more money. One thing you are never allowed to tell customers is that real food is better than supplements (because that doesn’t make the store money!).
Lastly, many health food store workers (and owners) are uneducated. While a Registered Holistic Nutritionist or other natural health professional is legally not allowed to make claims such as ‘this product will cure your cancer’, there are no real legal guidelines stopping uneducated people from doing so. They probably don’t even realize what they are saying is untrue. I have personally overheard workers tell customers that they could take a supplement with any medication (dangerous to tell someone), that certain supplements ‘eat cancer cells’ (completely untrue and ignorant of the way cancer works), and that a white potato is 9% protein (not even close). The worst part about this is that none of these people were new to the health food industry.
Don’t believe people just because they work in a health food store!
That being said, there are many people who work in health food stores that genuinely want to help you. It’s just not always easy to tell who these people are or how to find them. You could try asking to talk with an RHN or other educated person who works there, but that is not a guarantee they will be honest with you.
The best way to figure out which supplements to take and which brands to buy is to do your own research ahead of time. Most brand websites have all the information you need to make an informed choice.
Things to look for include:
- Is the supplement naturally sourced?
- Is the supplement organic and GMO free?
- Is the supplement free of contaminants? (important for fish oils)
- Is the supplement antibiotic/hormone free? (if animal sourced)
- reviews on the product from other customers
- possible drug interactions (if you are taking any drugs)
I hope you found this guide helpful! You can like our facebook page or subscribe below to keep up with all Nutrition is Medicine’s articles!
If you are wondering about any specific supplements, feel free to comment and I can share my knowledge/opinion on the subject.