More than half of all U.S. adults are popping pills – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and herbs – in the hopes that it will cure what ails them. But will these supplements actually help them lose weight, reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, sleep better, and boost immunity or could they be doing more harm than good?
The supplement industry is big business. Americans spend nearly $30 billion a year on these pills because of promises made on advertisements or because they saw it on an episode of Dr. Oz. Just because the TV doctor is touting its benefits doesn’t mean that it’s right for you.
The supplement industry is not regulated like the prescription drug industry, which means safety and effectiveness should be questioned. How do you know that the pill you are about to take actually has the effective ingredient in it? Is your vitamin tainted with anything, like lead? Could that herb actually interfere with a prescription medication you are already taking? To get straight answers on what kinds of supplements you should be taking and which brands are reputable, it’s best to consult with a Registered Dietitian who is well-versed in supplements. That way your overall health can be evaluated before any kind of recommendation is made.
That being said, let’s go over a number of popular supplements and why you should or shouldn’t be taking them.
MULIVITAMIN – a multivitamin shouldn’t be used to make up for an otherwise terrible diet. You can’t just eat unhealthy foods and think that a multivitamin will undo all of the damage. You’re best off getting all of your vitamins and minerals from real, whole, clean food. Taking a multivitamin just fills in any nutritional gaps that remain.
CALCIUM – This mineral is the most abundant in the body (teeth, bones) and is essential for bone formation, heart health, and nerve and muscle function. For people who take little or no dairy products (most abundant food sources of calcium), they should aim to eat other foods rich in calcium, like almonds, carrots, canned salmon (with bones), collard greens, kale, tofu, calcium-fortified soy milk and juice, black strap molasses, and broccoli. If you do eat yogurt and cheese and drink milk, make sure to choose organic products. One cup of milk or yogurt has about 400 mg of calcium, which is one-third of your daily needs. If you choose to supplement, make sure to take no more than 500 mg of calcium at one time, as the body cannot absorb and process more than that at one time. Also, make sure to take a dose before bed because calcium is best absorbed into your bones while you sleep. Other vitamins and minerals that are important for bone formation include magnesium, Vitamin K, Boron, and silcion.
VITAMIN D – vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in very few foods, widely available as a supplement, and produced by exposure to sunlight. The preferred form of the supplement is vitamin D3 and it is recommended that people take at least 1,000 IUs/day. Before supplementing, it’s advised that you have your vitamin D level checked using the 25-OHD test, so that you know how much supplemental vitamin D to take. You are looking for your blood levels to be >50 nmol/L. Even people living in sunny climates are at risk for vitamin D deficiency, so get tested. Vitamin D is important for bone formation, modulation of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction in inflammation. It had been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (colon, prostate, and breast).
FISH OIL – When you hear people talk about fish oil, what they are really referring to are two specific omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Natural sources are found primarily in fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, barramundi, and sable fish (a.k.a., black cod). EPA supports heart health and DHA is a constituent of cell membranes in nerve cells and are thought to promote brain development and function. Research also indicates that omega-3s are anti inflammatory and may help reduce the risk and symptoms of many diseases including heart disease, arthritis, many forms of cancer, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. We recommend that you get your omega-3s by eating one of these fish two to three times a week. If that is not possible, choose a supplement that provides 1,000mg of EPA+DHA (look at the back of the label and do the math) and is derived from molecularly distilled fish oils, which are low in contaminants. Also, keep your fish oil refrigerated because oils left at room temperature can become rancid. For people with high triglycerides (elevated blood fat, level >150), a natural form of treatment is with high levels of fish oil, but should only be done under advisement of your doctor and Registered Dietitian.
COQ10 – Co enzyme Q 10 is an antioxidant that’s naturally produced by the body and found in most foods. it helps protect LDL (“bad” cholesterol) from oxidation, maintains healthy blood vessels, reduces the risk of plaque rupture, and supports optimal functioning of the heart muscle. Anyone taking statin drugs (for lowering elevated cholesterol) should supplement with CoQ10 as statins suppress production of CoQ10. Low CoQ10 in patients on statins is one of the reasons for the fatigue and aching joints and muscles that is an unfortunate side effect of statin drugs.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this – supplements cannot make up for a diet filled with processed, high sugar, high salt, and high bad-fat foods. The best diet is one that promotes clean, whole, real food and the use of supplements is done under the guidance of a Registerd Dietitian who is knowledgeable about them. Do not rely on the advice of the person working at the health food store, supermarket, or drug store – they have absolutely no training with supplements and can cause you more harm than good. Do your homework and seek the appropriate advice so that your body will reap the benefits that supplements can offer.