Taking dietary supplements has become commonplace in the modern world. Many people are concerned they may not be getting the nutrients they need from their diet and are looking to “top-up” their body’s vitamins and minerals, while others are seeking a natural alternative to Western medicine’s prescription medicine system to solve their health issues.
For a lot of people, taking supplements has become a part of their daily routine, done with little thought, dominated by the thinking that it must be good for you.
It is true that the modern diet is vastly different from that of our ancestors and contains far more sugars, fats, salt, and processed foods.
As a result of this often less healthy diet, cases of depression, anxiety, fatigue, sleeplessness, and gastrointestinal issues are on the increase. Many of these symptoms can be caused by an insufficiency of micronutrients.
But what’s the right way to take supplements so they actively help us improve our health? We asked Dr. Nancy what her opinion was about including supplements in your daily routine – here’s what she said.
Know what’s in the bottle
Whatever the main labeled ingredient may be, check the contents list. It is rare for there to be just one ingredient in any supplement. You are more likely to find there are other accompanying vitamins and minerals and often inactive ingredients and fillers too. You can find supplements with a much purer content, but they aren’t often going to be the supplements you find at the supermarket, so always do your research and look at the nutritional label.
Make sure they are good quality supplements
It is important to know that the supplements you take are of the highest purity and quality. Look for “Good Manufacturing Practice” approval. That GMP label is a guarantee of quality.
Also, if you are gluten or dairy intolerant or have another dietary requirement check the label very carefully. For instance, you may be surprised by how many supplements contain dairy products.
There is one other mark to look out for – the “Non-GMO” label assures you that no genetically modified organism has been used in its manufacture. Although the jury is officially still out on this one it is best to stay clear of GMOs.Know why you are taking the supplement
You must know what you are hoping to achieve from taking a particular supplement, what the supplement can do and any side effects that may result from adding it to your diet. For example:
- B vitamins have been associated with significant benefits, improving mood, increasing energy and even helping with weight loss.
- Fish oil is a potent anti-inflammatory, especially helping those with heart disease.
- Vitamin C has long been known to help with immunity but is important in the fight against aging too.
Don’t use supplements as a replacement for healthy whole foods
Remember that your vitamins and minerals should be taken to help you fill in any areas of your diet that may not be rich in a certain mineral or vitamin – not to replace the need to eat healthy food entirely.
You can have too much of a good thing
There are certain supplements that, taken in excess, can lead to toxicity if accidentally overdosed. Patients in my clinic come in with bags of supplements they have been taking for years for multiple issues. Individually they may be fine but taken together, can cause problems. Many supplements contain vitamins A, D, E, or K, all of which when taken in excess can be harmful.
The problem is that these vitamins are not water-soluble and the surplus will not be flushed out of the body in the urine. They are fat-soluble.
That means the vitamins not required by the body will be stored in the fat tissues. Anyone taking these vitamins as part of their supplements needs to be aware there may be problems and should monitor the situation with occasional blood tests to make sure they are not over ingesting them.
Iron can also cause difficulties and, in excess, can be toxic to the human body. Only those known to have an iron deficiency should take iron as a supplement. That includes menstruating women, patients who have a problem with iron absorption in the gut, and those who simply don’t have enough iron in their normal diet. Iron should not be a part of most people’s supplements. Too much may be harmful to the liver and other organs.
Pregnancy often needs specific supplements
There are certain vitamins that should be taken in pregnancy and those that need to be controlled. That’s why specific prenatal vitamins are available for pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant – make sure you replace any normal supplements with these supplements.
Supplements are a good idea during weight loss
When a patient is starting a weight loss plan I frequently recommend certain supplementation to support their metabolism, immunity, and hair growth. These are areas that are often adversely affected by losing weight.
As you can see, taking supplements is not straightforward, but they can be beneficial to your overall health. You need to be aware of what your diet may be lacking and what vitamins and minerals need a boost. Then you need to examine exactly what the supplements you buy contain. Know what’s in the bottle and stick to the recommended dosage – if you can, get regular blood tests to keep track of your levels and tweak as appropriate.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.