Lets be honest. Whether you are a dedicated, seasoned suppie, or an “on-again-off-again” one, you will have invariably had your moments of secretly doubting whether they really work, or whether you feel better because… it stopped snowing , you got that promotion, things get better anyway with time, or whatever your mind comes up with.
And if you are indeed ready to take the leap into the supplement world, which one should you choose? You never imagined there to be 3 shelves full of – only – Vitamin C. Really? How the heck do I know whether I need 30mg of one or 5000IU of something else?
I can tick-off all of the above. Been there. Sometimes still am there. When yet another brand introduces yet another line of “lets-throw-this-all-in-the-mix” type.
But rest assured. As you may know, I love delving into the mysteries and backstage secrets of anything related to everything to do with nutrition. Lifting the veil off supplements is no exception.
I thought it would be fun to pretend that YOU and ME are having an interview. I took the liberty of pretending I am in YOUR shoes, ready-set to offload a wagon-load full of questions. Are you ready? Then lets go!
Should I take any supplements at all?
The word “supplement” has its roots in the Latin word “supplere” meaning to fill up or complete. Supplements add a benefit to your overall nutrition, sometimes this may be a missing link at a given time. Our overall diet today is generally far from complete in nutrient value, as we have replaced fresh whole foods with industrialized and processed food items. In addition, our modern and stressful lifestyle causes our bodies to often be nutrient deficient. So in short, yes!
Do I need to take supplements all the time then?
Not necessarily. Consider these 4 things:
- Figure out what you wish to achieve. Do you need immediate relief from say, a cold or a seasonal allergies? Do you wish to target a more ongoing concern, like pre-menopausal issues? Or do you want to follow a general maintenance protocol?
- Our bodies have little storage “tanks” for various nutrients, often you may only need to supplement for a limited time to replenish these “tanks”, and then the body is able to run at full speed again.
- For a truly personalized approach, I recommend you have yourself checked out by an integrative physician to determine which nutrients you are deficient of. This way you know exactly what you need to focus on for a while under careful supervision.
- If you are taking any chronic medication, you need to take care not to have your drugs interact negatively with your supplements. They could cancel each other out, or enhance or reduce the effect of each other. Your pharmacist can help you here, and so can I.
Which brand is a good quality?
Generally speaking there are 3 types of supplement brands: physician-and practitioner- grade, health food store-and integrative pharmacy-grade, and supermarket-grade. The difference is price,quality of content and strength or potency of ingredients. Suppliers of Physician-grade supps differentiate themselves by being able to make a single medical benefit claim based on the years of research they are involved in, often testing on human volunteers (rather than animals).
Also, the higher the potency, the more the necessity for professional and individualized supervision. These supplements will only be administered through a physician’s or practitioner’s office, and are almost always guaranteed to be of highest quality. Why? Because of pure ingredients and thus optimal absorption rates.
Supplements sold in health food or integrative pharmacies fall into the same category, the only difference being that the potencies of their supplements tend to be a little lower and can be offered to the public without careful personalized medical supervision.
You should make sure that the packaging ensures that the purity and potency of the product is guaranteed. Supps need to be protected from light, heat (ideally under 80°F) and moisture. The expiration date should be clearly visible. You can likely still use the product up to 6 months past the date, but be aware of any changes in color or smell, then rather discard it.
What do you mean by “pure” ingredients and “optimal absorption” rates?
Good question (Grin)! Besides the actual nutrient, each supplement can contain a myriad of other ingredients commonly referred to as excipients, which include binders, fillers, lubricants, disintegrants, colorants, sweeteners, flavorings and coating materials. These can often cause allergic reactions or digestion issues. A high quality supplement will not only NOT have most of the above ingredients, it will state on its label which excipients, if any, are included, and which are not.
Generally you can say that a long list of excipients, whether disclosed or hidden, means the manufacturer is cutting costs – and with it purity and quality of the product – for profit.
However, not all excipients are bad. Excipients are needed during the manufacturing process to ensure a certain consistency. Bio-active excipients, such as fiber, seaweed and plant gums, may actually help to break down the product in the gut, maximize the absorption and work in synergy with the actual nutrient.
So the bottom line is: Are you actually getting the nutrient you think you are getting? Or are you swallowing a whole lot of other stuff with it too?
So how can I be sure then that I am getting what I am paying for?
You actually are asking if you can trust the company, correct? I can highlight 3 things for you here:
Strict quality control! Higher quality brands are more than happy to disclose where and when they sourced their ingredients. They often go beyond the FDA’s imposed standards of “Good Manufacturing Practices” which refers to the actual manufacturing process, sanitation of buildings, the processing of all ingredients and distribution channels.
Label information! Is the list minimalist, or does it give specifics? Does it just say “calcium…500mg”, or does it give details as to the actual form of calcium (because there are many…) such as “calcium citrate” or “calcium carbonate”. It is important to know the difference. If you happen to suffer from low stomach acidity, the calcium carbonate form may not be well absorbed, you would do better to use the citrate form.
Promises made! Are they promising things like “this product will heal you of all illness in 30 days or less” or “this product ensures a long life”? No further comment.
Is there such a thing as a “natural” supplement? Aren’t they all synthetic anyway?
You have some good questions up your sleeve! I’m impressed!
Yes, there is. Chemically speaking though, both natural as well as synthetic nutrients have the same chemical elements, but their molecular structure differs, sometimes, quite significantly. It seems the body can tell the difference with the natural being able to be absorbed better than the synthetic (Prasad, 1994).
So called “food-based” supps are made by combining synthetic
vitamins to live yeast cultures. The resulting fermentation process enables the yeast to incorporate the nutrients, thereby becoming part of a living food. It is said that these supps get better absorbed as they offer a synergistic effect with the other nutrients in the foods. The down side is that food-based supps usually have lower potencies, requiring you to take a number of tabs at one time to achieve the desired nutrient level.
Another “natural” approach includes freeze-drying whole foods through a process of flash or low-heat pasteurization, and then encapsulating the concentrated product. You are assured of a blend of nutrients (whole foods-style) that you would normally not get with chemically-pure vitamins alone.
I get confused with all these options of tablets, capsules, gel-caps and time release ones. Which one is better?
Me too sometimes! Let me ask you: How quickly do you want the benefits? Which one goes down your throat the easiest?
Tablets have a longer shelf life, put due to their pressed nature may cause difficulty if you have poor digestion. Sometimes heat is used during tablet processing, which destroys some nutrients.
Capsules make their content available more quickly than tabs. Enteric-coated capsules release their contents in the intestine and bypass the acidic stomach, which could destroy some nutrients.
Gel-caps may be the easiest to swallow due to their soft gelatin casing.
Sub-lingual tabs, sprays and creams are absorbed through your skin and thus enter your blood stream more quickly as they can bypass the digestion process.
Time-release products dispense their content over a 6-12 hour period. The nutrient is encased in tiny micro-pellets which are then combined with a special base. This makes them more expensive. You could easily take a few regular tabs at regular intervals during the day, rather than 1 time-release one, if you don’t mind taking more than 1 tablet.
I keep on hearing the term “bioavailability” – what is that exactly?
If a particular supplement has a high bioavailability it simply means that your body can easily absorb it and put it to use pretty much right away. Supplements that dissolve the quickest have the highest bioavailability. Why don’t you test at home how quickly a supp disintegrates? Take 1 cup water, juice of ½ lemon (to mimic stomach acid), add your supp, stir gently, and see how long it takes to fall apart? A max of 45 min is ideal (Werbach, 1997).
I often hear that the body can only absorb so much, the rest is flushed down the toilet? Is this true? What a waste!
Yes, sometimes the body knows when it has had enough of a good thing and needs to get rid of any excess. This is different for every one of us, and depends on a number of factors, incl. your current health & nutritional habits. However, research has shown that many nutrients that are not systemically absorbed (into the blood) – where you want your nutrients to go – remain in the intestines and have an important function there. Vit C & calcium, for example, enhance healthy flora in gut and prevent some substances from being converted into carcinogens there (Prasad 1994).
Again, of benefit here is the type of supp you choose. Mineral absorption can be enhanced by offering these in a chelated form. During chelation a mineral will bind with another substrate, such as an amino acid which the body can absorb more readily, thus making the mineral more bioavailable. Products with more absorbable mineral chelates cost more, but you get the best benefit. As an example, if you need to address a magnesium deficiency, the magnesium glycinate form tends to be the best form to g
Which supplements do you take?
I always get asked (Grin)! I will be quite frank here. I would not have coped with, nor recovered from my cancer treatments as well, had I not had my personalized, extensive supplement protocol under close supervision not from my conventional oncologist, but my integrative physician and naturopathic doctor. I firmly believe in supporting my body with high quality supplements on an ongoing basis, with supervision! The body’s needs change, and this needs to be accounted for.
I also take breaks from my regimen, most often during summer, where I will give myself a break for a week or 2. I also switch brands now and then as the body can get used to a particular composition. Luckily, there is sufficient high quality choice out there today!
The top 8 of my protocol always include these:
Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes, Vitamin D, Turmeric, Spirulina, Chlorella, Omega 3 fish oils and a Multi-Vitamin Combo.
So you still recommend multis even with the recent controversial findings we heard about in the media?
Media loves controversy, that is a given. So when yet another nutritional bomb is dropped, I am always rather sceptical, as they never disclose the details of the study they are basing their headlines on. Research studies can vary substantially in terms of consistency in findings, population samples used and methodology applied. A good quality mulit-vitamin is always an added bonus, but should not be seen as a replacement for a wholesome way of eating.
Let me conclude with my food mantra: Nothing beats Whole Foods. Eat Clean, Eat Rainbow and Eat Fresh. That way you are most definitely assured a broad spectrum of nutrients, and your supplements can stick to the sidelines for mental support and to cheer you on.
Thanks for all your interesting questions, I hope I have answered them to your satisfaction! If you have more, feel free to fire away! Always happy to educate and empower!
Why don’t you check in on my Eat Holistic Facebook page, and let me know which supplements you swear by. I’d love to hear from you!