All supplements are not created equal. Here are tips for buying supplements, to help you choose wisely.
Note: I’m re-publishing this post due to the New Year’s resolutions of millions of people to get healthy (or healthier) this year through diet, exercise, and supplementation. Bon Appetite!
Vitamins, minerals, herbs…we love our supplements. But do our supplements love us? Well, that depends upon a few things. Number one is safety. Two and three would be efficacy and whether a certain supplement is even needed.
Let’s start with number three. How do you know if you need a certain supplement or not? Depending on what you want it for, you could get tested first. For example, let’s say you’re always tired. You think you’re probably low in iron, so you go buy an iron supplement.
But what if that’s not your problem? Not only have you thrown away money on iron supplements, you may possibly have put your health at risk, especially if you have hereditary hemochromatosis and didn’t realize it. Hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb too much iron from the food we eat.
Or, you might try something that, while it doesn’t remedy the situation, isn’t harmful and may even be good for you. Years ago, I got my hands on the excellent book, Why Am I Always So Tired? by Dr. Ann Louise Gittleman, which details how excess copper in our diets, coupled with too little zinc, can make us feel extremely fatigued and lethargic.
I increased my zinc, cut the high-copper foods from my diet, and slapped a water filter on my faucet. Lo and behold, within a few weeks, I got the painless, non-itchy rash on my chest that she said I might get when the body is trying to quickly dump its copper load.
I was glad, because it indicated that I indeed was ingesting too much copper, and it went away within a couple of days. Within a few months, I began to notice that my brown hair with a billion dazzling red highlights was growing in darker, with only a few dark red highlights — another indicator.
But I didn’t feel any better. Was Ann Louise wrong? Absolutely not. She was spot-on! Too much copper is unhealthy, I had too much copper, and getting rid of the excess was a good thing. And for most people, eliminating the excess copper works wonders. But as it turned out in my case, it wasn’t my real problem.
Several years later I finally found a doctor who had sense enough to suspect megaloblastic anemia (aka pernicious anemia) and tested me for it. I had it, vitamin B12 drops helped (since I refused the shots), but I never got back to “normal.” It turned out I was also dealing with Lyme disease and an MTHFR mutation.
Too much copper may have contributed to my chronic fatigue but was not the root cause of it — the two huge root causes were the Lyme and the genetic mutation, which brought autoimmune into the picture, CFS among them.
Sometimes people have nothing wrong with a certain organ or system in their bodies, but they’d like to keep it that way. So, for example, someone with a healthy liver may choose to eat dandelion leaves or take a dandelion supplement or milk thistle, or some other healthy liver supplement. There’s nothing wrong with that, should you choose to do something similar.
Just make you’re not allergic to any of the ingredients, and if you’re wanting to cleanse your liver for instance, that the dandelion leaves have come from a good place with no pesticides, like your garden (and only eat the baby ones, as the big ones are very bitter). Same goes for whatever herbs you take for other organs.
So, to recap, before you decide to try a new supplement, you may want to get tested for what ails you first, in order to avoid draining your wallet on something that isn’t what your body needs or harming yourself. Another good reason for this is, if you find you do need the supplement, your doctor can tell you how much you need — for example, if you had your vitamin D levels checked.
But maybe testing isn’t feasible, or your doctor recommends something without testing. Maybe you get tested and find out exactly what you need, or perhaps you simply want to take things that you know are generally good for you. Here are some tips to help you choose and use wisely.
Please note: As with all my health-related posts, this is in no way intended as a means for self-diagnosis or medical advice. And as always, if you suspect you or a loved one may have an illness or disease, please seek help from a qualified medical professional.
Read and heed the warnings and contraindications.
Look for things that mention/warn about:
- Consulting a healthcare practitioner if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
- If you have certain medical conditions
- If you are taking certain medications
- If you are taking other supplements
- If you shouldn’t take it for more than a certain length of time
Check the active and inactive ingredients for things you might be allergic to, or have reacted to in the past.
- Even if you’ve used a product before, check it each time you buy it. Manufacturers may make changes to ingredients from time to time. A credible supplement company will list every active ingredient, as well as the inactive ingredients. Yes, the print may be small. Get out your reading glasses or even a magnifying glass, if you must. It’s worth it.
- If the information you want isn’t there, give them a call. Most reputable companies have a toll-free number on the bottle or box, or at the very least their website address.
BONUS TIP: Our neighbors in Canada can look up any Canadian NPN number on Health Canada’s database here:
If you’re in a country that licenses or pre-approves supplements — like Canada — make sure you’re getting the real thing, and not some illegally imported bootleg product.
- In Canada, you can check a supplement by making sure it has an 8-digit “NPN” number on the front label. This number means that the company meets the required standards quality standards, the truthfulness of their label, etc.
- In the US, you can look for seals from UL LLC, the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and the FDA’s GMP. And those in both the US and other countries can also look for the NSF seal.
- If you’re not in a country that pre-approves supplements, make sure what you buy meets the regulations of your country. It may be helpful to look up the company or product online or call them. Don’t hesitate to ask the hard questions before you use any of their products. If there’s only one address or phone number and it’s not in your country, you might want to buy from someone else, because there may be no recourse if something goes wrong.
Carefully check the recommended dose and the number in the bottle.
- The information may be based on one pill or capsule, two, three, or even more. The amounts of each nutrient listed on the label may be based on each dose, or the entire daily dose. For example, if the label says you should take four per day, the active ingredient amount listed may be that of all four — the entire day’s dosage — or it could be per capsule. Read carefully to be sure.
- Plus, how long will the bottle last at that particular dosage? For instance, many bottles contain a 30-day supply. Carefully checking these facts can help you calculate the cost per dose. You get a better value by purchasing a larger bottle, if available.
Check the storage requirements and expiration date.
- You don’t want to spend your hard-earned money on a supplement that is about to expire. Plus, the date is based on how that supplement degrades over time at certain temperatures, humidity, and exposure to light .
If the bottle says to refrigerate, make sure it’s in the fridge at the store, shipped in a refrigerated truck, or if you’re ordering online, make sure the company ships the product with ice. If it says to refrigerate after opening, then do so as soon as you break that seal.
And when the label says to keep out of sunlight, make sure the store or company is doing that, and that you do as well. This is why some supplements are in dark or opaque bottles – to prevent sunlight from degrading it.
Whenever possible, buy natural vs synthetic
- Synthetic vitamins are created in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Our bodies don’t absorb them nearly as well as food-based vitamins or whole-food vitamins.
I proved that to myself quite by accident several years ago. As I stated earlier, I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia due to my body being unable to absorb B12 through food or even pills (that in turn, was thanks to a MTHFR mutation).
There is cyanocobalamin, which is the cheap, synthetic B12, and methylcobalamin, which is the natural form. Actually, there are four different forms of B12; you can read about them here at Dr. Lynch’s site. Anyhoo, before the body can use cyanocobalamin, it must convert it to the methylated form.
Because of the MTHFR mutation (which btw, is extremely common — millions have it and don’t know it, and wonder why they have health problems), my body couldn’t do anything with the synthetic form, nor can it absorb any form of B12 that is swallowed.
I have to take it sublingually (under the tongue) or injected. And I’m not taking shots unless they arrive in a tiny glass (just kidding — ramming alcohol is a waste, in my opinion. I much prefer to slowly sip and savor).
One day, I got sloppy and bought several bottles of B12 sublingual drops because they were such a good deal. I bet you can guess why. Like a fool, I didn’t carefully read the label, not even after the purchase, and spent the better part of a year taking the synthetic stuff and wondering why I was feeling worse and worse. [face-plant]
When I finally realized my error and began taking the methylated version, I began to get better. Talk about a dumb mistake.
Don’t do that.
Ubiquinol and CoQ10 work the same way, although most CoQ10, as well as the ubiquinol on the market are natural, though a few are synthetic. The body needs to convert CoQ10 to ubiquinol before it can do its awesome work, and if you’re healthy and under 30, this is no problem.
But once we’re over 30 and even more so, over 40, the body has a devil of a time converting CoQ10 to ubiquinol. So although ubiquinol is more spendy, if you’re over 30 and for sure if you’re over 40, you’re better off paying more for ubiquinol and getting something your body can actually absorb and use. In the long run, you’re getting a much better value.
When trying a new supplement for the first time, you may want to start slowly.
- Be on guard for negative and positive reactions, and adjust accordingly or stop.
You don’t have to dive right into a full daily dose the first day, unless perhaps your doctor wants you to and you’re comfortable with that. After all, you know your body best. If you tend to be sensitive to things, or are simply wanting to use caution, then you could try starting with half-doses, or taking your doses every other day (or less) for a week or two before slowly ramping up to the recommended dose.
Don’t forget your homework. And don’t say the dog ate it.
- Read. Research. Use your brain and listen to your body.
Once again, it comes down to using common sense. No one knows our bodies as well as we do, and we are the ones who are ultimately in control of our own healthcare. But it’s hard to apply that “good old-fashioned horse sense” as they used to call common sense, without knowledge, and we won’t get knowledge if we’re unwilling to take some time to learn.
So, learn what you can. Don’t be afraid to question, or be apologetic about questioning the supplement companies or your doctor. Find a good doctor who takes time with you and is willing to listen, preferably one who is knowledgeable about supplements and natural healing.
In fact, naturopathic and homeopathic doctors usually spend at minimum a half hour with their patients, and usually at least one hour for the first visit! Many spend well over an hour for the first visit and an hour for visits thereafter. You usually get your money’s worth with them!
Armed with some knowledge, common sense, and a helpful doctor, you will be not only able to safely navigate the supplement minefield, but you’ll be much more likely to come out on the other side feeling better, and in better health than when you went in.