So what’s the deal with supplements? Large studies on supplement use have suggested that there is no benefit to taking supplements yet randomized control trials on specific nutrients for specific conditions actually show benefit.
Furthermore, combinations of supplements and diet are being shown to help reverse degeneration of mental and physical abilities in MS patients. Given all this how do we know if and when they are worth the money?
Are they helpful tools?
The grey area on supplements:
There are literally 1000’s of supplements and billions of dollars are spent on them every year. In the United States alone almost $25 billion was spent on supplements in 2013. Businesses are trying to sell you supplements in magazines, on line, at the gym and at vertical marketing parties. Whether it’s your trainer, your partner or your cousin, many of them have enough advice to be Dr. Oz’s sidekick.
Naturally, a lot of my patients end up in the supplement section of their local drug, grocery or health food store looking at labels. With my business degree hat on, it doesn’t take much to realize that a high volume and low cost vitamin manufacturer is probably cutting corners; quality corners. Supplement reps use the same techniques as pharmaceutical reps to get sales for their company. It’s hard to know who to trust. When faced with confusing grey areas like these, it’s a good time for some perspective.
Supplements are like car parts and we are the cars:
- Parts can be cheap or expensive – more cost effective versions of vitamins, minerals and nutrients are often in forms that are more difficult for our body to assimilate.
- Folic acid is a prime example. Folic acid isn’t found in abundance in nature. Folate is though, and this is the active form of folic acid. The conversion of folic acid to folate can be problematic if your system is under a lot of stress or genetically you aren’t able to convert to the active form very well. Folate is also more expensive than folic acid. What form are you going to find in your discount supplement? Folic acid. What form will you most likely find in professional strength brands? Folate.
- Parts can rust – rust is the process of oxidation. Oxidation occurs when items are exposed to light, oxygen, water and/or heat. If supplement manufacturers aren’t careful, they can produce a product that doesn’t contain the amount of the ingredients they say it does as the ingredient can been altered by oxidation making it useless or even potentially harmful.
- Fish oil is a classic example of this issue. The very fats that are helpful for us called EPA and DHA that we look for in fish oil are also very unstable. Heat, processing chemicals, light and other mechanisms can cause oxidation of fish oil leading to rancid oil. Very quickly, the supplement you thought was good for you may be turning into something that will cause more harm than good.
- Flax oil is another example. Too long on a shelf, in shipping or exposed to heat and the oil can lead to oxidation, giving you a product with the potential to cause inflammation rather than make your hair healthy. If you’re not buying your flax oil from a refrigerator or freezer and promptly doing the same at home you’re opening yourself up to rancidity.
- Certain parts are required by certain cars- an Echo requires different car parts than an Audi. Like cars, but way more complex, we all have a unique health picture. Some supplements, when tailored to your system, can be very important parts to keeping you running and/or recovering in peak form. Put the wrong part into your system, though, and it may aggravate existing conditions or genetic tendencies.
Take these three issues together and you can see why large studies looking at general supplement use might not show positive effects as the quality, form, and need of the supplement is not addressed.
See Supplements Part 2 for a discussion on how I choose supplements for my patients and what you should be considering if you’re going it alone in the supplement aisle.