There has been a lot of talk regarding the necessity, or not, of vitamin supplementation. Some argue that our poor, inadequate diets require it. Others purport that we glean enough from the variety of foods we eat in addition to fortification of grains, so taking supplements is just a huge waste of money. Who are we to believe?
I get asked this question every day. “Should I be taking a supplement?” My answer? It depends. I agree that not everyone needs a supplement. Our ancestors went without popping pills every day and arguably did ok, in most cases. Maybe this fight against supplementation is warranted. On the other hand, we all know people and specific cases where supplements were extremely helpful. Iron deficiency, B12 deficiencies, and Vitamin C deficiencies are just a few examples. Also those with clearly inadequate diets would, I believe most would agree, benefit from some sort of supplementation.
What is the correct answer then? Again, it depends. There are so many factors that should go into the decision of whether to take a vitamin or not. Despite what online articles might tell you, it’s not a black or white issue. Let’s walk through the areas I typically assess with clients to determine if supplements are worth considering.
1. The number one factor I assess when determining the need for vitamin supplementation is the client’s current diet. Are they getting a varied diet, supplying a variety of nutrients throughout the day? Or, are they eating the same foods every single day, many of which are nutrient-poor? If the client’s diet is not meeting their needs, of course the first step is to help them correct the issue. Along with better diet, however, supplementation can be helpful in rebuilding nutrient stores in the body. Sometimes we recommend specific nutrients of concern, say calcium, Vitamin D, B vitamins, etc, and other times we go straight to a multivitamin to help cover all the bases. Our goal is to support health through optimal nutrient status, and supplementation, at least in the short term, is one way to help clients achieve that.
2. The next factor I always address is overall health. Are there specific disease states that my increase the need for certain nutrients? Are there potentially genetic factors whereby the client does not use nutrients as optimally as they should, thereby requiring a higher intake to enhance absorption? In these cases, short-term or long-term supplementation at regular or sometimes much higher doses are warranted. Please note that vitamin supplementation for disease conditions or at higher doses than commonly recommended should be evaluated by a medical practitioner before commencing.
For example, some diabetics may be deficient in chromium. Chromium is a micronutrient that works with insulin to help it do its job. Obviously insulin function is very important to a diabetic, hence a diabetic might consider chromium supplementation in their treatment plan.
In terms of genetic issues, one example is someone with the MTHFR mutation, which causes a defect in the enzyme that helps convert folate into methyl-folate. Methyl-folate then goes on to make another product called SAMe via another enzymatic process, which is then used used in hundreds of reactions throughout the body. If someone is not utilizing their folate as they should, symptoms can result. Supplementation can be a huge and necessary help.
3. The third area I address is lab data. Does the client have lab results reflecting overt deficiencies? Often many people don’t even realize they have a deficiency until testing is done to assess. Based on lab data we can pinpoint appropriate supplements that might be necessary in the short-term to correct a nutrient problem before it becomes a major health concern that they do realize.
4. And the last area I assess is general need based on location. I live in the Pacific Northwest. We are chronically Vitamin D deficient. Almost all of my clients should be taking some level of Vitamin D. Iodine is another example. Some parts of the country and in some communities in particular iodine-rich foods are almost non-existent. These groups might benefit from standard supplementation when there are known, widespread deficiencies.
So now that we have a better understanding of how to assess when and where nutrient supplementation might be needed, the next big question I often get is asked is, “Does it matter which brand I take?” The answer to that question is yes!
Quality is a huge concern in the supplement world. That is probably the number one reason supplements in general have a poor reputation. Numerous reports and studies have caught supplement manufacturers lying about the contents of their products or outright deceiving customers on what they even contain.
You may remember this story from a couple of years ago where several herbal products in common retail stores (Target, various drug stores) were tested for authenticity. They found that many of the products they looked at did not even contain the herb listed. In fact, some were filled with common houseplant substances instead of the healing herb they were touting.1 I can see why consumers would be suspicious. (see story link below)
Clearly, you do need to be careful about the products you choose. Unfortunately the choices are overwhelming, even to me! How do you decide?
The easiest answer is to ask your health practitioner what, if any brands, they use or recommend. I personally have my go-to’s that I know are safe and effective. Other practitioners have their trusted products. Typically these are from well-known, established companies with documented testing procedures, quality control measures, etc. Many of these brands are trusted and recommended by doctors, naturopaths, dietitians, and chiropractors. Some can be found at your local supplement store, and others need to be obtained at a natural pharmacy or online. Almost none, just for reference, come from the local drug store (Walgreens, Rite Aid, etc). It’s usually best to buy from a reputable supplement store, and even better to walk in with a specific product in mind, lest you get confused and/or tempted by the multitude of options.
Conclusion? Despite what media reports might say, supplements can be useful. Does it mean you need to run out today and get a general multivitamin just to be safe? Absolutely not. The key above all else is to improve your diet choices for optimal health and then evaluate if further “assistance” is needed. Don’t pay attention to all those latest fads on TV telling you what you need. Eat healthy, listen to your body, and employ the advice of a qualified health practitioner to better assess what supplements would be helpful, if any. You will save yourself a lot of time and, not to mention, a heap of money.
If you are not feeling at your best and wondering if supplementation is something you should consider, or if your medicine cabinet is jammed full of supplements and you are not sure if they are the right ones, reach out! We can do a general assessment to figure out what you need to make sure your body is working at its best.