Quality. This is the most important but most difficult attribute to ascertain. In a profit driven society where industry can more or less monitor itself, there is much room for inferior product. Last year the New York State attorney general office accused Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens of selling dietary supplements that were fraudulent and contaminated (See “What’s in Those Supplements” in the NY Times, February 3, 2015.) In “Herb Plus” brand, for example, pills labeled Ginkgo biloba contained only rice, asparagus, and spruce. Remember that a company who sells to chains such as GNC and Walgreens are more driven by quantity of sales than by quality of product. Reputable companies use third parties to substantiate quality and will provide you with proof of assays upon request. Additionally, they use quality ingredients that may be more expensive. Calcium carbonate may be calcium, but it is little more than ground up sea shells.
Prudent use with Rx medications. Do not presume that just because an herb or nutrient is natural, it is also “safe”, especially if you are also on prescription medications. For example, in 2015 a medical journal published a case of a man who was placed on warfarin (Coumadin), a drug used to thin the blood, after having had a valve replaced in his heart. The man self-substituted nattokinase for warfarin. Nattokinase is an enzyme derived from fermented soybeans that highly effective at decreasing the tendency of the blood to clot. Nevertheless, the man developed a clot which lodged itself in the artificial valve. While herbs and nutrients can always be used to heal and improve health, they should not be substituted or used concomitantly with prescription medications without the guidance of a licensed health professional.
Ingredient List. Ever seen a supplement that contains 25 or more ingredients, containing each and every possible nutrient and herb of the day? Stay away from such supplements! These brands are panhandling to each and every fashionable nutrient of the day, rather than to your health. Keep in mind that in order to include all of these nutrients in one or two capsules, there cannot be more than a dusting of each per capsule, which is unlikely to have the desired effect on your physiology. Further, herbs work well synergistically. An intelligently crafted product with five ingredients will do far more with fewer capsules than one that contains everything but the kitchen sink. Lastly, be aware that supplements manufactured abroad may be contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic. Your best bet is buying USDA certified organic products.
Take ‘em when you need ‘em. When do you take an Ibuprofen? When you have a headache, that’s when! Would you take one if you did not have the headache? Of course not, why would you? (There are herbal formulas far superior to Ibuprofen, and far safer, but that’s a discussion for another day). Along that line, I recommend taking supplements only when you need them. If you feel tired and burned out, B-complex and adrenal support can help immeasurably. Once you recover, discontinue them. Taking methyl-donors like folate, SAM-e and some forms of B12 can trigger restlessness and anxiety if taken too often; if you have these symptoms, stop taking them. Furthermore, following this advice will make your supplements last longer and save you a few dollars.
The bottom line? Supplements are medicine that should be used prudently. If in doubt, consult your friendly neighborhood integrative health provider!
Dr. Daniel Smith practices at Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic. His office is on 2612 Barnett Ave. He specializes in naturopathic oncology, but still maintains a strong family practice, treating all manner of conditions. He can be reached at 541-770-5563 or at firstname.lastname@example.org If you would like to schedule an appointment, please ask specifically for Dr. Dan.