The Truth About Supplements
Dr. Heather Overland, NMD LAc
One of the things I get asked about most commonly is whether a specific supplement is good or not. We’re inundated by articles touting the efficacy of the “next big cure,” the “one simple thing” to drastically change your life. We’re also overwhelmed with scary excerpts from studies demonizing seemingly innocuous everyday things, talking about toxic supplements, and exposing misleading claims.
The vitamin and supplement industry is just that, an industry, and one that is not well regulated by the FDA. Whether FDA regulations are likely to increase safety or efficacy is also another discussion. As a physician with education in herbal medicine, research design and critical evaluation of medical literature, I strongly disagree with poorly constructed studies and articles written by people with very limited knowledge of the subject matter. (Gosh, a study on an herb’s desiccated leaves in healthy people shows no benefit…not surprising when its standard herbal preparation is root extracted in alcohol and administered for a specific condition.) I also strongly disagree with the plethora of advertisements and companies that seek to make quick money by preying on our fears and desire for wellness, while providing a sub-standard product. It is certainly a waste of money and possibly even a danger to your health to take unnecessary supplements, things that don’t actually do what you want them to do, and don’t actually contain what you think they do.
It is also frustrating that doctors are often ill-equipped to help patients navigate this. A combination of lack of focus on diet and nutrient therapy in medical school, very limited experience with botanical/ herbal medicine, and extremely restricted time to actually engage with their patients has resulted in healthcare providers who simply can’t provide adequate patient education or who choose to cover this lack by spouting highly polarizing opinions such as “all supplements are harmless” or “all supplements are dangerous.”
In the makings of a perfect storm, not only do we have limited healthcare resources to help understand what vitamins or supplements we may need, we are also barraged with advertisements for seemingly helpful supplements. Time and time again, I am disappointed to see vitamin supplements that have great combinations of nutrients…just in a minimally absorbable form. They can also be combined with less-great substances that actually end up blocking the intended nutrient. Oils are frequently contained in potentially harmful containers that could leech into and contaminate the substance you’re taking (so much for the health benefits). Alternately, I see suggested serving sizes that are ridiculously inconsistent with standard dosing. This makes your seemingly inexpensive supplement end up being veritably useless, unaffordable at proper dosing, or unpalatable (I’m looking at you, pile of horse-sized cod liver oil pills).
This leaves the average person unlikely to achieve therapeutic targets (and more importantly, feel the results) that they intended. You may have guessed from this article (or from seeing me with an arched eyebrow perusing the supplement sample at our grocery store), frankly, I get a bit upset.
This is where I’m supposed to offer a solution, but wellness is a multi-part process that can’t be achieved with one pill or trick. Your health is so much more complex and precious than a one size fits all approach. If you have questions, ask your doctor or nurse. Never be afraid to ask why or request more explanation. “What can I do to help my condition? Are there any nutrients that I might be lacking because of my diet, lifestyle, disease or medication? What can I do to support my health? I want to optimize my wellness, where do I start?”
If your questions aren’t answered sufficiently by your current healthcare team, or you want to get started with optimizing rather than just treating, feel free to reach out to me, Dr. Overland. I’d be happy to schedule a visit with you to evaluate your treatment plan and streamline your supplements.