What are nutritional supplements and who should take them?
There are two schools of thought on supplements. You may have heard both of them.
The first is that, because of the industrialized way that we grow our food and then often transport it thousands of miles before eating it, our food has lost some of its nutritional value, and therefore we all need to be incredibly active in supplementing our diets with the micronutrients that we’ve lost.
The other school of thought is basically that supplements are a waste of time, that there’s no good evidence they work, and that they are an unregulated mess.
As with most things in life, the truth is a lot more nuanced than these two polar opposite viewpoints would suggest.
The fact is that millions of Americans take supplements every day. So, it's essential to have appropriate, accurate information on the subject. Supplements are widely available at specialty stores, holistic health shops, and major retailers, and you can also find hordes of them online.
So, let's talk a little bit about supplements, what they are, and whether you should take them.
What are nutritional supplements?
Supplements, also commonly referred to as dietary supplements, are manufactured products, often in the form of vitamins and minerals, intended to supplement a lack of that vitamin or mineral within your diet. Supplements can come in the form of tablets, powders, liquids, and capsules.
Dietary supplements can provide nutrients extracted from natural food sources or be made synthetically. Chances are, you either currently take supplements or you know somebody who does.
Rules and Regulations for Dietary Supplements
In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, also known as DSHEA, which established a regulatory framework to ensure the safety of dietary supplements. The DSHEA gave the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) the authority to enforce regulations concerning the manufacturing and labeling of nutritional supplements.
On paper, dietary supplements face strict regulations, but those regulations are often “too little, too late,” or under-enforced. The government hasn't exactly failed miserably at regulating supplements, but it's done a poor enough job that private and third-party organizations have stepped up to provide consumers with the choice between regulated supplements and those that are not.
These are the organizations you should turn to for good information on supplements:
The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)
The NSF issues certifications for dietary supplement products and training capabilities, and testing services. Some of the most popular NSF certifications include organic, gluten-free, and GMP.
Quality Assurance International (QAI)
A division of NSF, Quality Assurance International is a USDA-accredited agency that certifies organic products within the supplement and food industries. QAI offers certification programs for supplement manufacturers.
Project Non-GMO is a non-profit organization that supports a non-GMO food supply through consumer education and outreach programs.
ConsumerLab is a private company that publishes the results of wellness, health, and nutrition product testing. Manufacturers can take advantage of the certification program.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
And finally, the USDA (a government organization) provides the public with resources regarding dietary supplements and offers organic accreditation and certification to state, private, and foreign farms and facilities.
When it comes to understanding supplement rules and regulations, the information becomes complex quickly. The sheer amount of supplements available for purchase and the laws that vary by country and ingredient can be difficult to follow.
Still, it's crucial to stay up to date on the topic or work with a doctor or nutritionist who does.
Americans and Supplements
As of 2022, more than half of American shoppers turn to supplements for preventative health concerns. Given the wide variety and instant availability combined with social media influence, this percentage isn't surprising.
Yet only 23 percent of people who take supplements do so because their doctor recommended them. Most people take supplements because they believe the added boost of nutrition will maintain or improve their health.
The multivitamin is the most popular supplement among Americans (used by adults in all age groups). According to the CDC, multivitamins are followed closely by vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid products. Calcium, vitamin b complex, and magnesium are also popular supplements among those living in the United States.
Who Should Take Supplements?
While more than half of the country takes at least one supplement daily, not everyone needs to supplement their diet. If you eat a lot of whole grains, lean meats, and fresh produce in a wide variety, you may not even require a supplement, though it's best to consult with your doctor. However, specific demographics do need an extra vitamin boost.
Patients Lacking Vitamin D
Vitamin D is necessary to absorb calcium in the gut and build strong bones, but it tends to appear in very few foods. Most of the vitamin D humans receive is manufactured by the body when exposing skin to sunlight. Many people in America are low in Vitamin D, typically from working in an office setting all day.
If you think you might be lacking vitamin D, a simple blood test can give you the answer. Vitamin D deficiency symptoms can include fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, and mood swings.
Vegans and the Elderly
People who eat a vegan diet and those who are elderly can benefit from a vitamin B12 supplement. B12 is necessary for creating red blood cells and proper brain function, and it's present in many animal products, which is why vegans are at risk for deficiency. In some cases, older adults can have issues with the proper absorption of B12, and as a result, a supplement may be necessary.
One of the first pieces of advice pregnant women receive is to take a prenatal vitamin high in folic acid. Folic acid is essential for fetal development, and it's common for pregnant women to take a higher dose than the standard dose.
Medications and Supplements
Even with all-natural supplements, drug interactions require close monitoring. Some prescription medications can interfere with the absorption of supplements, rendering them useless and the patient unable to reap the benefits.
Certain antidepressants and anxiety medication could interfere with the way your supplement absorbs into the body and vice versa. Blood thinners, like Warfarin, have been known to have adverse reactions to various supplements, ranging from Cranberry to Ginko.
It's crucial to speak with your doctor regarding the supplements you take and your current prescriptions — if you’d like to chat with our team at Dignity Integrative, we offer a free, 15-minute consultation.
The Importance of B Vitamins
Whether you get them from your food or a dietary supplement, B vitamins are crucial to longevity and health, primarily if you're older, pregnant, vegan, or struggle with anxiety. Here are a few overall benefits of B vitamins.
Lower your risk of stroke
Boost your immune system
Breaks down food into energy
Encourages healthy hormones
May reduce the risk of heart disease
Helps reduce anemia
Essential for fetal development
Most importantly, B vitamins help the enzymes in our body perform a wide range of cellular functions, including the transportation of nutrients throughout the body. Essentially, B vitamins play a significant role in helping our brains run correctly.
There are two supplements that I regularly prescribe to patients. These include:
Though we touched on this a bit earlier, vitamin D is an essential supplement commonly prescribed because so many people are deficient. During the pandemic, people lacking vitamin D had worse outcomes regarding COVID infections, and about 25% of the population in America is currently affected by low vitamin D levels.
Magnesium is an essential part of the biochemical reactions in your body. It's not as present in plants as it used to be due to soil depletion, so many need it. Magnesium can help with high blood pressure (eclampsia), migraines, and muscle cramps.
Understanding Supplement Safety
Overall, it's good to work closely with your doctor regarding supplements. As the supplement industry continues to grow, regulations remain somewhat the same. Supplements can absolutely improve health and quality of life, but it's crucial to do so safely under the guidance of a professional.
For my practice at Dignity Integrative, I’ve partnered with Fullscript to offer nutritional supplements to my patients, when recommended. I chose Fullscript for a few reasons:
Product Verification: Fullscript verifies all its inventory for authenticity and quality testing.
Inventory Specialization: Fullscript focuses only on natural health products.
Proven Track Record: Fullscript has been serving physician providers for 40 years.