Supplements have gotten a bit of a bad reputation much to do with the lack of proper regulation. The media has reported that some products have been found to not contain the ingredients listed on the label, or in much smaller amounts than advertised. I like to believe that Canada is a little more restrictive than our neighbours to the south; It's common to find many "performance enhancing" supplements filled with steroids and sildenifil or similar drugs (the generic form of Viagra) at gas stations around the country.
Regardless of these incidents, there are still many great supplement companies who perform third party testing and whose products are standardized to contain the exact compounds and amounts of those compounds in each tablet/capsule.
As a naturopathic doctor I'm extremely picky with which companies I prescribe or recommend. But in recommending a higher quality product, the cost of certain supplements also goes up. So do we really need to spend hundreds of dollars on supplements? Do they actually do anything for you?
That all depends on you, your diet and your health status. Most people don't need to take supplements to survive, but they definitely have a role in optimizing your health.
Here's an example: do we all need probiotics? We need beneficial bacteria in our guts for proper digestion (and many other things!). Without a good gut microflora we experience gas, bloating, constipation or loose stools. Long standing, we may experience low mood or depression and a lower functioning immune system, including skin rashes. By incorporating fibre (vegetables) in your diet each and every day we eliminate the need to take high doses of probiotics as fibre helps to feed the good bacteria in your large intestine. However, if your gut bacteria has been out of balance for a while, taking a probiotic can help to repopulate your gut faster and crowd-out all the "bad" bacteria. In this example, taking a supplement (probiotic) will help you to feel better sooner.
Supplements in general aren't needed by everyone, but again, they optimize your well-being. Sometimes I forget exactly how many supplements I take daily - there's a lot of them! But I truly feel better on them. For most supplements, it can take up to three months to feel an effect. In some cases you might not even notice a difference but your blood work says otherwise. For example, using a high quality fish oil to manage cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
I would also bet that 90% of Canadians have less than optimal vitamin D status. Due to our winters, and decreased sun exposure, many of us don't get enough vitamin D. You may or may not notice any differences, but when your vitamin D levels are in a certain range, you decrease your risk for cancer, bone fractures, heart attack (men), and multiple sclerosis (click here for references).
I personally would still rather take multiple supplements now than to be on medications later in life, or even right now. By taking certain vitamins and botanical formulas, I'm decreasing my need to take ibuprofen (generic Advil) or naproxen. These over-the-counter medications have been around for years and seemed benign, but we've recently learned that NSAID's such as ibuprofen may lead to adverse effects such as heart attacks and stroke, as reported to Health Canada. Now someone who takes ibuprofen maybe once or twice per year is less likely to experience this, but for females who take Advil for 1-2 days each month to handle menstrual cramps... it all adds up, and personally it makes me very uncomfortable.
Instead I'll keep up with my fish oil, B6 complex and botanical formula (and even acupuncture!) to decrease the need for these pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories and pain relievers.
So do we really need to take dozens of supplements and spend all this money on them? That's an investment I'm willing to make and I encourage you to have your supplements reviewed by a naturopathic doctor. An ND can tell you if what you're taking is the best for your health situation, and also if the product you're currently taking is the best one for your money. As an example, several B vitamins such as B6 and B12 are available as cheap synthetic forms, but also as more bio-available forms - forms where your body doesn't need to take it and turn it into the "active" form. So what's the point in wasting money on a vitamin that you might not be absorbing? This is also a huge problem with multivitamins - but that's a topic for the next blog post.
The other issue is that we confuse all supplements with being "natural" when in fact many of them come with their own "warnings" or contraindications. Your individual allergies and health issues can be exacerbated with certain supplements, so make sure that you'r not just grabbing anything off the shelf - a naturopathic assessment is crucial for your safety.
Don't let the media influence you in avoiding all supplements. There are terrible companies out there and there are fantastic, responsible ones as well. Supplements are for improving your quality of life, preventing disease and optimizing your body's overall performance. We don't all need them, but they can really influence our health and proper functioning of our bodies.