The US supplements industry is currently worth a cool $37 billion annually. For some, choosing the right supplement can be a Godsend. But for others, getting it wrong sends the whole body into an unintended tailspin. So the aim of this article is to help you avoid common pitfalls, and then provide workable solutions. Ready?
It’s often said that the only difference between table salt and poison is the dose. My point is this: too much of anything is a bad thing. Popping pills without fully understanding this premise is at best foolhardy. Doing it in mega doses can be downright dangerous!
Look, we all know illness is inconvenient, and with bills to pay we sometimes make choices out of sheer panic. No work, no pay, must fix — I totally get it.
The short-term solution is to keep swallowing anything that promises relief. While the rationale for swallowing handfuls of pills is understandable, it can also become unpredictable. From the get-go, let’s not make the mistake of writing a check to your body that your body cannot cash.
The body strives to be in balance and it works hard to do so. In our rush to get well, many supplements have an overwhelming effect on the body.
During times of stress or illness, the liver and kidneys are already be pulling double shifts. These are the main filtering organs that process everything you swallow. This would also apply to harsh pharmaceutical drugs.
Once the liver and kidneys become overtaxed, symptoms can manifest in a whole bunch of different ways. Remember, the job of the liver and kidneys is to keep you alive by means of filtering and detoxifying. They are doing their best to keep different elements in perfect balance. Your job is to stop making this process harder.
Let’s try looking at it this way.
In your mind’s eye, imagine a delicate set of scales with a white feather on one tray and a small pill placed on the other tray. If the two balance each other out, then this is your body in a state of equilibrium. Today more than ever, it’s much easier to disrupt this fine balancing act than it is to keep it. This then becomes the difference between feeling well or feeling ill.
Rest assured, your solutions are coming, but to fix a problem, we first have to understand it. This takes a little effort on your part, but the rewards for doing so are real. Without a clear plan, promises made by supplement companies rarely solve health problems.
Swallowing handfuls of pills to overcome illness is a bold move; if it’s working for you stick with it, but in doing so it’s possible to become our own worst enemy.
For some, common sense and moderation appear to have fallen out of fashion. There’s a new concept in town that’s completely detached from reason.
MORE IS MORE RIGHT?
We live in a fast-paced world with the widely held belief that more is more, and taking supplements in mega doses is surely a good thing, right? If only it were that easy.
In theory, EVERY supplement sounds good, but if we took every supplement that sounded good, we would soon need a suitcase to carry them all around in.
You may have diligently done your homework and read review after review before pressing that buy-now button. But keep in mind what might work for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.
That glowing review Mrs. Jones wrote for product X, Y or Z isn’t going to automatically isolate you from the adverse reaction Mr. Smith had. Look, we all desperately want to swallow a magic pill that will end all our health problems, but that’s not the way it works in practice.
So what’s the solution?
Know that the body deserves to be in balance, so let’s begin to work with it not against it. Using selective supplements that work synergistically in small groups brings much better results. However, without a firm foundation, it will rarely translate into a successful outcome.
All things being equal, the liver and kidneys do a great job of filtering out what is harmful. But there comes a tipping point when these overtaxed organs become sluggish. As the body struggles to cope, those amazing results you were promised on the bottle will soon feel like a meandering lie. The situation then becomes far more fragile and even small doses can leave you feeling as if your health is a candle in the wind.
A good rule of thumb is this: if you aren’t 100% sure of why you taking a supplement don’t buy it. Whatever it is you do buy, make yourself accountable. This can be done by simply writing down three reasons why you think supplement X, Y, or Z is going to work, and three reasons why it may not. Now we are thinking logically with our heads as opposed to acting out of fear, wishful thinking, or blind panic.
These days, it seems everybody has a product to sell you. It’s super easy to be blinded by the benefits that are often found in the product’s literature. The smart thing to do is spend a little time researching the same product for its known side effects. This will help to balance out all that euphoric enthusiasm.
In good faith, many people make an online purchase for the least expensive multivitamin in the hope that they are covering all the bases. While there is some merit to this way of thinking, it’s not without problems.
Many cheap multivitamins are synthetic; they are low-quality imposters of the real thing. Often large retail stores will import supplements from abroad where it’s easy to sidestep quality controls.
At this point, I’d like to stress that there are lots of good quality supplements on the market. But the misconception held by some is that “all-natural” vitamins, supplements, and herbal formulas are good for you. But there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.
Inferior supplements can arrive in your medicine cabinet laced with toxic dyes. Some are even cut with talc! These types of synthetic vitamins are cheaper to make so they make more money for the company selling them.
However, buying supplements based on price will always take your health on a fruitless mission. Make no mistake, over time cheap synthetic vitamins will hurt you. They simply cannot be absorbed properly and will pull the whole body out of balance.
I can appreciate that this information might not be new to some readers but stick with me because I’ll soon be going a little deeper. However, if you are a total newbie, try turning to your local health food store.
Generally speaking, small independent mom and pop type stores tend to sell better quality supplements than the big box stores. They also hold the advantage of being more knowledgeable and usually provide sound advice.
Okay, so what else do we need to know?
Vitamins fit into two groups: fat-soluble or water-soluble. These groups determine how vitamins are dissolved and stored in your body. Fat-soluble vitamins reside in the body’s fatty tissue and liver and are used “as needed” by the body.
By contrast, water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and are generally not stored in your body. It’s worth remembering that both have the potential to cause toxicities when taken in excess.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DOSE?
Quality is not the only thing to worry about. How about the quantity? This measurement is often a preference set by manufacturers themselves. Your health guru may tell you that you need vitamin X-Y-Z and he or she may or may not be right. But common sense should dictate that anything new that you introduce into your body should always be taken in the smallest dose first to see how you react. The term I like to use often is, start small (dose) and go slow (spread the time out).
For anyone looking for that elusive quick-fix pill, I’m aware and accept that the following sentence is about to make me about as popular as a piranha in a hotel swimming pool. Here goes nothing: supplements cannot act as a substitute for a poor diet. This is a topic we will address in more detail later, for now, let’s not lose our momentum.
BE SMART AND HIT THE TARGET
If a true nutritional deficiency exists, a much smarter way is to “selectively” steer towards certain supplements. To make this point think of a rifle with a high powered telescope on the top. Now compare the accuracy of the rifle to the bluntness of a shotgun. If the two weapons were laid side by side and the goal was to hit a bullseye, might the smarter choice be accuracy?
Smaller more accurate groups of selected minerals and vitamins can work better than a broad-based multivitamin. The term for this is synergistic. This simply means certain groups of supplements work well together to produce an enhanced result. I’ll be going over supplements that work synergistically in a moment, so hand tight.
By contrast, taking a multivitamin could be thought of like a shotgun approach. Now that we have all that cleared up, problem solved right? Meh, not so fast.
VITAMINS OR MINERALS?
Even if the stars aligned perfectly, you got the exact brand, the right quantity, and you even managed to accurately diagnose your own deficiency, the problem doesn’t automatically end there. How so?
Vitamin supplementation fails to work optimally in a body that is lacking in trace minerals. This is super important to know because all too often the emphasis is on taking vitamins. It’s minerals that make up the lion’s share of your body’s nutritional needs. Minerals help the body absorb vitamins, without sufficient minerals vitamins are worthless.
To some degree, the body can adapt to minor deficiencies — much like a car with a rear tail light out. The car still runs even with the broken light. Some deficiencies left to fester can become life-threatening. For example, the heart is one organ that needs a ready supply of potassium and magnesium!
The good news is that given the correct raw materials the body (that’s you) can begin to repair itself — no, seriously, the body does it all the time from the cells up.
In order to do so, the body requires approximately 90 essential nutrients. This includes 60 essential minerals, 12 Amino Acids, 16 vitamins, and 3–4 essential fatty acids.
Yup, there are more but these are considered “essential” for the simple reason that the body cannot produce them, therefore, they must be consumed. Don’t worry if this seems like a lot to take in, this whole process becomes easier to understand if you just keep reading.
In a perfect world that highly touted supplement you just ordered online would come to you at the speed of light with a guarantee that, once taken, your health will immediately spring back. Alas, the world we live in is far from perfect; sometimes we are derailed by our own lack of understanding and sometimes people make claims that are downright deceitful!
Anything man can put in a box and sell online has the potential to go wrong (or be an outright lie). So what's the solution?
It pays to buy your supplements from somebody you know and trust. For this reason, I make a point of getting to know the names of people working in my local health food store.
When trying anything new it just makes more sense to keep it simple. If you take a handful of new supplements and something works for you, great! But how do you know which one did the trick?
On the flip side, if you feel worse after taking a handful of supplements, how will you know which caused the problem? The ideal solution is to start small and go slow.
The promise of benefit is always seductive. If we find ourselves stuck in a desperate cycle of popping pills it can become a challenging habit to break. The only sure way to prove to ourselves that we have not become dependent on popping-pills is to try this easy self-test. Ready?
Try to refrain from taking ALL supplements for seven days. I know people who absolutely cannot do this and still refuse to admit they have a pill-popping problem. I also know people who have done this and have seen a great improvement as their bodies come back into balance on their own.
If you have to, put all your supplements in a cardboard box and have someone save them for you. Remember, it’s only a week. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, then there is a problem. Trust me on this, your body is far smarter than any Amazon seller.
If you do find yourself stuck in a loop, then the next step is to get yourself a week-to-week day planner. Write down the kind of the supplement you take, and then in brackets write down the time and the reason you take it. If you can’t list the reasons, then why are you taking it?
This simple tip helps (a) serve as a record, (b) plot progress and, © keep you accountable. The latter can be quite revealing when you look back over the week. Make this process as simple as you can so it doesn’t feel like a chore to do it.
Here’s an example of how to keep a simple record for someone with a system that’s already out of balance or easily overloaded.
Tuesday 22nd November
8 am L-glutamine powder x 1 half teaspoon (gut repair)
1 pm Milk Thistle x 1 (liver detox)
3 pm AHCC x 2 (immune system)
7 pm Topical DMSO (knee pain)
10 pm CBD oil (sleep)
Am I saying these are the supplements you need to take? Nope, never did say that this is just an example. But notice how the times are spaced out? This helps us highlight what is working and what is not. If you took everything on this list at 8 am how would you work out which supplement is working and which supplement gave you a bad reaction?
Once health improves, the amounts can increase, but for now, the last thing we need to do is add to the burden of a body that’s already struggling to cope. Spacing things out also prevents us from overloading the body making it easier to maintain a state of equilibrium.
As mentioned earlier, there are some supplements that work well together synergistically. But for the moment we are attempting to tackle a much bigger issue which is keeping the body in balance.
At this stage, we are trying to keep everything as simple as possible. Does L-glutamine have other benefits? Yes, but we aren’t looking to write a product review here, we only need to understand our own thinking. Once this becomes a daily habit you can always expand on it by adding side notes etc.
Any supplemental gaps in between we can (and should) fill with nutrition. With the right approach, a large portion of these vitamins and minerals can be obtained from foods grown in nutrient-dense soils. In simple speak, this means you aren’t going to find them in processed foods.
While it might be reassuring to think a supplement that’s going to take away all our problems, without a clear understanding of the subject of nutrition your health problems aren’t going away any time soon. You simply can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet, and with a good diet, you don’t need to.
Think of it this way. What if you suddenly found yourself marooned on a beautiful desert island without any of your supplements or medications.
The only protein available had to be wild-caught each day. The only vegetables had to be freshly picked from the land, and the only drink was freshwater or pure coconut milk — now ask yourself, how do you think your health would be a month from now?
Again, my goal is not to discourage, there are some supplements that can and do bring relief — the goal here is to help you understand the problem.
For the moment, that problem is failing to listen to your own body. Let’s not forget that cheap supplements will push the kidneys and liver into working overtime. As we move forward, practical solutions will become more apparent.
I accept that recommending you buy fewer supplements isn’t going to sit well with everyone. Depending on what products are being sold — it’s either going to piss a few people off or it may even be the most interesting thing that they read today. Please note, I didn’t decide to write this to make myself unpopular. I wrote it because it’s important for anyone looking to overcome and avoid illness to know this information.
At times I might even be swimming against the popular tide here, but it beats drowning in numbers. Shall we jump in with a few supplement contradictions?
As Newton famously said, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This quote serves to highlight the larger point I am striving to make which is balance is important.
It’s easy to lose count of the number of contradictions that exist for every supplement out there. For example, a simple Google search reveals that iodine is essential for good thyroid health, and while this may be true, it’s not the whole story.
Any thyroid that isn’t functioning optimally is typically either hyperthyroid or hypothyroid. The latter being the more prevalent of the two. There is a popular school of thought that suggests that giving iodine to a person with hypothyroid can, on occasion, be like pouring gasoline on an open flame.
A hypothyroid patient has a 90% chance of having an autoimmune condition by the name of Hashimoto’s. Hashimoto’s name is taken from the Japanese physician, Hakaru Hashimoto. During a flare-up, the body attacks its own thyroid.
Adding unregulated iodine either as a standalone supplement or as a mega dose multivitamin, (and to some degree iodized table salt) has the potential to magnify the problem.
The iodine contradiction is one reason why some hypothyroid patients are sent into a tailspin. Given that Hashimoto’s was the first-ever autoimmune condition to be discovered way back in 1934, you would have thought that manufacturers would have had ample time to understand this basic concept.
I know what you are thinking because I’ve had the same thought. If we know that the thyroid needs iodine, what’s the solution to stop it from destroying itself?
That’s a great question and the short answer lies in a selenium supplement. And here’s where we begin to see the beauty of things working together synergistically. But even then it’s a delicate see-saw balancing act that needs careful consideration. It’s worth noting that selenium should always be taken with Vitamin E
Now we are off to the races, taking iodine (in the right dose) with selenium and Vitamin E has been shown to have an impact on thyroid-specific autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s. Why?
Selenium significantly reduces TPO and TgAb antibodies; up to 55–86% and 35–92% respectively.
But the devil is once again in the details; too HIGH a dose of selenium can easily accelerate the problem if iodine is deficient. I know, right? Let’s think before we act. The reverse is also true and each needs to remain in balance.
If either is too low (or too high) symptoms will become much worse. Both must be addressed simultaneously and in direct proportion to each other.
Sounds a little confusing right?
Even this is an overly simplified version of events, but it serves to make the point … there is always more to supplementation than meets the eye!
Autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s are always a complicated business so it pays to keep an open mind. Some patients may even respond better without the use of any iodine and instead may do better by simply supporting the thyroid with supplements such as B12, Selenium, and Iron.
With thyroid problems on the rise, I’d better quickly mention that soy products can have an adverse effect on the thyroid, as can gluten. I’ll write more about these another time.
If you suspect that you have any type of a thyroid issue it pays to insist that your doctor goes beyond having the standard TSH test done. The TSH test is capable of doing a great disservice to the patient because it only looks at 20% of the problem.
If you have a thyroid issue you might find the work of Dr. Izabella Wentz, Pharm. D., FASCP interesting. Dr. Izabella Wentz is a passionate, innovative, and solution-focused clinical pharmacist. What Mrs. Wentz doesn’t know about the thyroid wouldn’t take up any space on the back of a postage stamp.
To fully understand all these interactions and combinations it seems we might all benefit from a Ph.D. in chemistry such as Dr. Wentz has. Yet all too often we go along to the pharmacy and take the advice of the first person we can find.
Let’s not limit this problem to iodine. The same argument can be put forth with just about any vitamin. Dare I say even vitamin D? While it’s true that vitamin D is critical to good health, it’s also worth noting that vitamin D isn’t a vitamin at all, it’s actually a hormone.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means taking too much of it can build up and cause toxicity. Taking vitamin D in pill form can be harsh on the kidneys. If you have a known vitamin D deficiency, a “sublingual” version of vitamin D is far less damaging.
Taking sublingual vitamin D simply means you allow it to dissolve slowly on the tongue which is much easier for the kidneys to process.
We should also note that vitamin D works best with calcium, the two go hand in hand and both are needed for absorption. But once again there is a little more to this story and here’s where it gets a little bumpy so you might want to hold onto your hat. Ready?
If calcium is aided in absorption by vitamin D3 then K2 is also needed for it to do so effectively. Huh? But wait there’s more; vitamin D is good friends with other vitamins (like vitamin A) and cooperates synergistically with minerals like magnesium and zinc.
I know, right? It seems easier to get this wrong than it is to get it right, but don’t lose faith, a solution is coming.
Many of the proteins involved in vitamin A metabolism (and the receptors for both vitamins A and D) only function correctly in the presence of zinc. Surely there must be an easier way to get our vitamin D safely and in the right amount? Yes, quite often there is, and it’s usually just above your head — and free…but here’s the kicker. We have been conditioned over the years to cover up our living, breathing skin with sunscreen. Yet, when done sensibly, the best way to get your vitamin D is directly from the sun — in small doses.
Exposing the skin to direct sunlight for 30 mins a day in the morning can be a much safer alternative to popping vitamin D pills. As with all things, moderation is key, and getting your vitamin D this way beats anything you can buy in the store by a royal mile.
Not everyone has access to sunshine year-round, which makes the whole sublingual vitamin D lesson here all the more important.
DON’T DO IT
This next pitfall is one I have fallen into myself more times than I care to remember. Let’s say you managed to get the correct X-Y-Z supplement and even began to feel some noticeable benefit. There is a new danger lurking in our own thinking — any guesses what it is? Top marks if you said, “Hey if one is good — two must be better, right?”
When I was ill back in 2011, I had a family to support and bills to pay. The obvious temptation was to see a small benefit and then rush forward with haste. I get it — we need to get back on our feet ASAP but the more we take the more we run the risk of increasing our chances of a setback. If ever there was a time to use the phrase, less is more, this is it.
Note to self
“It is of little consequence if flawed logic is grounded in either desperation or greed, for both will take you on a fool’s errand” — James Lilley
Let’s go back to that set of scales in our mind’s eye. When we blindly put multiple compounds on the scale it becomes harder to keep the body in balance. This was never the way we humans were designed to digest our nutrients. What we do know, is this. The body strives for equilibrium so taking mega doses of ANYTHING makes the recovering body work harder.
So what’s the solution?
If you are trying to correct a deficiency with vitamins, then food-based supplementation is generally the better way to go. Known as “whole food supplements” or “plant-based supplements,” there are several good brands on the market which again, can be found in your local health food store. The golden rule is everything in moderation, for every action causes a reaction. And this reaction can sometimes involve the immune system.
The immune system gets complicated which is why I’ll cover in a separate post, but while we are here there is an important point I’d like you to remember. Your immune system can be stimulated or suppressed by certain supplements and herbs; this is why some people feel worse after taking supplements. Hmm, I see.
Any supplement that has the potential to cause an imbalance in the body will almost certainly rub the immune system the wrong way. And with more than 100 autoimmune conditions primed to attack from within, creating such an imbalance can be a costly mistake to make.
Most people with an autoimmune condition spend years being misdiagnosed. At this stage let’s not rule out the possibility that you could absolutely be one of those people.
Without a basic understanding of your Th1 and Th2 cells, it’s never a good idea to provoke any type of immune reaction. This important topic is broken down here.
BUT HOW DID WE GET HERE?
For sure our early ancestors weren’t wandering around with their pockets filled with pills, so why is it that we now feel the need to supplement? The short answer to that question is relatively more straightforward than you may think.
Today, much of the commercially grown food arriving on our plate is devoid of minerals because the soil is so overworked and weak. Essentially it’s been exhausted of its nutrients. Adding a handful of fertilizers to already depleted soil only adds to the problem. It’s a far cry from the 90 essential nutrients our body needs to thrive.
The bottom line is this: if the foods, we choose to eat have a mineral deficiency, then we have a mineral deficiency. And from that came to man’s solution: mega doses of supplements! But surely this is twisted logic.
Healthy vibrant food grown in nutrient-dense soil has been shown to contain more essential minerals and it naturally repels bugs. Weaker crops, however, are more prone to infestation; they then have the added burden of being exposed to heavy chemical spraying. I know, right? Spraying the food with poison, what could possibly go wrong?
Think of soil as a bank account, if you take too much out you have to deposit some back in or the soil becomes bankrupt. This is not the way our Victorian ancestors grew food. They grew food in nutrient-dense soils that had just about every mineral you could ever need. This is common sense farming rather than simply farming for profit. Alas, as my-old-mum used to say, “Common sense isn’t always that common.”
Today so many of the foods we choose to eat are heavily processed and far removed from that concept. Are you getting this? It’s kinda important.
Since the beginning of time, the preferred fuel to power the human body has been whole foods found in their natural state. Foods grown in nutrient-dense soils are superior in every way to commercially grown foods.
Understanding supplements and the way they affect the body takes time and discipline. You should remain aware that the risk of getting it wrong is ever-present, its worth reminding that your local health store is a useful ally.
THE OTHER WAY
Taking selective supplements that work synergistically has obvious advantages, but the take-home message here is the body likes harmony. Supplements are one way to get your nutrients, but they are not the only way.
For sensitive individuals, bone broths, juicing, and even sprouting all pack a nutritional punch. For some, boosting nutritional intake this way is a safer alternative.
To those in the supplement industry, I know this idea of popping fewer pills is making me about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit. But before you rush to point out that I failed to include important compounds like Glutathione, Zinc, NAC, A, B, C, D, and E, yadda, yadda, yadda let me again remind you that the supplements I mention here are examples only. I’ll also be writing more about which supplements are best so please stay tuned.
What did we learn from this?
Controlling pain and, to some degree, suffering is as easy as popping a pill. However, this simple rationale serves only to mask symptoms and rarely gets to the root cause. The notion that you can simply swallow a pill and have all your problems go away is an appealing one, but it’s fraught with complications and contradictions.
During any prolonged illness, the liver and kidneys are most likely already working overtime. This is important to remember because certain medications and supplements can force these stressed organs to work even harder
Homework: Check out this book