To Supplement, or Not to Supplement (July 9, 2019)
Ok, so last time that I was here, I said that as long as we know how to use them properly, nutritional supplements can be very helpful. That is, however, the rub, as the poet said. How do you decide whether or not to take a nutritional supplement?
Well, taking a supplement IS probably useless unless you are deficient in that particular nutrient. So a good place to start could be with blood tests. Here’s one you can take:
“Life Extension” is one of those 1970s fad thingies that has somehow managed to make it into the 21st century, despite the fact that one of the founders (Durk Pearson) found it necessary to promote the products with a picture of himself naked except for a surfboard. Durk’s Special Blood Panel tests
• Vitamin B12
• Vitamin D 25-hydroxy
• Vitamin A
• Vitamin C
• RBC magnesium
for $349. I’m pretty sure that if you’ve got any kind of insurance at all and your doctor orders these tests that they’d cost you about $300 less than that. So beware of naked men wearing surfboards, I guess.
Here’s the thing, though. Even if you test normal for a nutrient, you could still be low in it. That’s partly because normal ranges for nutrients in the blood vary somewhat from lab to lab, and also because just by definition, a few percent of people with normal levels will be outside any normal range. (It’s a statistical thing. Just trust me.)
Plus there are a lot of genetic variants out there. We have no idea how many people have different requirements from the norm, or even how to accurately identify them. So you might test normal, but be actually high or low; OR test high or low, but be just fine.
Add to that the fact that there’s hot dispute about the “normal” levels of even well-understood nutrients (see “vitamin D”) and a blood test that shows you somewhat high or low in a nutrient could be completely meaningless.
So what ought you to do if you are interested in whether or not a nutrient can help you? Here’s my suggestion:
Look up on https://www.consumerlab.com (or a similar website, if there is one) what your problem is and what nutrients have been shown to be helpful. Decide if you want to try any of them. THEN buy a couple of bottles of whatever brand they recommend, and see if your problem is better when you’ve finished them off. If it isn’t, toss the supplement. That's it.
It is that simple. Be a little cautious with anything that is known to be toxic at high levels or that might be contraindicated for you for some other reason, but if you are otherwise healthy, you should be fine.
I recommend ConsumerLab because they cut past the hoopla and look at what is actually known about physical disorders and helpful (or not) supplements. They also test brands to see if what you’re buying is actually what’s in the bottle, which seems to be getting to be more of a problem as more manufacturers source their ingredients from overseas.
If taking a supplement for a while doesn’t improve your problem, stop taking it. It’s not working “subtly” or “mysteriously” if you don’t see an improvement. At the very least you should feel better. Don’t waste your time and money on a treatment that doesn’t help your problem.
That is a bit of advice that I offer, free of charge like all my advice, regarding ANY and EVERYTHING medical, by the way, conventional or alternative. If a treatment doesn’t improve your problem, try something else. Conversely, if something helps your problem, keep doing it. Choose your providers that way, too. No one is so smart that they’re worth listening to if they aren’t helping you.
By the way, although taking a multivitamin doesn’t seem to have a powerful effect, most people have somewhat sketchy diets and it’s easy to be mildly deficient in one or more nutrients. Multivitamins cover a lot of bases, are cheap, are not harmful, and populations who take them do seem to be a bit healthier than those who don’t. So if you are inclined toward taking supplements and your diet isn’t great, do consider a multi.
--dr. diane holmes
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