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A Nutritionist-Approved Supplement Guide–Hint, Less Is More!

Who doesn’t love a quick fix? Instant gratification sells—particularly in the wellness industry. We’re in a perpetual state of click and purchase, tempted by endless lists of beauty potions, superfood powders, and tinctures. In hopes, of course, they’ll provide a defense against a slew of health conditions. For health gurus and enthusiasts, a supplement routine is practically a resume builder. But here’s the catch: more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, supplements are meant to be just that—supplementary. Eating a well-rounded and balanced diet should provide you with most of the nutrients your body needs. At any rate, you might be wondering what supplements you actually need. Today, we’re diving into a simple supplement guide. No frills, just the basics. 

Feature image courtesy of Lizzy Mathis

What Is a Dietary Supplement?

Let’s begin here. A dietary supplement is an umbrella term. It includes everything from vitamins and minerals to botanicals and herbs, enzymes, and more. For the most part, supplements are either thought of as an individual vitamin, mineral, or multivitamin. And if you stroll down the vitamin aisle at your local healthcare store, you’ll see that dietary supplements come in a variety of forms. This includes tablets, capsules, gummies, and powders. Supplements are also packed into drinks and energy bars. Generally speaking, popular supplements include calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, probiotics, and fish oil. On the herbal side of things, you’ll find teas and other products with chamomile, peppermint, and echinacea. 

The Purpose of Dietary Supplements

At the end of the day, supplements aren’t a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet. And unlike prescription drugs, supplements are not allowed to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases. Knowing this, be wary of supplements that make disease claims, such as “lowers high cholesterol” or “treats heart disease.” Claims like these are meant for prescription drugs, not dietary supplements. In our baseline supplement guide below, each supplement has a specific purpose and has been vetted for quality.

Safety, Effectiveness, and Quality of Supplements

Surprisingly, the FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products—for safety and effectiveness—before they’re marketed. Rather, manufacturers and distributors take this responsibility. They make sure their products are safe before they go to market. Seems like a bit of a loophole, right? Here’s the caveat: If the dietary supplement contains a new ingredient, manufacturers must notify the FDA. In that case, the FDA will review (not necessarily approve!) the new ingredient for safety, but not effectiveness.  

In terms of quality, this also falls on manufacturers. They ensure their products are pure. Meaning, they don’t have contaminants or impurities. Furthermore, supplements must be accurately labeled, according to current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and labeling regulations. That being said, the FDA will get involved if there’s a serious problem associated with a dietary supplement. They have the power to take the dietary supplement off the market, due to safety or false/misleading claims.

The Risks in Taking Supplements

As with medications and over-the-counter drugs, there are risks in taking supplements. Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects. Depending on usage, this could make them unsafe. For example, the following actions could lead to harmful consequences: 

  • Taking supplements without notifying your healthcare provider
  • Combining supplements
  • Using supplements with medicines (whether prescription or over-the-counter)
  • Substituting supplements for prescription medicines, particularly before, during, and after surgery
  • Consuming too much of some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
  • Taking supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Keep in mind that everybody requires different nutrients, so please consult your healthcare provider before changing your supplement routine. 

Do You Need to Take Supplements?

The million dollar question. It’s important to understand that we’re all bio-individuals. Meaning, we all have unique nutritional needs—that includes supplements. While supplements are heavily marketed, not everyone needs them. Some people don’t require additional vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements. They’re able to maintain adequate levels of essential nutrients by eating a healthy, balanced diet. However, keep in mind that there’s a difference between a “reference range” and an “optimal range.” When possible, optimal is ideal. Therefore, supplements can be incredibly useful for not only filling gaps in your diet, but also helping you reach optimal levels. Our supplement guide is here to do both.

3 Things to Consider Before Taking a New Supplement

Whether you’re eyeing new supplements or you’re already taking a few, here’s how to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck:

  1. Have you been diagnosed with a deficiency (iron, vitamin D, etc.)? What does your blood work report? In essence, make sure that what you’re taking has a targeted purpose. Rather than waste your money on unneeded supplements, get your healthcare provider’s stamp of approval first. In the context of nutritional counseling, supplement guidance by a professional is key.
  2. Just because a supplement comes from a “natural” food store, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. As noted above, look for specific labels and do your research. Be wary if you’re currently taking other prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs.
  3. Know how much of the supplement you’re supposed to take. A common misconception about dietary supplements is that if a vitamin or mineral is good for you, increasing your intake might deliver additional health benefits. This isn’t the case. For example, too much vitamin D can actually weaken bones, and biotin—a popular supplement to improve skin, nails, and hair—can interfere with lab-test results when taken at high levels.

When to Take Your Daily Supplements

This depends, of course! Some supplements are more specific about the time of day, so you can research the individual recommendation for those. However, most are generally flexible. What matters is that you choose a time you know you can be consistent with. As for the empty stomach versus food debate—some vitamins are fat-soluble and some are water-soluble. Those that are fat-soluble, like vitamin D, should be paired with a source of fat. Some vitamins only need to be paired with water, like B vitamins and vitamin C. For me personally, I like to take my probiotic shortly after waking. I take the rest of my supplements in the morning with my breakfast, alongside a glass of water. However, I take my magnesium at night.

Simple Supplement Guide

Eating a well-rounded diet should provide you with most of the nutrients your body needs. However, it’s nearly impossible for us to eat perfectly balanced foods all the time. And unfortunately, the typical standard American diet is void of most major nutrients our bodies require for optimal health. Therefore, it can be challenging for us to get everything we need just from our diet–let alone, eat enough! Below is a simple supplement guide for beginners and health enthusiasts, alike.

Vitamin D / K2

More than 100 million Americans are deficient in vitamin D. And every cell in the body has a receptor for vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin responsible for immune regulation, absorption of calcium and phosphorus, maintenance of healthy bones and protection against multiple diseases, cancer, and more. Vitamin K2 is ideally taken with vitamin D, as vitamin K2 is the key to bone health. It helps to ensure vitamin D gets to your bones.

B Vitamins

Here at CS, we love our B vitamins. The B vitamin family consists of B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin) and B12. Each B vitamin has a different function: reducing inflammation, supporting hormonal function, supporting nerve and heart health, and maintaining a healthy metabolism and digestive system. A B12 supplement, specifically, is important for plant based-eaters. Low levels of B12 can cause extreme fatigue, anemia, numbness, and more. Supplementing with a B complex can help keep levels up.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid (Fish Oil)

Due to large doses of industrial seed oils, most of which are almost exclusively omega 6, Americans now have an average inflammatory ratio of 15:1 (omega-6:omega-3) instead of the ideal 1:1 ratio. Safflower, sunflower, soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola oil are causing chronic inflammation. To combat this, it’s helpful to include an omega-3 supplement from algae or fish. The best omega-3 comes from fish oil, like cod liver oil. Unfortunately, vegetable sources are the short chain omega-3 fatty acids, ALA and LA. These need to be converted to EPA and DHA (what you get from a fish oil supplement). For reference, less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 1% of ALA is converted to DHA. Dowsing everything in flaxseed oil isn’t the same as taking a high-quality fish oil.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate diverse biochemical reactions in the body. This includes protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood sugar control, and blood pressure regulation. It’s also required for the synthesis of DNA and RNA and is responsible for boosting our immune system and fighting inflammation.

Probiotic

Last but not least, consider adding a spore-based probiotic to your supplement routine (especially if you don’t eat fermented foods, dairy, etc.). Roughly 80% of our immune system is located in our gut. Supporting its health is key. Unfortunately, our gut’s delicate ecosystem can be broken down by a number of influences—antibiotics, stress, sugar and chemicals. By consuming probiotic-rich foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, along with supplementing with probiotics, you can support your digestion, mood, skin, and overall health.

A final note—tell your healthcare providers (including your dentist!) about any dietary supplements you’re taking. They can help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you.