A Naturopathic Doctor, with 10+ years of clinical experience, looks at the stereotypes & misconceptions people have about supplements and believes it’s time to rethink and educate.
Recently, Amazon announced sweeping new quality specifications that will require supplement marketers to provide comprehensive testing results and other documentation before their products can be sold on the site. As a Doctor persuaded by the growing body of research-backed evidence supporting the effectiveness of high-quality supplements and convinced of their efficacy when used properly, I was heartened to read the news. For too long the dietary supplement industry has suffered from a lack of credibility, so when a company the size of Amazon puts controls in place to better reinforce customer confidence in health and wellness products it is a net positive. Although, looking more broadly at the creditability gap there are a number of issues that require closer attention:
- Bad actors
- Misconceptions around regulations
- Understanding the relationship between diet and nutrients
- A misunderstanding of how dietary supplements actually work
Unfortunately, the dietary supplement industry is rife with brands that have no problem selling poor quality ‘supplements’ while making spurious, and in many cases, dangerous claims about their effectiveness. Often these products include cheap or degraded ingredients and inaccurate labeling. The result is that many people who have tried supplements have come away with a poor image of the industry. Thankfully, this is changing. Along with retailers, like Amazon, demanding more brand accountability and the burgeoning demand for personalized supplement programs designed to meet a consumer’s specific health needs, the sheer amount of credible information from trusted sources that is available online means people are now better informed than ever before.
Contrary to popular belief, the dietary supplement industry is, in fact, regulated by the FDA. There are stringent protocols in place for the production, labeling, and packaging of supplements. Further, the FDA regulates what marketers can and can not claim about their products. The issue is not one of regulation but of application. While a pharmaceutical (medicinal drugs) may be approved for use in lowering cholesterol, for example, a dietary supplement may only claim to aid or support healthy cholesterol management. However, there is nothing stopping a marketer from then claiming the same dietary supplement may aid or support a range of other fountains or processes not related to cholesterol management. Again, the onus is on the consumer to do the due diligence. Fortunately, there is an enormous body of scientific studies and research available that attests to the proper use of supplements.
Diet vs supplements
Evolution provided us with the most effective delivery method for the nutrients we need: diet. In a perfect world all of us would receive the vitamins and minerals we need, in the right form, the correct quantities, and combined with the complementary nutrients from a balanced, organic diet. But today’s world is far from perfect. Beginning in the early 1900s with the Haber-Bosch process, large-scale agriculture practices have — to a large degree, at least — met the challenge of feeding a global population that has risen from fewer than 1 billion people in 1900 to over 7 billion today. However, these techniques have come at a cost. Soil mining, for example, as defined as the difference between the amount of plant nutrients exported from cultivated fields, and those added to fields, has left a large percentage of global farmland depleted of important micronutrients. The result, food farmed from nutrient deficient fields often lacks the ‘balanced’ from a balanced diet, and unless you are eating a 100% organic, local farm to table diet you may not be getting everything you need. Additionally, simple day to day experiences like walking down the street inhaling car exhaust or siting at your desk all day away from natural sunlight my increase your need for further nutrient supplementation. Of course, there is no ‘magic bullet’, and supplements can’t, and should not, be thought of a replacements for a balanced, healthy diet (and exercise) but when taken properly they can be an effective addition to a well-rounded health and wellness regimen.
How dietary supplements actually work
Supplements are most effective through a variety of means: they are often cofactors in metabolic processes (cofactors are substances that are essential to the activity of enzymes), Some, like Vitamin C, have been studied for their effects on respiratory infections, while others are understood to have long-term, supportive properties — probiotic therapies are a prime example. One thing that is important to understand is that the benefits of a proper supplement program don’t surface overnight and depend on myriad factors. A body's deficiency levels, the form of supplement, water vs. fat-soluble vitamins, nutrient pairings, lifestyle and habits, and health issues, all affect the success or failure of a supplement regimen (and it's always recommended that any regimen be determined in consultation with a healthcare professional). One exciting developing trend in recent years has been the rise of personalized medicine with a low barrier to entry. By using testing methodologies like blood, saliva, and genetic markers, personalized medicine can better determine someone's health and wellness needs and thus, a far more targeted program could be adopted. It is still early yet, but if this trend continues and a tipping point can be reached whereby personalized supplementation becomes standard practice across the industry this would represent a revolution in how people engage with their health.