Natural Supplements- Am I flushing my money down the toilet?


So, I walk into the exam room to see my sweet, 78 year old patient holding a shopping bag full of vitamins and supplements in her lap.  She laid them out on the counter, a collection of colorful bottles at least 10, promising good health and vitality.

So how many of you can relate to having a cabinet full of supplements at home? Ever wonder if they are any good?

The majority of adults in the United States take one or more dietary supplements either every day or occasionally.  It can be a wonderful thing to supplement one’s health but it can also be elusive in creating unrealistic expectations. The words, ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’ with a promise of health benefits can sell quickly to the eager consumer. But all that glitters is not gold.

Here is what you need to know before buying a supplement:

  1. Check the OTHER Ingredients! Look for fillers (magnesium stearate), binders (gluten), flow agents, coating and glazes, gelatin, carrageenan, artificial flavors and colors, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sweeteners, preservatives (parabens, benzoates, sorbates, sulfites), titanium dioxide and more.
  2. Use Evidence-Based Resources for Dietary Supplements. How do you know your product is legit? ‘Buyer Beware” – there are a few checks and balances. Look for this seal: 
    Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for dietary supplements established by the FDA help ensure the product’s identity, purity, strength, and composition. These GMPs are designed to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredient, the addition of too much or too little of an ingredient, the possibility of contamination, and the improper packaging and labeling of a product. Facilities that manufacture dietary supplements are periodically by the FDA.
  3. Look for the USP SEAL of APPROVAL from independent organizations that offer quality testing. These seals of approval provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. These seals of approval do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective. Organizations that offer this quality testing include:
    1. U.S. Pharmacopeia-
    3. NSF International-
  4. Always be alert to the possibility of unexpected side effects, especially when taking a new supplement. The POTENTIAL for interactions is huge. It can interact with your current medications, increase risk of bleeding or affect your response to anesthesia in surgery. Just as you would not start a new prescription without expert advice, do the same for any vitamin or supplement.
  5. You might be over-dosing on the same vitamins. It is possible to have too of a good thing. For example, you may be taking Vitamin D3 in your multi-vitamin, your calcium supplement and a separate Vit D3 tablet, all causing toxicity from a fat-soluble vitamin. Supplements often have combinations of vitamins listed, look for overlap of the same vitamins in all your bottles. It’s important not to exceed the RDA without checking with your healthcare provider.
  6. The term “natural” doesn’t always mean safe. A supplement’s safety depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used. Dietary supplements do not require pre-market review or approval by the FDA. Different brands may have a different concentration or constitution of the same supplement making the effects less predictable and may increase risk of drug interactions. When making health claims, supplements are required to have this : “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Please ask your doctor if it’s is right for you.

Talk with Your Health Care Provider

I ask our patients to bring all their dietary supplements, teas, tinctures and medication bottles to their visit. Make this your practice going forward. Have an open conversation with your doctor and ask them to help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you.

Supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet but the right ones can help augment your deficiencies and optimize your health. Consider a micro-nutrient test like Spectracell or Genova Labs to identify your nutritional deficiencies. A targeted laboratory approach may prevent unnecessary supplements and help your wallet and health in the end!

The light in me, bows to the light in you~ Namaste

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Dr. Patel was named one of the TOP DOCS in Phoenix Magazine 2009, 2016 and Internist of the Year 2011 by the American College of Physicians Arizona Chapter. She is uniquely trained, board-certified and practices both Pediatrics and Internal Medicine in Fountain Hills, Arizona. She is additionally fellowship trained in Integrative Medicine. 

She has a passion for teaching medicine and acts as a preceptor for both medical residents and providers in training. Dr. Patel has a special interest in Integrative Medicine, Women’s health, Pediatric & Adolescent care, Nutrition and Medical Cosmetics.

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