Just because your mom swears by turmeric for inflammation or your best friend loves magnesium for anxiety doesn’t mean those supplements are right for you. While we all need the same basic nutrients to survive and thrive, the supplements we need will change depending on a wide variety of factors.
“Maybe they had a deficiency in that specific nutrient,” says Angie Kuhn, director of nutrition at Persona Nutrition, “or they're not getting enough in their diet, or maybe they need help for their skin.
"Everyone is so unique, and that's why it's important to make sure that the foods you eat and the vitamins you're taking are personalized just for you and your lifestyle.”
So how do you know what works for you and what doesn't? Our experts offer five tips to help you choose the supplementation regime that's best for you.
1. Avoid the hype.
It seems that every day, a new supplement or herb is being touted as the next big thing. Some react by consuming a veritable arsenal of supplements; others swear off them entirely, claiming that a healthy diet is best.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“Food is always first,” explains Erin Stokes, ND Medical Director at MegaFood. “There is no substitute for foods in their whole form. Vitamins are referred to as supplements because they are intended to supplement the inevitable gaps in your diet.”
But Dr. Steven Gundry, medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine, notes that supplements are more important than ever before.
"They do not make expensive urine!" he says. "Our soil is now devoid of most minerals and vitamins and even dedicated organic food eaters will never match what our ancestors ingested in terms of polyphenols and other plant compounds."
That said, while supplements are certainly an important part of a healthy regimen, our experts note that many people are taking vitamins they don’t need to be.
“Calcium is much better absorbed in a food form,” explains Kuhn, who notes that not only is calcium in supplement form not as bioavailable, it can even be harmful.
“It’s not necessary to take, ever!” says Gundry. “It may increase heart disease because it can cause calcification of the arteries.”
Other vitamins most people eating a healthy diet might not need to take are fat-soluble vitamins, like A, E, and K.
“While you are not likely to consume too much of these vitamins through food, overdoing supplements containing these can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and even liver damage,” explains Nicole Avena, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “If you are eating a healthy diet and haven’t been shown to have a deficiency in one of the fat-soluble vitamins, you probably don’t need to supplement with them.”
Dr. Nadia Musavvir, ND notes that other vitamins falling into this category include iron supplements.
“For some reason, many people take iron without even knowing if they have a true need for it,” she says, noting that getting iron from a food source is always best.
2. Suss out your deficiencies.
Instead of looking at what everyone else is taking, then, it's important to look at what makes your nutritional needs unique. As with any major change nutrition or diet change, start by talking with a doctor, naturopath, or dietitian. A professional can help you identify what nutrients your diet is missing based on your lifestyle, medications, diet, environment, or genetics.
“Adding extra or unnecessary supplements isn't just impractical, it's downright unsafe,” explains Samantha Morrison, a health and wellness expert for Glacier Wellness. “In fact, overdosing on vitamins can cause a wide variety of unpleasant effects, including cramps, diarrhea, hair loss, heart problems, and nerve damage.”
She recommends getting a blood test to pinpoint specific deficiencies and help craft a supplementation plan just for you.
3. Make a list of goals.
Not all vitamins do the same thing. Whether you're looking to reduce stress, improve skin health, or supplement a vegan diet, the vitamins and minerals you add to your regimen will be different.
“If your goal is to increase your natural energy you would want to choose vitamins that will help you to achieve this,” explains Lisa Richards, nutritionist, health expert, and founder of The Candida Diet. “This regimen would include vitamin C, a B complex vitamin, and even herbal remedies like ashwaganda or ginseng.”
Of course, it's important to adjust your expectations accordingly.
“It’s a slow medicine and there are no silver bullets,” says NavNirat Nibber, ND and Medical Advisor at Advanced Orthomolecular Research. “It takes you a long time to get into a disease process it takes a long time to come out if you are approaching it from the root cause."
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This is also true when it comes to herbal supplements and adaptogens.
“Different herbs will take different amounts of time to take effect in your body," explains Stacey Gillespie, director of product strategy at Gaia Herbs. "Some herbs may work quickly to address acute concerns, while other herbs need time to restore balance in the body before you are able to really feel a change. Knowing which herbs offer support in the moment, and which herbs require additional time, can offset disappointment and misunderstanding.”
While everybody (and every body) is different, there are a few supplements that many Americans would do well to take.
Gundry recommends 5,000 IUs Vitamin D3, as 80 percent of North Americans are deficient in the essential vitamin. He also recommends a high-quality fish oil or algae-based DHA, essential for brain function and memory.
To this, Musavvir adds prebiotics, probiotics, and magnesium, which she says is “arguably one of the most essential minerals" due to its myriad beneficial effects on bodily systems ranging from enzyme activation to muscle relaxation to sleep quality and mood.
You can start sourcing these supplements with the products below:
5000 IU Vitamin D from Solgar | $13.20/240 capsules
Nordic Naturals ProDHA Fish Oil | $30.56/120 softgels
Nordic Naturals Algae DHA | $39.89/90 capsules
4. Order from a reputable supplier.
Once you’ve decided what supplements are right for you, it’s important to seek out reputable sources.
“While the FDA does regulate dietary supplements to some degree, not all supplements on the market have FDA approval,” explains Morrison.
High-quality supplements won't just be more bioavailable; they're also safer.
“Unlike drug companies, supplement manufacturers do not need to prove their products are safe before they can be sold legally,” explains Morrison. Last year, one study showed that nearly 800 dietary supplements sold in the U.S. were contaminated with unapproved or banned ingredients, so looking for third-party tested supplements made by transparent companies is key.
Herbal supplements are just as important to vet.
“All herbal supplements are not created equal," explains Gillespie. "The purity, integrity, and potency of ingredients used in your supplements will impact performance and results. Look for products that have what you want in them, and nothing you don't (such as fillers, heavy metals, or pesticides and harsh chemical residues).”
5. Introduce things one at a time.
If you start taking five or six new supplements all at once, a few things can happen. Firstly, you can cause digestive distress. Secondly, you won’t know what item is having what effect, be it positive or negative.
“What I see often if that people have started taking a variety of different supplements, and have lost track of why they are taking them,” explains Stokes.
She suggests regularly revisiting your supplement protocol with a healthcare practitioner to reevaluate whether the supplements you were taking are still necessary or healthy.
Since the world of supplementation can be overwhelming, there are services that allow you to take some of the guesswork out of it, including the vitamin quiz at VousVitamin.com or the personalized vitamin and supplement regimes at Persona Nutrition. After a personalized assessment, Persona's nutritionists can customize a supplement program just for you.
“Everyone is different," says Kuhn, "and that's why I truly believe in what we do.”
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