In a world where the supplement industry is booming, individuals often find themselves investing significant amounts in the pursuit of better health. It's understandable — the desire for better health and frustration with slow results drive many to explore various supplements. But amid the allure of promises, it begs the question: are these companies offering a genuine alternative or merely selling an expensive dose of hope?

A recent report on the efficacy of dietary supplements attempted to address their role in enhancing general health or tackling specific health concerns. These reports typically underscore the lack of scientific evidence supporting supplement use. While there's ample evidence on the effectiveness of individual active ingredients, the specific supplements themselves often lack substantial backing. Let's delve into some overarching considerations about supplements and explore their effectiveness.

Have you ever strolled through the vast aisles of a pharmacy, surrounded by an overwhelming array of supplements? The choices seem endless, making the decision-making process challenging. Not all supplements are created equal, despite sharing similar names and ingredients. Price can be misleading, as the psychology behind pricing targets specific consumer groups. Opting for the cheapest option might not guarantee quality. Similarly, relying on brand recognition can be deceptive, as heavy advertising doesn't always translate to efficacy. Surprisingly, even some well-known multivitamins struggle to break down and absorb effectively, rendering them essentially useless.

Choosing Wisely: What Makes a Good Supplement?

1.  Quality ingredients: The efficacy of a supplement hinges on the quality of its ingredients. Are the ingredients in the best form for ready absorption? For example, minerals typically need good stomach acid to be broken down. If you have Hashimoto’s, your ability to produce stomach acid can be diminished so you need minerals to be in a form most easily digested. This form is a chelated mineral complex – so look for the term ‘chelated’ in the ingredient list. Avoid supplements that use inorganic mineral salts (these are oxides, carbonates, sulphates, and phosphates). These are cheaper forms of mineral but much less effective. In fact, there’s evidence that mineral salts bind with dietary fiber and are not absorbed. So if you’re on a fiber-rich diet you may find yourself in a mineral deficiency.

2. Bioavailability: This term refers to the ability of a supplement to breakdown in the right part of the digestive system. We don’t want it to breakdown and be destroyed by stomach acid in the stomach. Therefore, the coating of the supplement is important – does it withstand the stomach and dissolve in the small intestine? Or does it just pass through?

3.  Optimal Combination of Ingredients: The synergy of certain vitamins and minerals is essential for absorption. For instance, B vitamins often require magnesium for absorption. Hence, not only must magnesium be present, but it must also be in a bioavailable form. Another example is Vit D – it needs vit K, magnesium, and zinc. The better forms of vit D supplements are combined with Vit K (and assumes that you have the rest in your diet).

4.  Label Accuracy: While adherence to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) indicates a baseline standard for safety, third-party independent testing provides an additional layer of assurance. Practitioner-only products, recommended by recognized health experts, often meet stringent quality criteria. This is a much more expensive procedure but will definitely be listed on the label if they use this service.

For these reasons, I generally avoid buying supplements from the chemist or pharmacy unless I’m certain that the company follows these good practices. I use and recommend 'practitioner only' products – they need to be prescribed by a recognized health practitioner who can suggest the right product for a particular client. And this brings me to probably the most important reasons why a supplement may not be working for you.

Supplement Ineffectiveness: Unveiling Potential Causes

You’ve been using a good quality supplement and you’re not noticing an improvement in your health – what can be going on?

1.  Timing: You’re not taking them at the right time. I get this – when you first start taking a supplement it can be hard to remember to take it, so you take it when you remember. When is the right time? Check the label. Many supplements, and all multivitamins, need to be taken with meals to ensure best absorption. If you forget, best to wait until your next meal. But some need to be taken between meals – so check the label.

2.  Suboptimal Dosage: When you first start taking a supplement, take the lowest possible dose and slowly ramp up to either the manufacturer’s recommendations or those of your primary medical practitioner. And track your symptoms! You may need to adjust the dosage based on your symptoms.

3.  The Wrong Supplement: This is perhaps the most common reason for ineffective supplementation. Except for the case of a good multivitamin – which I think everyone needs to be taking if you can’t ensure sufficient nutrition through good quality food – you shouldn’t take a supplement without knowing or at least suspecting that the supplement will resolve a deficiency. This may not be easy. When working with my clients, I look at their health history to check the progress of symptoms. I analyze past and current blood test results and any functional test results. From those, I can hypothesize root causes and suspected deficiencies. Then I can recommend a specific supplement, along with a strategy for tracking symptoms. Yes, it can be tedious but in many cases is the best way to check on effectiveness.
If you take any other approach, at best you’re wasting your time and money, and at worst you can cause even more problems.

To conclude, the effectiveness of dietary supplements depends on the choices that you make – choosing on the basis of quality, choosing the most appropriate supplements for your particular needs, and ensuring that you’re using it properly.

I want to leave you with some general recommendations for resolving a very common deficiency that can lead to very different symptoms. And that’s magnesium. Magnesium has many functions in the body but one of the most important is its role in muscle activation and relaxation. Our muscles control the dilation of blood vessels and peristaltic movement of the digestion system. So, some symptoms of magnesium deficiency can be muscle cramps, constipation, headaches, high blood pressure. Taking supplemental magnesium may resolve these symptoms while you investigate the cause behind the deficiency. But different forms of magnesium have different effects on the body.
For example,
•  For constipation, you would take magnesium citrate.
•  For muscle cramping and high blood pressure, take magnesium glycinate or malate.
•  For headaches, take magnesium threonate.

If you have questions about your health and want some guidance on your best steps forward, book a free 20-min consultation with me.

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About the Author Sharon Walt

Dr Sharon is a certified Functional Medicine Health Coach who helps men and women with autoimmune disorders, such as Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, regain their health and start living life to the utmost again.