Are supplements a powerful tool to improve health and longevity? Or are they a waste of money and potentially harmful?

The supplement industry is enormous – over $150 billion worldwide – and growing. Today, more than half of people take supplements in the hope of maintaining or improving their health, quality of life, or longevity.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty about supplements and potential risks. Most supplements have little, deeply flawed, or no research data to support their use. Benefits are exaggerated, and possible adverse effects aren’t mentioned. In addition, the supplement industry is not well-regulated and independent studies of what is actually in the supplements are frightening. For example:

  1. One study of 17 weight loss and sports supplements found that 9 of the 17 had prohibited stimulants, and 7 of these had two or more prohibited stimulants that weren’t included on the label.
  2. Despite only testing a small percentage of supplements, over nine years, the FDA identified 776 supplements tainted with unapproved ingredients
  3. A study of 44 supplements from 12 companies showed that less than half of the supplements contained the ingredient listed on the label, and a third had contaminants. “Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested, and only 2 of the 12 companies had products without any substitution.”
  4. An assessment of 78 supplements from GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart found that 80% of the supplements did NOT contain any of the ingredients listed on the label.

The safety of supplements is also a concern. Although often touted as safe and “natural,” – side effects are not uncommon.

1. In 2019(opens in a new tab), there were more than 70,000 calls to Poison Control about supplements, 7,000 people needed medical treatment, and 800 had moderate or severe adverse outcomes.

2. Another study(opens in a new tab) estimated over 23,000 emergency room visits yearly due to supplement use.

On the other hand, I believe supplements CAN help some people achieve their health and longevity goals.
However, deciding what supplements are right for you is a challenge and one I believe you should actively participate in if you decide to take supplements. Taking every supplement with a claimed benefit that sounds good leads to a hit to your wallet and a drawer full of pill bottles with no way to know if any are helping you.
And asking your doctor is unlikely to be helpful. First, most medical doctors know little about supplements, and second, there’s often not much to know with little research to guide us.
Keeping in mind the uncertainty that often comes with supplements and the potential harm, here’s my intentional approach framework to help my patients decide on what – if any – supplements to take:

  1. Remember, they are called “supplements.”

Supplements are not a substitute for doing the things you know are effective in promoting good health, like exercise, eating well, getting restorative sleep, managing stress, avoiding toxins, and being connected. Prioritize these things – then consider supplements if you still feel there are aspects of your health that could be improved.

  1. Be skeptical. What are the risks? And what are the rewards?

All supplements have potential risks, but how significant are those risks for you? And how big are the returns? Savvy investors look for opportunities that provide multiple times more reward than risk, and you should do the same with your decisions about what you put in your body. Don’t just believe the marketing hype.

  1. What specific benefit are you hoping to achieve by taking this supplement? And how are you going to measure it?

Take the supplement as directed (more is not always better!) for a set time (for example, if a daily supplement, take it every day for three weeks) and decide what benefit you are looking for. My guideline is a supplement (or medication) should help you feel better or live longer. Measuring an effect is easiest when there is a deficiency (for example, magnesium deficiency that you can measure with a blood test), but usually we have to rely on more subjective measures of benefit, so we can’t discount the placebo effect. 

It’s also important to ‘control your experiment’. If you’re taking three supplements at a time, there’s no way to know which is causing the effect. Take supplements one at a time for an extended period of time and assess whether the supplement is providing an added benefit.

If you’re getting significant benefit – like feeling better (even if placebo effect) without significant harm, I would say that’s a win.

4. Be very particular about the source of your supplements.

The cheapest supplement may end up costing the most because it does not contain what you think it does. Understand supplements are poorly regulated, so stick with companies with solid reputations of high quality. Some companies often recommended include:

  • Metagenics
  • Xymogen
  • Ortho Molecular Products
  • Thorne
  • Pure Encapsulations 

5. Keep it simple.

I generally favor single over multi-ingredient supplements – especially when you first start them – for two reasons:

  • It’s impossible to assess the effect of a supplement when you first start taking it when you are starting more than one supplement at a time.
  • Given the quality concerns, single ingredient supplements may minimize the risk of taking something you didn’t intend to. 

Supplements have the potential to help you achieve your health and longevity goals but also have the potential to deplete your bank account and even harm your health. An intentional approach to supplements can help you maximize the chances of finding a supplement regimen that is right for you.

next time we are going to talk about the why cancer rates are increasing and the best way to remain cancer free - cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death.

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