The nutritional supplement industry is massive. In the U.S. alone, the dietary supplement market size hit $48.4 billion last year and is projected to grow to $56.7 billion by 2024. There are many understandable and valid reasons for this: the declining quality of the average American diet paired with declining levels of nutrients in the soil (and therefore our food supply) suggests perhaps many people may need to supplement their food with added vitamins and minerals in order to achieve optimal nutrition. Additionally, there are many herbs, probiotics, and several other classes of supplements that are relatively well researched and can be utilized to address specific health concerns or improve overall health. Targeted supplementation is an important part of my clinical approach alongside dietary and lifestyle measures.
However, in an industry where there is that much money to be made, there are reasons for consumers to take a step back and evaluate whose interests they are best serving. In this article, I want to walk through a few core principles that I feel are most important in ensuring the use of dietary supplements is thoughtful, and worth the money invested.
#1 Understand why you are taking something
This may sound like an obvious concept, but take a step back and think about how you would answer the question “why are you taking that?” and see how specific you would be able to get. It’s not that you need to have a complete scientific understanding of the mechanisms by which each of your supplements work, but: make sure you at least understand what the purpose is so you can evaluate if it is actually working!
It is extremely common for people to take supplements without necessarily understanding why or evaluating if they are helping them achieve their goals. Maybe they were recommended the supplement by a friend or family member. Maybe at some point they did some quick research, ordered the supplement and later on forgot why they began taking it. Or perhaps they were recommended the product from a provider but have since forgotten the reasoning. All of these are completely understandable situations to find oneself in. What I would say is simply make sure you have at least a basic understanding of why you are taking something before you continue to spend your hard-earned money month after month.
#2 Have an idea of time-frame
A common problem I see working with patients who have seen other functional or integrative medicine providers is they can be given supplements without any timetable on when to stop (or try stopping). I’m sure that I can be guilty of this at times as well, especially during more busy visits. But similar to understanding why you might be taking something, having at least a rough idea of how long you should expect to take it to have the desired outcome is a critical part of having a thoughtful supplement regimen. There are some supplements, in particular vitamins and minerals—for example, magnesium—for which ongoing, long-term consumption makes sense. In those cases you are trying to make sure you achieve consistent and optimal intake of a nutrient. However, for something like an herb, it may make a lot less sense to stay on it indefinitely.
#3 Look at the bigger picture — are your supplements helping correct the most important drivers of dysfunction?
These principles were in no particular order, but this is probably the one I would argue is the most important and something I wish more people understood. The factors that affect our health are NOT created equal.
If you are chronically stressed, you will not fix your health with only supplements. If you are not regularly physically active at an appropriate intensity level, you are unlikely to feel and perform well regardless of your supplements. If you have an underlying gut imbalance like SIBO or yeast overgrowth, you may need this corrected before certain supplements will offer you much benefit.
To be clear, I am a huge fan of supplements and feel that when applied strategically they can be critical to addressing root imbalances of dysfunction in the body. Additionally, there are many supplements that can help prevent illness or otherwise maintain our health. But I fear far too many people are on supplements for reasons they don’t understand, or don’t know how long to take something, or are focused on supplements when by far the more important thing would be addressing stress, or changing their diet, or starting to exercise more consistently and intensively, or getting outside in nature—or addressing one of many other core drivers of dysfunction like gut dysbiosis, mold toxicity, hormone imbalances, chronic infections, etc. (many of which can respond to the right supplements).
This can understandably become overwhelming and properly assessing your own situation can be difficult to do by yourself. Consider working with a thoughtful provider who will spend the time with you assessing what supplement regimen makes the most sense for you.
Andrew Graham is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner licensed to practice in the State of Arizona. He completed his Master’s in Nursing from Boston College after earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutritional Science from Brigham Young University. Before receiving his conventional training, he discovered and began studying functional and integrative medicine many years prior after dealing with health issues himself. Andrew is committed to thoroughly investigating patient’s health concerns in an effort to identify root causes, and then using the most effective combination of conventional and integrative modalities in order to optimize health and well-being. Particular interests include gut health, nutrition, blood sugar issues, hormonal imbalances and longevity medicine.