You’re taking a multivitamin, maybe some fish oil, maybe vitamin D, maybe the B complex and glucosamine. But how do you know that they are working? Or is it all just nonsense? Are all supplements just a placebo effect?
That’s what we’ll discuss in this article.
Do Nutritional Supplements Work?
As you know from my many articles, my team and I frequently recommend nutritional supplements. So on the topic of whether they work or not, the picture is quite clear: some do, and some don’t. Some supplements have decades of research behind them, and they are tried-tested-and-true. Supplements like vitamin C, glucosamine, and creatine have a mountain of research behind them, proving their effectiveness.
Do we recommend the same supplements to everyone? No. We first have clients fill out a thorough questionnaire of their symptoms, and put our “detective” hat on, to figure out what’s the least number of supplements that a person can take to make as much progress as possible. If you’d like to go through that questionnaire, and figure out what supplements are right for you, fill out this form (click HERE) to see if you qualify.
What about when a new supplement comes out, and we’re not really sure whether it works or not? We take a look at the medical research. My three favourite places to look at that are pubmed.com, Google Scholar, and Examine.com.
But just because it works in general, how do you know whether it works for you? Personally, I like verifiable, measurable results.
So there are 2 ways to figure out whether the supplements are working or not:
2. Blood/saliva/urine measurements
First, you identify the symptoms that you’re looking to help with whatever supplements you’re taking. For instance, achy joints.
Then, you rate the symptoms on severity and frequency. For severity, basically, on a 0-10 scale, how much does it bother you? And for frequency, you rate how often you experience it (daily, weekly, monthly). Now, you have a pretty good way to track the progress.
Then, for 2-12 weeks, you take the supplement (depending on the supplement, and the symptom), and after that period of time, re-evaluate both severity and frequency. Is there an improvement that can be attributed only to that supplement? If so, then you know that it’s working. If there’s no noticeable improvement, then it’s probably not working, and you can likely stop taking it.
This is a very rudimentary way of using supplements. The right way to use them is not to chase after symptoms, but to identify the root cause of the symptoms in the first place. That takes a little more digging.
People like Dr. John Dempster can help with that (and no, I don’t get paid for saying that).
Objective Testing (Blood Work, Saliva and Urine Testing)
Certain things, you can measure in the blood directly, and easily. Things like vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and folate are easily and directly measurable. So if, for instance, you have low vitamin B12, and you start supplementing, on your next blood test, you can see whether the B12 supplements are having any effect.
But unfortunately, for several vitamins and minerals, blood testing is simply not done, or if it can be done, it doesn’t tell you all that much. For instance, measuring calcium in the blood doesn’t tell you too much, since most calcium isn’t found in blood anyway (it’s found in bones and teeth).
In those cases, some more advanced testing needs to be done. Things like organic acids profiles, amino acids profiles, fatty acids profiles, and others. The downside: they’re not covered by OHIP, and they’re expensive (I believe organic acids profiles are the most expensive of the 3, and they’re about $350 USD). The upside: you know with a great degree of accuracy what you’re deficient in, so you can supplement with that directly.
And again, you can re-test after taking it for a certain period of time so that you know objectively if it’s having any effect.
The Gold Standard
In my mind, the gold standard of course, is to combine symptoms with objective testing. Why not just use objective testing by itself? Because so often, clients come to us, complaining that “my blood work shows that I’m fine. Then why do I feel so crummy?” So objective testing doesn’t always tell you everything.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people feel great. No symptoms, great energy levels, etc. But they are profoundly unhealthy. Case in point, one client was sitting in front of me, and looked pretty average. Not overweight, not underweight. Looking at his symptoms, he felt great. I asked him about his health conditions, and he said he had high blood pressure. I asked him “how high”? And he said “About 200/140.” I looked at him, with a quizzical look on my face, wondering if he was just joking with me. He wasn’t. I then asked him how long he’s had it for, and he said he doesn’t know… he just found out about it on his last physical. He just felt fine all the time, so he didn’t go to the doctor.
And I have many more cases like that, where a person feels fine, but is profoundly unhealthy.
Hence the gold standard of both combining subjective things, like symptoms, with objective testing.
A Word About Quality
Sometimes, people tell me that they tried a certain supplement, and it didn’t work. I then ask “from which company?” After they tell me, I immediately understand why it didn’t work. Because the company they’re telling me is not reputable. Often, what it says on the label is not actually found inside the capsule. So I recommend the exact same supplement, at the exact same dose, but from a reputable company, and suddenly, it starts to work.
There’s a lot of companies that aren’t reputable, and only a few that are reputable. Generally speaking, if it’s sold at a drug store, grocery store, or a supermarket, it’s probably not good. If it’s sold at a health food store, or directly, from a practitioner (like a naturopathic doctor, nutritionist, etc.), it’s likely pretty good.
Companies like Designs for Health, Metagenics, AOR, Genestra, Genuine Health, and others that I’m probably forgetting right now are all quite reputable (and I don’t make money for saying that, or for anything you buy from them). The reason they are reputable is because they do what’s called “third party testing.” Meaning, they submit their supplements to an objective, unrelated company for that company to test their own products.
So the major lesson here is that quality matters. You get what you pay for.
So if you want to figure out which supplements would be most beneficial for you, fill out this questionnaire (click HERE) to see if you qualify to work with us.