What Natural Supplements for You? Here’s How to Decide

Friday Oct 12 | BY |
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Is that supplement really helping you? Here’s how to tell.

Prescribing supplements can be difficult. Even for a doctor trained and experienced in clinical nutrition, getting the right match between the supplement and the patient is tricky.

If it’s hard for doctors, it’s even harder for consumers. They seldom match the right product to their specific needs or health condition.

How do you navigate the supplement maze successfully? Here are some tips from my 30 years of experience in nutritional medicine on how to be a discerning pill popper.

Establish Company Criteria
In the U.S., there is no government oversight committee or professional association that reviews and approves supplements. Companies do not have to declare all ingredients in their products. They do not have to prove that what they claim to be in their product is actually in it. Professional standards help reduce, but don’t assure, the risk of not getting the right stuff.

Once you think a supplement is right for you, find out about the company behind the pill. How do you do that? Here are my criteria for establishing the integrity of a supplement company.

  • Specification Sheets: I want companies to provide me with specification sheets from an independent laboratory detailing every thing that’s in the product, including bacteria count, chemical contaminants, and inert excipients—those things like magnesium stearate that help manufactures get the nutrient into a capsule. Some companies compete with others claiming theirs is stearate-free, but the motivation appears to be to distract consumers from the fact that their products lack actual quality of ingredients for the price being charged.
  • Experts in Their Field: I want companies to be in the business of nutritional supplements, not just sales. I won’t buy from marketing services that have a few supplement products they outsource, or network marketing companies that might sell supplements one week and carpet cleaner the next. I want my suppliers to be experts in their field and have qualified advisors on staff, not just a sales force.
  • Available: I want companies to have scientists or physician advisors available five days a week. If I have a question, I expect to call the company and talk to a professional who is qualified to answer all technical and most clinical questions I may have on their product and it’s use.

Assure Adequate Evidence
Once you know the company has integrity and that the product they claim to sell is actually in the capsule or tablet, find out if that supplement has value for your health. How to do that? Here are some tips.

  • Research: First step is a website like ConsumerLab.com. These folks review the science for you. They also test a variety of supplement products for contamination and to assure that what’s on the label is in the bottle, and that the claimed dosage is correct.
  • Read: If you want to do your own research, log on to PubMed. I wrote about how to read scientific reports in a previous blog. Since nutrition science is a relatively new field, you’ll find many contradictory reports: one says it does wonders and the other reports the same supplement as worthless. Keep looking. One study doesn’t have the final say on a product. However, if most of the research is favorable, then go ahead and add it to your pill list.

Take Vitamin E as an example. PubMed lists 34,346 studies related to vitamin E. Narrow your search to look at independent reviews. Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. Here you’ll find 203 review papers including one that says vitamin E doesn’t work in Alzheimer’s, but has a moderate effect on age-related macular degeneration.

Be Wary of Expert Opinions
Just because a product is endorsed by an M.D. or N.D. doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Many are simply paid endorsements as part of marketing plans. Require the company to assure you that their medical advisory panel or physician endorser is qualified and actively engaged in product development, not just sales.

Make Friends
Establish a physician-patient partnership with a wise doctor who is well experienced in nutritional and functional medicine. Review their background. Find out their clinical philosophy of care. Do they use an evidence-based approach and know the research? Respect their time. Don’t overwhelm them with questions you could find answer for on your own.

Look for Black Swans
The black swan theory describes an event that is a surprise to the observer, has a major impact, and after the fact, is often rationalized with the benefit of hindsight. Black swan theory was developed by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, or technology.

When it comes to health, there are many black swans, or as doctors like to call them “zebras” in a herd of horses. These are the unpredictable outcomes of patients getting better despite the odds by taking some thing that shouldn’t work.

There is also synergy. This is when two white swans plus one white swan equals a black swan. Natural substances tend to work together in kind of natural alchemy. Good diet plus super foods is better than healthy food alone. Green tea, not smoking cigarettes, and exercise, plus a high quality multivitamin and a healthy diet lowers your risk for cancer.

Test Your Results
There’s nothing like results to qualify the value of a supplement. For example, if your LDL cholesterol is too high, or Vitamin D3 (tested as Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy) too low, get blood tested every 3-4 months to see if you’re improving. If there is no improvement, the pill is not working, the dosage is too low, or your body is not processing the supplement adequately. If the numbers on your lab test are improving, you made a good choice.

You’ll have to decide for yourself. How much can you spend each month on supplements? Who is the best doctor for you? Are you getting results by improved blood test results, reduced symptoms, and greater sense of wellbeing? Be a discerning supplement user, and trust yourself to judge for what’s best for you.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

Visit Dr. Williams’ Website: https://drjewilliams.com/

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  1. CmdrSoCal says:

    I am glad I eat rich human foods so I do not have to worry about that supplement crap.

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