Increasing awareness and desire for ways to address and improve health has grown the supplement world into a $33-billion industry. Choices once limited to vitamins and minerals have expanded to herbals, adaptogens, enzymes, pre and probiotics, powders and drinks in any host of combinations guaranteed to solve your issue. With so many supplement products on the market offering solutions to every health issue or promise of “super health,” discerning can be daunting. Leading functional medicine practitioners Kristen Bentson, DC, MS, IFMCP, and Jill Hockenbroch, CRNP, CFMP, share some insights to help you better navigate your way towards health.
A Targeted Approach
Bentson and Hockenbroch approach utilizing supplements in very targeted manners to address health concerns and support the body’s processes. Through in-depth health history along with specific functional testing, a clearer picture unfolds for each patient as to where their individual imbalances may be. Then, specific targeted supplements can be introduced to address issues and optimize health.
Bentson sees the number one issue with patients as their not realizing they are taking one or more nutrients that are in several of their supplements. Unknowingly, they are far exceeding safe limits and potentially contributing to or causing some of their symptoms.
Many of the supplement products entering the market today are blends of herbs, enzymes, adaptogens and other nutrients combined in a broad one-size-fits-all manner. To further complicate things, combination products are often listed as “proprietary blends,” so a consumer doesn’t know the sourcing or the exact amounts they are consuming.
Even though the initial costs of quality supplements and proper testing may seem higher, in the long run it is often less expensive by not wasting money on things you don’t need, things that don’t work or things that are actually causing distress for the body.
Know Your Sources
Both Hockenbroch and Bentson stress the importance of quality, from the sourcing of ingredients to the manufacturing practices of the supplement company. “You can’t just go to the drugstore, buy off the shelf and assume you are getting the nutrients or herbs that are on the label,” says Hockenbroch. “Because it is an unregulated industry, the dosage listed may not be the actual amount and you may be getting other unwanted contaminants like fillers, heavy metals or pesticides, to name a few.” Supplements should be NSF certified and U.S. pharmaceutical grade, which ensures the raw ingredients are free of contaminants and the end product does not contain binders, fillers, dyes or unknown ingredients.
Bentson says that where you are purchasing from is equally important. Products may be stored inappropriately, mislabeled or even be fraudulent. Purchasing directly from the supplement company or a reputable online dispensary helps better ensure that you are getting a quality product. If doing due diligence, Bentson notes that one should be able to get a Certificate of Analysis (COA) of the product. Some trusted brands include Pure Encapsulations, Thorne, Standard Process and Metagenics.
Similarly, various forms of a vitamin or mineral can have varied roles in the body as well as varied bioavailability. Mag-nesium is a prime example. Magnesium oxide is one of the most often purchased forms. It also happens to be the cheapest, the least bioavailable and has mainly just a laxative effect. “Those looking for help with tension, poor sleep and head-aches may benefit more from magnesium glycinate introduced slowly into the diet,” says Bentson. “The key is getting the right magnesium form for you.”
More Isn’t Always Better
Vitamin D is an essential when living in the Lehigh Valley but Hockenbroch cautions that some may be overdoing it. She notes that typically the average person taking 2,000 mg of vitamin D is safe; however, if taking more than that, you want to have your levels checked. “Some people store and hold on to vitamin D better than others,” she says. “Being a fat-soluble vitamin, levels can quickly become too high and lead to toxicity.” It is also very important to recognize that vitamin D functions as a hormone and, as such, levels should be monitored regularly.
Pre and probiotics are on everyone’s list to support digestive health as well as the immune function. However, depending on the state and makeup of your microbiome, you may not need them. Bentson shares that particular strains may be more appropriate and beneficial than others. The probiotics “off the shelf” may not have the particular strains your body needs or works the best. Especially when dealing with gastrointestinal issues, what, when, how and if you should be taking pre and probiotics matters. Working alongside a provider can help better identify and pinpoint what is beneficial and what isn’t.
A consideration often overlooked is the actual serving size. Bentson notes that most serving sizes are based on an average male weighing 175–180 pounds. That may or may not be appropriate for you, not only based on physical size but how well your body is utilizing and absorbing the supplements. Bentson’s aim is to help her patients get to the lowest, most effective dose. When introducing or reintroducing a supplement, she encourages titrating up, beginning with the smallest dosage and then increasing over time to see what is most effective, not necessarily what is the “serving size” listed.
Take a Break
Knowing how long a supplement or botanical should be used is also often missed. Many products are meant to be used short term or on an as-needed basis; oil of oregano and echinacea are just a few. Post COVID, Hockenbroch has seen an overuse of zinc supplementation. While zinc can be helpful for supporting the immune system, she notes that it should be utilized no more than two to three months at a time or on an as-needed basis. Overdoing it on zinc can lead to copper deficiencies and imbalance in the zinc, iron and copper relationship in the body.
Bentson often has her patients go on a two-week supplement holiday, not only to give the body a rest but also to help identify which products are actually helpful. She has patients reintroduce them one at a time in a graded and targeted manner to see if they are reacting, responding or not responding to the supplement. Her goal is to get the lowest most effective dose. It can be eye-opening for some patients to realize a tightly held supplement or powder may have been contributing to their symptoms.
Bentson offers some simple, smart steps when evaluating and taking stock of your supplements.
1. Check the expiration date on your bottles. You may be surprised that some products you are taking are past the expiration date.
2. Examine the ingredient labels thoroughly and check for extra ingredients—things like additives, fillers, dyes, sugars, sugar alcohols, whiteners like titanium dioxide, or other chemicals, should not be in the supplement.
3. Write down the ingredients of every supplement and powder you are taking along with the dosage amount. Bentson says that even the most well intentioned and educated patients realize after this exercise that they were overlapping and overdosing on some nutrients and botanicals, far exceeding what is needed and safe.
With so many supplement products becoming combinations of vitamins, herbals and adaptogens, it is even more critical to closely check for possible interactions with your medications as well as within the supplements themselves.
Bentson and Hockenbroch both stress that supplements are not a replacement or stopgap for poor dietary and lifestyle choices. They are only one piece of the puzzle to be used strategically and purposefully in combination with diet, exercise, sleep and stress management for a holistic approach to restoring and optimizing health.