The Best Supplements for Optimal Health

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Written By

Lauryn

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Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

What are the best supplements for optimal health?

In a picture-perfect world, we’d get all the vitamins and minerals we need from food—real food.

However, we live in a society where only 1 in 10 Americans (1) eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and more than 70-million Americans experience some sort of digestive dysfunction regularly (ie. bloating, gas, constipation, GERD, IBS, stomach cramps)—and that’s not including the millions of people with other poor-gut-health related conditions (i.e. skin breakouts, allergies, autoimmune conditions, inflammation, ADD/ADHD, anxiety).

In short:

(1.) We’re not getting all our vitamins and minerals, and

(2.) We’re not digesting the minerals and vitamins we DO eat in the first place. 

Enter: best supplements for optimal health!

No matter how well we eat, some nutrients are difficult to obtain enough of from food alone.

Supplements are not meant to replace food, but instead BOOST the nutrient profile you do consume.

Unfortunately, the supplement industry is highly unregulated and it’s tough for the average consumer to know which supplements are effective and which ones are toilet flushers. Here are five of the most common problems with most supplements out there.

The Top 5 Problems with Most Supplements

Problem 1: What You See is Not What You (Always Get)

Best Supplements For Optimal Health - Different Types Of Supplements

For starters, not all so-called best supplements for optimal health are created equal. Just like the Fruit Loops commercial that says, “A delicious part of a nutritious breakfast!” what you see and hear is not always what you get.

Under a 1994 federal law, supplements are HIGHLY UNREGULATED and exempt from the food and drug administration’s strict approval process for prescription drugs, which requires reviews of a product’s safety and effectiveness before it goes to market.

Thus, one fish oil can be completely different from the next (in fact, generic fish oil is not advised since many formulas go rancid before you consume them altogether through the production and shipping process).

Another issue is that for some (cheaper) companies, the manufacturing process does not put the real deal vitamins or minerals in the supplements in the first place—many generic and grocery store brands often contain the “watered” down versions of the ingredients on the label.

A 2015 study (3) of four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

A study (4)  two years earlier tested 44 different products and found that one-third showed complete substitution (i.e. there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place), and many were synthesized with ingredients not listed on the label, like rice, soybean and wheat, used as fillers.

Problem 2: You May Take the Wrong Things

Yesterday, we talked all about best supplements for optimal health and how often times, this overly prescribed supplement is not what you actually need at all. Instead, calcium co-factors like Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Magnesium and enough protein may actually be what you’re missing and the reason why you have osteoporosis, stress fractures or risk for weaker bones.

Another example: Multi-vitamins. Multi-vitamins are a lot of talk, without as much action. Half of Americans currently take this “all-in-one” supplement, but many studies show that multivitamins either provide no benefit or may even cause harm. One investigation of over 400,000 people who took multi-vitamins (or individual vitamins found in multi-vitamins) (5) found zero clear evidence of a beneficial effect of the pills for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.

And while a multi-vitamin may make you think that you’re getting everything you need (6), if you are unable to absorb or digest these minerals in the first place, then you run into problem 3.

Supplements to Avoid Altogether

Little to no known benefits (even adverse side effects) are associated with this list of unnecessary supplements—particularly from generic or non-quality sources.

  1. Adrenal Supplements (may contain ingredients that contraindicate your actual cortisol levels—such as licorice or ginseng that may further elevate cortisol levels)
  2. Beta Carotene (has been shown to increase all-cause mortality (7)
  3. Calcium (most calcium supplements circulate in the soft tissues—not the bone where they should be stored)
  4. Iron (over-treatment is common and can increase inflammation if not truly iron deficient)
  5. Fat Burner Supplements (focus on digestive wellness plus real whole foods before popping a falsely marketed pill)
  6. Fish Oil (many formulas go rancid by the time you absorb them; cold water fatty fish or extra virgin cod liver oil a better bet)
  7. Folic Acid (it’s a synthetic form of Folate)
  8. Multi-vitamins (not all multi-vitamins are created equal, and you’re better off optimizing nutrient-density first before relying on a supplement)
  9. Vitamin E (associated with cardiovascular disease)
  10. Vitamin D (unless you are deficient)
  11. Soy Protein or Whey Concentrate (many contain synthetic, highly processed or artificial ingredients)

Problem 3: You’re Peeing Them Out

Even though it may not seem like it, some supplements are great for helping you meet your body’s daily and weekly nutrient needs (especially if you’re not getting everything your need from your food for optimal health). However, In order to get any benefit from a supplement you take, you must be able to digest ‘em. And, as we mentioned, upwards of 70 to 100—million of you are having difficulties with your digestion and absorption right now.

Problem 4: You’re Not Addressing the Underlying Cause

Supplementation can become much like a home-based pharmacy if you’re only using supplements to suppress symptoms—rather than support current imbalances and address underlying root causes. Low energy? Pop a B Vitamin. Can’t sleep? Joints hurting? Crush some fish oil. What is the reason you’re having low energy, can’t sleep or inflamed joints? Low T3 hormone? HPA Axis Dysregulation? Autoimmunity from a “leaky gut?” Often times looking into the behind-the-scenes reasons why you’re experiencing symptoms can save you tons of money on supplements altogether.

Problem 5: You’re Taking Too Many Things at Once or Don’t Have a Plan

Many people fall into the trap of supplement stacking—taking one thing after another in efforts to “do all the things” without being purposeful or planned in their supplement taking regime. They try one thing and, unsure if it’s working or not, they take another, then another. Sometimes even taking herbs that contradict what they really need (such as licorice root in a supplement for  “adrenal fatigue” when they actually have high cortisol and don’t need it). It’s like driving a car on a road trip to Florida without a GPS or destination. Just because you know where you want to go, doesn’t mean your car knows where to go without direction. You have “all the things”—your bags are packed with your swimsuit and sunscreen, your boogie boards are loaded and you have a great Spotify playlist for the road, but without a clear destination, those things are useless—at least in the long term. You won’t get anywhere.

Best Supplement for Optimal Health: 10 Essentials

The supplement industry is massive! In 2015, the global dietary supplement market size was $112 billion. Keep in mind: This is an industry that has almost no regulation and essentially operates on an honor code. In short: We are guinea pigs unless we choose to take matters into our own hands. Shop smart. 

1. Buy from a Reputable Manufacturer

Avoid buying supplements from retail stores when you can—like GNC, Target, WalMart, etc. Although there are a handful of shining stars in there, many reputable companies are “mom and pop” operations or trusted professionals, focused on producing or selling quality over quantity. In addition, reputable companies are accessible—they are 100% transparent about their manufacturing, processing and ingredient selection. They are accessible to reach via phone call and have excellent customer support. In fact, many reputable manufacturers believe so much in their product, they are often willing to accept returns or replace a supplement if you’re unsatisfied or have an adverse side effect for any reason.

2. Transparency

If a label doesn’t list the exact amount of a substance in the formula (such as a natural desiccated thyroid supplement with a “proprietary blend”) buyer be ware.

3. You Get What You Pay For

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to fork over $100 bucks, but that $10 probiotic or multi-vitamin is probably not the real deal either.

4. Avoid Fillers

Synthetics, artificial ingredients, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Anything other than the actual supplement.

5. Stage it In

Too many supplements at one time can be just as stressful as taking too many medications at one time—a lot for your body to process. When starting a new supplement, stage it in: start one new supplement at a time, ideally away from other supplements you typically take and during the daytime hours—that way if you have an adverse reaction you can get any help you need far more easily.

6. Therapeutic vs. Replacement vs. Nutritional Supplements: Know the Difference

There are three primary uses of supplemental support—therapeutic, replacement or nutritional. Regardless of which methodology you use supplements for, the goal for optimal health should always be the “least supplementation as possible.”

    • Therapeutic
      Short term protocol to address a particular imbalance—such as an antimicrobial herbal protocol for SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), an immune boosting protocol for a cold or flu, or cortisol support protocol for hypercortisolism (i.e. “stress”) in conjunction with dietary and lifestyle changes. Most therapeutic protocols last 30-90 days, with some exceptions—such as autoimmunity or progressed chronic conditions (diabetes, thyroid conditions) that may require longer healing support.
    • Replacement
      Meant to replace something missing in your diet or health markers as whole. Still considered a short term support, but unlike the therapeutic trial—typically composed of outside compounds not found in your body (like adaptogens for adrenal support, or botanical herbs for gut support), the replacement supplementation model addresses a deficiency in your body (such as low Vitamin D, Zinc, glutathione or B-Vitamins) with a short term “boost” to get your body back to baseline.
    • Nutritional
      Nutrients, like food, that are essential for optimal health. Ideally, aim to get the majority of your nutrients from real whole foods; however, supplementation can be beneficial to fill in the gaps due to poor soil quality, availability or taste preferences. Some examples of nutritional based supplements include: Magnesium, grass-fed liver capsules and bone marrow, collagen protein and extra virgin cod liver oil. A few little gems , aside from gut support, that may generally increase health and that are difficult to find in the modern human diet include:

7. Focus on Digestive Support*

When in doubt of what to take, focus on digestive support and nutrient optimization in your diet. Remember, nothing replaces a nutrient-dense varied diet—as long as we are digesting it. Some key digestive support aids* may include:

Best Supplements For Optimal Health - Designs For Health Probiospore

8. Go By How You Feel

Just because many of the best supplement for optimal health claim it should help you feel a certain way, if you are not feeling hot 7 to 10 days in or you’ve noticed a negative change in your health, it may be a sign that is not the formula for you.

9. Buyer Beware of Interactions & Overdose

Just because supplements are “over the counter” and accessible to all does not mean all supplements are safe to use for everyone. Do your own research before starting any potential supplement to a.) understand potential side effects of ingredients and b.) understand any contraindications of the formula you choose with any conditions or medications or other supplements you currently take.

10. Consider Working with a Skilled Practitioner

Rather than shooting darts in the dark, consulting with a functional medicine practitioner may not be a bad idea to help steer you in the right direction. 

REFERENCES 

  1. 2017. Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html
  2. 2014. Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/digestive-diseases
  3. Department of Health and Human Services. 2015. Dietary Supplements: Structure/Function Claims Fail to Meet Federal Requirements.
  4. Newmaster, S. G., Grguric, M., Shanmughanandhan, D., Ramalingam, S., & Ragupathy, S. (2013). DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products. BMC medicine, 11, 222. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-222
  5. Guallar, E. Et al. 2014. Enough is enough: Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements. Annals of Internal Medicine. 159(12):850-1.
  6. Bailey, R. L., Fulgoni, V. L., Keast, D. R., & Dwyer, J. T. (2011). Dietary supplement use is associated with higher intakes of minerals from food sources. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 94(5), 1376-81.
  7. Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud LL, Simonetti RG, Gluud C. Mortality in Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplements for Primary and Secondary Prevention: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. 2007;297(8):842–857. doi:10.1001/jama.297.8.842
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