Do Supplements Really Help?

But My Doctor Recommended I Take Supplements

I recently discussed taking probiotics with my primary care doctor (I have IBS). Because we’re both doctors we discussed the data on probiotics and the fact that she recommends the brand of probiotics her patients with IBS recommend to her. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s important to understand why your doctor is recommending supplements to you and based on what data. In case you were wondering so far, there’s no clear, reliable medical data that shows whether or not probiotics work for IBS.

Why I Want To Talk About Supplements

As a cardiologist many of my patients take supplements for various reasons: they want to live longer, lose weight, prevent heart disease, etc. There’s a lot of information out there about the benefits of supplements. But it’s not all good. I’ve even had the rare patient have a heart attack from supplements. In my experience “extra energy” supplements are sometimes too much energy for your heart. I want you to know the information that I know and I use when I recommend supplements to my patients or take them myself.

Who Should Try Supplements?

In my opinion, there are a few reasons you should consider taking supplements.

The first reason is that you have a medical condition, like celiac disease, which may not let you absorb nutrients properly.

The second reason is that you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals from the food you eat. I was vegetarian in my 20s because I thought I would eat more fruits and vegetables. In reality, I ended up eating a lot of pizza, pasta, and bread. So I started taking a multivitamin because most days I was only eating one serving of fruits and/or vegetables.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about eating healthy. If you’re eating a balanced diet, it’s unlikely you’re going to have a shortage of minerals or vitamins. If you’re concerned, you can check with your medical provider. Most nutritional deficiencies will show up on blood tests.

The third reason you should consider supplements is if you have a medical condition like anxiety and you’ve already tried everything else, medications, therapy, meditation, and yoga, and nothing has worked out for you. Then you should consider trying supplements.

Supplements Are Natural So What’s Wrong with Taking Them?

The most important thing you should know about supplements is that the FDA doesn’t regulate them. This means there could be anything in the pills you get, from the ginseng root it claims to have in it to plain sugar or even caffeine, or both because sugar and caffeine make you feel good. Like “Wow! That ginseng root really does make me feel better!”

The best case scenario is it does have ginseng root in it. The worst case scenario is that it has something in it that you didn’t want to have in your body or that it interacts with something else you’re taking. The worst worst case scenario is it kills you.

The odds of supplements killing you are low, but you might think that if one person dies from a supplement, it gets pulled from the market. My best guestimate would be closer to 20 people need to die before something gets pulled from the market. Why? Because when you think about it, most people taking supplements are usually taking more than one. So when something goes wrong, it’s hard to pinpoint which supplement caused the problem, until many people taking the same supplement die.

The Best Way To Try Supplements

The best reliable source of information on supplement verification that I’m aware of is the United States of Pharmacopeia Convention (USP). Supplement products the USP have verified are marked with a USP stamp. I have no affiliation with them, but this is what I recommend to my own family.

Also, I recommend you stick with the same manufacturer once you start a supplement as there can be substantial variation from one manufacturer to another. You should only try one new supplement at a time so you can tell if it’s helping and/or causing side effects. Prescription medications can take anywhere from one day to three months for you to get the full effect. I recommend you try one supplement for up to three months to get an idea of if it’s working for you and if there are any side effects.

Again I think you should try supplements as a last resort because eating a well-balanced diet is the best way to keep your body healthy and there are many things like yoga and meditation that can help you feel better without putting anything extra in your body.

Originally published on Medium September 22, 2017.