As a nutritional medicine practitioner I sometimes use supplements as part of my treatment plans for my clients. This is a natural part of the way that I practice and it can offer great therapeutic benefit to the people that I work with.
I often see commentary in the popular press about the effectiveness or otherwise of nutritional supplementation, as I’m sure you do too. The vitamin & supplement industry in Australia alone is worth nearly $1.5 BILLION dollars per year, and I am always amazed by the sheer volume of supplements available for purchase at pharmacies and health food stores & their online counterparts.
So what are people buying and why? Where do they get their information from? What’s the difference between buying a supplement from a health food store and being prescribed one by a practitioner?
Firstly, let’s look at some of the things you should think about before you purchase a supplement:
- Dosage & duration – does the product offer an effective therapeutic dose for the deficiency, condition or issue you want to treat? is it clear how long you should take it for? Supplements are generally not designed to be taken long-term – if you are not identifying and implementing the changes you need in order to correct what’s going on in your body, as soon as you stop taking a supplement you risk seeing your symptoms start coming back again.
- Quality – are the active ingredients in a chemical form and delivery mode (powder, capsule, tablet, liquid) that can be used most effectively by the body? Can you trust that there are no undeclared ingredients or contaminants, or that the active ingredients are potent or effective?
- Ingredients – is it a single-ingredient supplement, such as an individual mineral, or a complex formulation, or a mixture of nutrients and herbs? Which is most appropriate for the problem you are trying to solve? What do the additional ingredients offer? What sort of colourings, preservatives, fillers and flavourings are added and why?
- Application & effectiveness – is it the right supplement for the condition? Are the ingredients, formulation, dosage and delivery based on peer-reviewed research literature? Does the main ingredient/s work effectively in isolation or does it require additional nutrients for optimum absorption, utilisation or therapeutic effectiveness?
- And perhaps the biggest question – do you really need it? For a supplement to be effective, you need to know all of the above – but you also need to know, will it offer you the help or relief that you are seeking?
These are the questions that I ask when selecting a supplement to support one of my clients, and the reason I tend to use Australian practitioner-only brands with a reputation for effectiveness and independent quality testing.
One size fits all?
One of the most common trends I see in self-prescribing of nutritional and herbal supplements is the tendency to treat them in the same way as pharmaceutical medicines. Generally speaking, a pharmaceutical medicine will be designed and tested for the treatment of a specific condition, symptom or illness – for example, paracetamol for reducing pain and fever; antacids for heartburn and reflux; antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
Nutritional and herbal supplements do not tend to work in this way, because of the way the body uses them. Nutrients do not work in isolation in the body, and as such it is rare to treat a condition (other than a frank deficiency) using a single nutrient
The prescription of nutritional supplements by qualified health practitioners is based on an investigation of the underlying causes for a person’s symptoms, and an understanding that no two people will experience an illness in the same way. While one person’s headaches may be caused by dehydration and sluggish digestion & elimination, another’s may be caused by muscle tension and poor eyesight. Medicinally, both may be prescribed a painkiller to relieve the symptoms; but a more holistic approach would be to uncover and correct the cause, with the intention of preventing future occurrences.
This doesn’t mean that symptom relief is not a priority – just that it is not the only priority.
So next time you are reaching for that discounted tub of fish oils, or wondering which brightly-coloured multi-vitamin is right for your pre-schooler – consider asking yourself these five questions first. If you don’t know the answers, it may be time to check in with your practitioner to find out the best supplement (if any) for you.
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