According to a survey by The Council for Responsible Nutrition, 71% of U.S. adults (more than 170 million people) say they take dietary supplements for better health. Even though millions of people enjoy their benefits, there seems to be a steady drumbeat of news that questions dietary supplements’ effectiveness.
In fact, a New York Times headline recently screamed, “Studies Show Little Benefit in Supplements.” But on closer examination, the article reviewed a series of studies that were related to supplements – but those studies by no means proved supplements don’t work.
For example, the first study cited in the article is from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Its key finding, according to the article, was “overall use of dietary supplements by adults in [the United States] has remained stable from 1999 through 2012, although some supplements have fallen out of favor while the use of others has increased.” This hardly shows that dietary supplements are ineffective.
Another study cited in the same article, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, was purportedly meant to be more evidence why dietary supplements don’t work. But just like other studies cited in the article, the study found: “45 percent said they took [supplements] to ‘improve’ and 33 percent to ‘maintain’ overall health. Thirty-six percent of women took calcium for bone health and 18 percent of men took supplements for heart health or to lower cholesterol. Only 23 percent used supplements because a health care provider suggested they do so.”
These are interesting findings, but again this study – and others – does not prove dietary supplements are ineffective.
So what does the science community say about dietary supplements? Do they actually work?
The Science Says…
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Scientific evidence shows that some dietary supplements are beneficial for overall health and for managing some health conditions. For example, calcium and vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong and reducing bone loss; folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects; and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils might help some people with heart disease. Other supplements need more study to determine their value.”
The important phrase here is “scientific evidence,” meaning scientific research studies that show some dietary supplement ingredients are beneficial for managing some health conditions.
Clinical studies have been conducted on many ingredients contained in dietary supplements and they have showed those ingredients can be beneficial. But just because a supplement contains one or more ingredients that worked in a lab, it doesn’t mean every diet supplement that contains an ingredient is effective nor that it will work for you.
There are many factors that determine whether a specific dietary supplement will deliver the promised benefits for a particular person, but here are the ones we think are most important.
Chemistry, Quality, Formulation and Dose
Let’s start with you.
How deficient you are in a certain vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient – and whether you take supplements long enough to become sufficient in it – is a key determining factor for success.
Let’s say that your body’s “bucket” for Vitamin X is deficient and you begin taking a Vitamin X supplement. After 30 days, you finish your bottle of Vitamin X – but your Vitamin X bucket is only half-full. If you stop taking Vitamin X, it’s natural that you won’t enjoy all the benefits of taking a Vitamin X supplement.
This is a main reason why many people don’t experience any benefit from taking supplements. They simply don’t take them long enough for their internal nutrient “buckets” to fill up so they can enjoy the benefits.
Separately, your body’s nutrient “bucket” may not process ingredients as completely or efficiently as might be expected. This is actually very common.
Just like we all have different habits, preferences, and personalities, we have different body chemistries that process ingredients differently.
Now, that’s not to say dietary supplement ingredients don’t all work the same way in every person’s body. They do.
The difference is, every person’s individual body chemistry reacts to them differently.
This is why some people enjoy significant benefits from one supplement while another person may experience little or no benefits from the same exact supplement.
Aside from body chemistry, the quality of supplement ingredients is the most important factor.
The best way to verify quality is to check the label and ensure the supplement bears the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) seal and was manufactured in the United States.
According to the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering, GMP is:
A system for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards. It is designed to minimize the risks involved in any pharmaceutical production that cannot be eliminated through testing the final product.
GMP covers all aspects of production from the starting materials, premises and equipment to the training and personal hygiene of staff. Detailed, written procedures are essential for each process that could affect the quality of the finished product. There must be systems to provide documented proof that correct procedures are consistently followed at each step in the manufacturing process - every time a product is made.
It’s also best to ensure the finished supplement was manufactured in the United States, as this ensure the facility in which the supplements were manufactured also comply with U.S. health and safety standards, which are among the most stringent in the world.
All nutrients need other nutrients to aid in their absorption into the body.
If you’re supplementing with calcium, or zinc but you’re not getting enough Vitamin D, then your body won’t absorb enough calcium.
This is why almost all supplements include additional ingredients beside the main dietary ingredient. These ingredients are designed to enhance “bioavailability,” which is a fancy term for making the primary dietary ingredient more easily absorbed into the body.
Make sure to check the label to ensure it says “no binders or fillers added.” This ensures your supplement only contains the ingredients needed to deliver on its promised results.
An important side note: if your supplement is in capsule form, there may be some empty space in it and you can see its contents shift around if you look closely enough. This is a good indication there are no extra fillers in your supplement.
One last and very important factor is dosage, and when it comes to dietary supplements and your body chemistry you should always remember this: Too much, too fast, is a very bad thing.
In the ultra-competitive world of dietary supplements, some companies saturate their supplements with higher concentrations of the active ingredient in order to gain a marketing edge. At best, higher ingredient concentrations can have zero effect, and at worst, it can potentially cause serious harm.
Think back to your internal nutrient buckets.
When you overfill your nutrient bucket and it overflows, those excess nutrients are not metabolized inside your body. This can result in negative side effects ranging from nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
However, in some cases excess nutrients can lead to an unhealthy build-up in the body leading to weak bones or damage to your internal organs.
The best way to approach dietary supplements is to remember that your nutrient buckets work best when their full – but not overflowing, and certainly not half-empty. To do this, only take dietary supplements that contain ingredient dosages that match those tested in human clinical studies. This ensures that, in addition to quality supplements, you’re getting the correct dosage.
Dietary Supplements Can Work For You
The right dietary supplement made from quality ingredients, in the right combination, and matched to your body chemistry at the right dosage can deliver very positive health benefits. The clinical studies are out there which show proper ingredients in the right dose can support better health across a range of areas. It’s simply a matter of choosing the right supplement that works for you.
In closing, remember that supplement means “in addition to,” not “in place of.” Before starting and dietary supplement program, check with your doctor and incorporate your dietary supplements into an overall plan for better health.
Also keep in mind that good health is a matter of good choices that lead to healthy habits. If you make some not-so-good choices today, remember tomorrow is a new day – and every day is a new chance to do something healthy.