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If and When to Supplement

During this time of year, the first couple of the months after the New Year, when people are more motivated to make health changes there is a spike in supplementation. People are doing cleanses, or committing to taking better care of their health and as part of that they often embrace various supplements.

Supplements interact with a variety of mechanisms in the human body, often in vary powerful ways. Many of them are processed in the kidneys and liver and can have impacts on other various systems in the body.

It is very easy to become desensitized to the impacts of both medications and supplements on the body. In particular, over the counter medications and supplements. This is not to say that we should never take new medications or supplements, but I think that it is always appropriate to consider whether it is necessary and to weigh the risks versus benefits. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on a few common questions around supplements.

Should I Take Supplements?

As annoying as this answer can be, the answer is it depends on the individual. Most people do not need to take a supplement every day. In most cases, supplements should be taken temporarily to address a specific imbalance in the body. Often, if we give diet and lifestyle changes a chance to work first, we will need fewer supplements for a shorter duration, and they will be more effective. In many cases supplements may not even be needed.

Of course there are exceptions, such as when we are not obtaining adequate nutrients from our diet and are unable or unwilling to change that or when we have lifestyle factors that are undermining our health like stress or lack of sleep/poor sleep quality. Optimally in these case we start with lifestyle and dietary changes.

Additionally, people who live above 37 degrees latitude (for example Richmond VA is at 37.54 N) likely require vitamin D supplementation in the winter because as latitude increases the amount of the vitamin D decreases and most people cannot spend enough time in the sun to obtain adequate amounts of Vitamin D, especially the further north you live. Additionally, sunscreen interferes with the absorption of vitamin D.

Are Supplements Safe?

Just because supplements are natural does not make them safe. Many supplements have powerful impacts on the body, which can be very beneficial. However, safety depends a number of factors.

  • Quality of the supplement ( see my post 5 Tips for Selecting Quality Supplements)

  • Your health status – many supplements are not recommended for certain health conditions.

  • Medications and other supplements – medications and supplements can interact with one another, leading to dangerous outcomes

  • Dosage – similar to medications, supplements influence the function of the body. In small amounts they can be beneficial and in larger quantities they can be dangerous. Generally speaking, less is more when taking supplements.

To ensure the supplements you are taking are safe, make sure they are a quality supplement with third party testing and ensure you speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist to ensure they are safe for your health status and with any other supplements or medications you are taking.

Do Supplements Work?

There are a lot of factors that impact how well a supplement functions. Is it the right supplement for the health concern? Is it the right supplement for your body? Are you taking it at the correct time? Quality also matters here. Some supplements do not contain the amount of the ingredient that is listed or they contain a form of the ingredient that is not as bio-available. There are several vitamins and minerals that interfere with one another. Some supplements are best taken with food, and some are best taken away from food.

This is where speaking with a knowledgeable practitioner can be very valuable, as they have training in these topics. Here in Colorado we are lucky to have Natural Grocer’s by Vitamin Cottage. In their supplements department they have trained staff that can answer many of your questions and is a great starting point if you don’t have or can’t afford a practitioner.

Kimlin, Michael G., William J. Olds, and Michael R. Moore. “Location and Vitamin D Synthesis: Is the Hypothesis Validated by Geophysical Data?” Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology. B, Biology 86, no. 3 (March 1, 2007): 234–39.

Harvard Health. “Time for More Vitamin D,” September 1, 2008.

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