Every year, North Americans spend billions of dollars on supplements. Given some of the other areas where money is being spent, not all of this is misplaced. However, it’s always a good idea to investigate some of the claims made by supplement manufacturers, as well as the companies themselves, before investing your hard earned money. Below I’ve listed some common supplements and their effects, intended uses and side effects.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Found in fish such as salmon, anchovies and krill, Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fats that the body needs for optimal health. They can help with brain function, eight maintenance, and the prevention of heart disease. If you don’t eat fish on a regular basis, then you may want to consider supplementing with Omega 3.
Fish are high in Omega 3s in part due to the food they eat, so supplements drawn from plant sources such as algae and seaweed are just as effective, and appropriate for a vegetarian diet.
If you’re going to go for Omega 3 supplements, it’s best to steer away from ones that also include omega 6s, as we tend to already get an overabundance of Omega 6 from the vegetable oils that many foods are cooked with. Personally, I prefer krill oil, as it’s so high in Omega 3 fats that you only need to take one or two small gel caps daily.
Probiotics have because synonymous with yogurt, due in part to clever marketing strategies on the parts of yogurt manufacturers. The truth is, most yogurts don’t really contain high enough amounts of these beneficial bacterias to make much of a difference, and some contain high amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Fermented foods, such as kefir, kimchi, fermented salsa and sauerkraut, are great food sources of probiotics. Kefir can be found in the dairy section of most supermarkets now, but real fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut can be a bit harder to find. In some Canadian cities, a grocery service which can found at spud.ca carries real fermented foods (among other healthy foods) and will deliver them to your door. There are also places that offer courses on how to ferment foods yourself.
Live, cultured foods have many benefits, such as boosting the immune system, balancing gut bacteria, and possibly even improving mood. So don’t be afraid to eat up! However, if fermenting your own kimchi is not for you, then I see no harm in taking a daily probiotic supplement.
Most “natural” sleep aid supplements contain melatonin, theanine, passionflower, lavender, camomile, b vitamins, or some combination of all of these. Melatonin is somewhat of a controversial supplement. Some doctors advise against it, saying that it’s either useless or can mess with your hormones or your body’s own circadian rhythm. There isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence to suggest that melatonin is dangerous; however, I would exercise caution when taking this. Melatonin will only help you if your sleeplessness is caused by a melatonin deficiency. If this is the case, 1-3 mgs is all it should take to help you drift off; taking megadoses more won’t help. In my experience, it can help you wind down, but it won’t help you stay asleep, so if your problem is that you’re waking up during the night, I wouldn’t bother with melatonin. It can be especially helpful for jet lag, but if you find yourself taking it every night, I would suggest speaking to your doctor or ND about what might be causing you to lose sleep.
Herbal remedies can definitely calm you down before bed, but I would suggest taking them in tea form rather than popping a pill. There is something calming about sipping a warm beverage, even if it’s just a placebo effect. Establishing a bedtime ritual, such as a nightly tea, lighting a candle or diffusing some calming essential oils, and writing in your journal can do a lot more to help you wind down than just popping a pill.
Supplements for anxiety/depression/mood disorders
Supplements such as St.John’s Wort, rhodiola, 5-htp, theanine, and countless others are often used to treat anxiety or depression. It’s best to air on the side of caution with these and consult a professional before self-medicating with these supplements or several reasons. First of all, some of them could actually make your symptoms worse at first. Even if your naturopath decides that one of these supplements is an appropriate treatment for you, it’s important to get the dosing just right and check in regularly to see how you’re doing. Also, through a careful discussion regarding your symptoms, your doctor may determine that your depression or anxiety is circumstantial (ie, you just went through a major life change or have unresolved past issues). In this case, he or she may prescribe counselling and therapy either alone or alongside your supplements or other medication.
“Immune-boosting” herbs and supplements
Most supplements that claim to support the immune system contain herbs such as echinacea, licorice, ginseng and astragalus, or high doses of vitamins such as Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Zinc. For most people, if you are eating a clean diet, getting adequate exercise and taking a high quality multi, your immune system should be doing just fine on its own.
It may be unpleasant, but when you get a cold, it’s a sign that your immune system is working. It’s fighting hard to expel the virus from your body. Taking herbs like echinacea for a short period of time if you’re trying to get over a cold can definitely give your immune system a little boost, but it’s unnecessary to take supplements like this all the time. Some specialists believe that taking immune-boosting supplements all the time can actually weaken your immune system by giving it too much of a crutch to lean on. Whether this is the case or not, I would suggest focusing on eating clean and getting moderate exercise as the best way to keep healthy.
Multivitamins and mineral supplements
If you have been diagnosed with a deficiency, such as anemia or low B12, then supplementing with the required vitamin or mineral is important to bring your levels back up to normal. While this can take some time, it’s best to talk to your doctor or naturopath about ways to treat and prevent the deficiency long term. Ask about food sources of whatever you need, and look for ways to incorporate those foods into your diet daily.
As far as taking a daily multivitamin goes, I would say that it’s a good idea if you’re not eating a perfect diet. It’s definitely best to go for a high-quality, whole-food cultured vitamins rather than synthetic- based ones. Many cheap brands of vitamins don’t absorb well, and may not even contain the amount of vitamins they claim on the label, so if you’re going to spend money on supplements at all, I would highly suggest reputable brands such as New Chapter, Platinum Naturals, or Garden of Life.
In Northern climates, such as here in Canada, many people are deficient in Vitamin D due to lack of exposure to the sun, even if they are eating a healthy diet. And of course, in the summer time, taking precautions to protect the skin from UV rays, such as wearing hats and sunscreen, is necessary to prevent skin cancer, sunburns, and premature aging, but doing so may in turn block the absorption of Vitamin D through the skin.
Fun fact – Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin! It’s responsible for maximizing calcium absorption, maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as preventing heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. So, if you feel that you’re one of the many people who aren’t getting enough Vitamin D, taking a supplement is safe and beneficial. The current RDA for Vitamin D is 600 IU for healthy adults.
Cleanses that make extravagant promises, such as detoxing your liver after a week of binge drinking, or helping you lose a tonne of weight quickly, are likely just a waste of money. You just deplete your body by going on such a restrictive diet, only to shock it a couple weeks later by returning to your normal lifestyle and eating habits. In my opinion, making sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle gradually is a much better way to secure long-term benefits.
Many of these cleanses also contain laxatives, diuretics and appetite suppressants which aren’t going to do your body any long term good, and could even lead to dehydration (even if they are naturally sourced).
In short, I would exercise extreme caution with cleanses. Speak to your doctor or ND if you’re thinking of trying one.
Maca, dark chocolate, oysters- from the beginning of time people have been experimenting with food to help get that lovin’ mood going. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with experimenting, remember that sexual excitement starts between the ears. Focus on what turns you and your partner on, be open to having raw, unfiltered conversations and dealing with any hang ups you might have about sex.
There are many great supplements out there which have the potential to improve your quality of life. But at the same time, there’s a lot of stuff out there being touted as cure-alls that are simply a waste of money. It’s best to consult a nutritionist, herbalist, or naturopath- a professional who knows your medical background- before spending a bunch of money on supplements. Many supplements interact with certain medications, and some can have unintended side effects; for example, licorice root, used to treat coughs, colds, and adrenal fatigue, can actually increase blood pressure, so people who already have high blood pressure should steer away from it. A trusted professional can formulate a regime of supplements for you that is safe and tailored to your specific needs. Most naturopaths have high quality herbs and supplements available for sale at their clinic, at a lower cost than you might find in a health food store. And as always, listen to what your body is telling you!