The problem with supplements

You, the person reading this: maybe you heard somewhere that a supplement – say fish oil – might be good for your health. Hopefully, you’ve gone to the doctor as supplements can have side effects as bad as prescription medicines. For example, fish oil can have blood-thinning effects. If you are on blood thinners, you should talk to your doctor.

So, if you’re OK with that warning, and cleared by your doc, and/or know the hazards because you’ve read real information from established medical sites that have professionally reviewed articles that tell you about the studies done, the possible benefits, as well as the potential risks, then you’ve done the required ‘adulting’ to self-administer drugs, because that’s what a lot of supplements are. To me, this is a requirement for any supplement I take. It is going into my body, and I should know what it might do – and potential side effects that might occur I wouldn’t associate it with unless I did the research, or interactions that could occur. Jeez – the blood pressure medication I take warns against eating grapefruit because the combination makes the skin susceptible to sunburn! How would you know that unless you did research? Oh – and Tagamet (the stomach medicine) can cause men to grow breasts so if you’re a guy and want to chance a pair of man-boobs, go ahead. (Ladies, apparently it can effect you as well: this article entitled ‘Woman Bothered by Bigger Breasts‘ mentions Tagamet.) It also might help cure certain cancers. In certain situations, maybe bigger breasts are ok.

Then which one to buy?

In the US, supplements are unregulated. They go through no testing by the FDA and their claims are not verified by the FDA. While occasionally companies are shut down and products taken off the market, the vast majority that line supermarket shelves and Amazon are ‘buyer beware’. Counterfeits abound. Years ago someone tested multiple large chain store brands of ginko biloba and found they contained zero ginko biloba – they were filled with ground up dried weeds or something like that. Many fly-by-night supplement companies that have screaming labels that claim they are ‘fat-burning’ have been taken off the market after someone – not the government necessarily – tested them and found actual regulated pharmaceuticals in them.

Folks, this is why we regulate a lot of things. We say we hate regulations and don’t want them, but then people expect unregulated supplement companies to do the ‘right thing’ in a culture where now it seems we hold in high esteem the people who can get away with the cleverest scams.

Supplements are an example of an unregulated market and shows how we need to accept responsibility as part of that freedom. A lot of people forget they go hand-in-hand. That freedom from regulation keeps the product inexpensive compared to regulated products, but this freedom comes with the responsibility of knowing the risks before you start ingesting substances that supposedly have a health benefit.

I don’t want to have to ask my doctor for a prescription for supplements. I like this freedom – but I don’t pretend there’s no downside.

Since I don’t have a lab, I try to buy ‘USP Verified‘ supplements. They actually test the products 3 ways: does it contain what it says it does? Does it contain the right dose? Can it be absorbed, or does it pass through your body intact (usually pills are tested this way). They do not verify the claims.

The problem here is this testing is very expensive and few companies think it makes business sense, I guess, to go through this verification. Or they have something to hide. Again, you don’t have a lab, nor can afford to send products to labs for testing.

That leaves you with only trust to go on.

When I buy a supplement, I ask myself a few questions:

  1. How easy is this supplement to obtain? Simple minerals that are pretty cheap are more likely legit than obscure plants that might be in supplements that charge an arm and a leg.
  2. Is one particular brand way cheaper than all the others? Competitors should be more or less the same price. If you find one outlier way lower in price, it might indicate that the quality differs.
  3. Is the product from an established company that’s been around for a while. Carlsons, for example, has been around since 1965. While I buy their Fish Oil, I’m not recommending them, nor do I make a penny if you choose to buy something from them, but the point I’m making is they have a reputation – and that reputation could be damaged if it turns out that they are misrepresenting their products. I would think they have more to lose than some fly-by-night named ‘Doctor’s Preferred Choice Original Nature Quality Products’ (I just made that name up).
  4. Be extra wary of weird concoctions with loud labels that blurt out in large letters some miracle effect. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

I’ll leave you with this: many years ago, I heard a story about a person who ran a supplement division of a large pharmaceutical company. Their company acquired a vitamin company. When they audited the company’s processes, the products marked kosher sometimes weren’t kosher and the products marked organic sometimes weren’t organic. His advice was to only buy supplements from companies that also produce pharmaceuticals because they are used to strict standards, and you are more likely to get quality products – note I did not say guaranteed – just more likely.

7 thoughts on “The problem with supplements

  1. Good advice in this post.

    Regarding fish oil, Americans spend about a billion dollars annually. If one Googles ‘fish oil obesity’, one of the articles that comes up says, “In overweight or obese children and adolescents, supplementation with fish oil could reduce BMI, decrease serum triglyceride, and lower SBP, while serum cholesterol and fasting glucose may not be significantly affected.”

    Supplements can be beneficial in cases of deficiency. Toxicity, however, is a different matter.

    The most common sort of toxicity these days has to do with the linoleic acid and arachidonic acid content of the food supply. Norwegian animal science researchers tell us, “Chicken meat with reduced concentration of arachidonic acid (AA) and reduced ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids has potential health benefits because a reduction in AA intake dampens prostanoid signaling, and the proportion between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is too high in our diet…Combining reduction of the intake of arachidonic acid (AA) with enhancement of the intake of oleic acid will, moreover, also be a better strategy for reducing the total extent of in vivo lipid peroxidation, rather than adding more EPA (with 5 double bonds) and DHA (with 6 double bonds) to a diet already over-abundant in arachidonic acid and linoleic acid.”

    Pork is another problematic source of omega-6 fatty acids. “Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, but typical feeding practices give it a high omega-6 (n-6) to omega-3 (n-3) fatty acid ratio and make it a poor source of n-3 fatty acids. Feeding pigs n-3 fatty acids can increase their contents in pork, and in countries where label claims are permitted, claims can be met with limited feeding of n-3 fatty acid enrich feedstuffs, provided contributions of both fat and muscle are included in pork servings. Pork enriched with n-3 fatty acids is, however, not widely available.”

    The Norwegian researchers mentioned that “a reduction in arachidonic acid (AA) intake dampens prostanoid signaling,” Why is that important? “The endocannabinoid system (ECS), centrally and peripherally, is involved in various physiological processes, including regulation of energy balance, promotion of metabolic process, food intake, weight gain, promotion of fat accumulation in adipocytes, and regulation of body homeostasis; thus, its overactivity may be related to obesity.”

    In another article: “Arachidonic acid (AA) and its derivatives link nutrient metabolism to immunity and inflammation, thus holding a key role in the emergence and progression of frequent diseases such as obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.”

    Unfortunately, medicine is treatment orientated so identifying the cause of obesity and non communicable diseases is of little interest. “Excessive signaling of AA metabolites has been associated with various chronic degenerative or autoimmune diseases, and intervention with the metabolism of AA is widely employed therapeutically in these afflictions. In essence, AA is the most biologically active unsaturated fatty acid in higher animals. Its concentration in membranes and its magnitude of effects depend on its amount, or that of its precursors and analogues, in the diet.”

    As for nutrition research, “The tendency of the field of nutrition to ignore the role of dietary AA will optimistically be reversed in the future.”

    So, is our modernized, industrialized food supply defective? It would seem so. Comment by a Siberian Federal University researcher. “The dietary value of the Yakutian horse meat is very high precisely due to the ideal balance of polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 acids,” Makhutova explains. “The 1:1 ratio of these acids is ideal for us, but civilization is steadily shifting the balance towards the predominance of omega-6 due to the dominance of vegetable oils, cheap pork and fast food in our daily diet. “We also need omega-6 acids, but in combination with the omega-3 partners, which are found mainly in fatty fish. “The horse meat we tested is also very good, especially for child nutrition and the diet of people suffering from cardiovascular diseases. “If the population of Yakutia starts consuming mass-market products, which are now imported abundantly into the republic, and makes a choice in favor of, let us say, semi-finished pork products, this may drastically affect people’s health. “This is just the case when you should not change a time-tested balanced diet.”

  2. Of course, if you live in a state where naturopaths are licensed and can write prescriptions the same way as MDs can (like I live in), there is no issue regarding the quality of supplements prescribed by your ND. I’ve been seeing my ND since 2002, with a once a year visit to my Medicare MD to write up my yearly lab drawers so that they’re covered by insurance. (Yes, the downside of seeing a ND is no insurance coverage.). The upside of seeing an ND is that the only prescription I have is for Armour Thyroid, since there is no supplement that supports the thyroid. I have had absolutely no side effects from the supplements I’ve taken with my doc over the last 20 years.

    1. I’ve been considering a ND or a functional medical practitioner. My current doc is a nice guy and smart, but his solutions are (1) do nothing (2) prescribe something I don’t really want to take, or (3) refer me to a specialist. Based on your comment I’ve added this to my ‘to research’ list. Thanks!

      1. You’re welcome! The trick to working with a naturopathic doctor is to listen to what he or she says to do (at least listen most of the time, lol!). My doc specializes in diabetes and SIBO and has written this bestseller: Master Your Diabetes: A Comprehensive, Integrative Approach for Both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes,, available on Amazon. She consults with patients all over the country by Zoom, and maybe all over the world. She’s not cheap, and, again, not covered by health insurance, but if there is a solution to be found for you, she will find it. I had Covid after Thanksgiving, and I got over it simply by taking the antiviral tincture she makes up herself, coupled with 3 other supplements and a very high dose of Vitamin D3, all with no side effects. If you would like me to refer you, let me know.

        1. Hi BG – Right now I have cobbled together a set of behaviors I’d like to pursue more deeply, so I need a doctor that acts as my consultant so when I come up with some goofy/dangerous idea they can act as someone to dissuade me from my foolishness. Having said that, I do have a number of NDs nearby and though I might interview them. I don’t know how expensive they are, but I live in an expensive area so I can’t imagine they’re cheap. But I don’t know if ‘expensive’ is $200 or $500. And it would suck to pay a sum like these to find that we’re not a good fit.

  3. Hi LCC! Finally saw my “provider” ~ she wants me to start taking Vit D3 and calcium because my test results were low (18.8?) ~ I will check Carlson’s out ~ thanks! I always thought I ate properly to get enough of this ~ apparently not.

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