Nutritional supplements in a spoon with vegetables in the background

Good Supplement, Bad Supplement

With news articles circulating and information whirling about supplements, their quality, and efficacy it becomes increasingly difficult for a person to know if they should be on supplements and even more difficult which ones they should be on. The media is full of all kinds of claims, both good and bad. One day the same supplement that was bad for us, becomes miraculously good for us in the next study. Confusion takes over, and one is left with where to turn.  Why might you see radical differences from one study to another?  One thing to realize about supplements is that they aren’t all created equal.  A high-grade supplement starts with high-grade materials,  tested for efficacy, produced at a clean facility that is regulated for purity and manufacturing techniques, and backed by science. 
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. A number of investigations by consumer organizations have found that some supplement brands- including a number sold at big box stores- are contaminated with other materials, don’t contain as much of the active ingredients as claimed, and are unlikely to accomplish what you purchased them for.  Buying a high-quality supplement from a specialist is much more likely to get you a product that will deliver. 
What about these shifting studies? Supplements aren’t necessarily studied the same way as drugs are. Since you can’t patent the natural substances themselves, like you can a drug, there is both less money around to do clinical trials with supplements and less advantage in fudging the results. Many supplement trials are small, and only occasionally do you get the big double-blind studies. When you do, you tend to get results that back up the claims that have been made for years about a given supplement. After all, many supplements contain ingredients that have been used for centuries in traditional medicines around the world.  The more popular a supplement, the more likely that there are deep studies out there.
Supplements may also require longer-term use to see results as compared to many drugs. That doesn’t mean those results aren’t real, just that they may not be investigated for the time required in some studies. Unlike many drugs, though, supplements are far less likely to have side effects, can usually be used safely for long periods of time, and often are far cheaper than some drugs that try to accomplish the same things. Supplements tend to leverage your body’s own systems and agents to improve your health. In that respect, they are a subtler, gentler, and more natural way to approach a health problem. Certainly, supplements are a good place to start, and if you need a drug as well then you can also move on to one. Drugs carry dangers, though, not just from side effects, but also for how hard some drugs can be on the system. 
A good example is an antibiotic. Life-saving if truly needed, they are often overprescribed by doctors and over-requested by patients.  There are supplements with demonstrated efficacy in fighting infections, and trying those first, particularly with more minor infections may be a wise course of action considering what sort of effect an antibiotic can have on your gut.A course of antibiotics can act like a bomb in your gut, killing billions of necessary, beneficial flora and giving the chance for harmful gut bugs to take over- including real baddies like E. Coli and Clostridium difficile. The bad gut flora outcompetes the good gut flora in the altered ecosystem, leading to all kinds of problems: inflammation, decreased absorption of nutrients, a wearing away of the gut lining, loose stools and diarrhea, cramping, bloating, excess gas, and a feeling of lethargy and brain fog (more on that later). Luckily, it’s possible to reverse these effects by altering your diet again and seeding your gut with more beneficial flora by taking a good probiotic. In fact, if you must have a course of antibiotics, you should always take a probiotic at the same time. Even better, avoid antibiotics altogether if you can by trying natural alternatives. If you can’t avoid them, limit how often you take them by treating the underlying condition, and always make sure that the class of antibiotics is of a class that makes sense to treat your condition. Too often, a heavy hitter is prescribed that can cause a lot of damage to your gut and even to your central nervous system “just in case”. Drug companies make a profit by selling the particular products that they have patents on. Sometimes those products may not be worth the risk or there may be safer alternatives. Try to minimize the dangers by incorporating supplements into your health regime.