How To Choose Supplements That Will Work For You
The supplement industry sells billions of dollars of supplements every year. There are thousands to choose from. Are you wasting your time and money? Here’s how to choose supplements that will work as advertised.
YES, I’VE written a lot about vitamin supplements, but given how many have asked me about it, it’s clear that my blog readers want to know what supplements I take myself, perhaps as a roadmap for them to choose supplements for themselves.
So, I’m about to tell you.
But not before I put it in context.
The context is you.
Unless you and I share the same goals that certain supplements might support, or have the same lifestyle habits, or are physiologically/biologically similar — then my particular vitamin supplement regimen should not be yours, per se.
Rather than mirror what someone else is doing with their supplementation, I suggest you ask yourself the following five questions, the answers to which can guide how you choose supplements that can be of value to you.
In this article, you’ll discover:
- Dr. Cole’s supplement strategy.
- Personalize your supplements by answering 5 questions.
- Dr. Cole’s baseline supplement suggestions.
- Dr. Osborne’s baseline supplement suggestions.
- The supplements I take (and how homeostasis and hormesis figures in)
Let’s dig in…
Dr. Cole’s Supplement Strategy
Before I report which vitamin supplements are favored by functional medicine expert Dr. William Cole, consider his guidance about where to draw the line on supplementation, which distills down to this:
(1) Know your goals — For instance, do you want to reduce inflammation, heal your gut, increase energy levels, balance hormones, optimize your nutrient levels, etc.?
(2) Know where you’re at now — In order to know what you need, you must first get a baseline measure of where you’re starting from. Get some lab work done. Tests for vitamin D, B vitamins, iron, selenium, and magnesium are very simple and can all be done through basic conventional blood tests. We can also run more comprehensive labs that test for underlying factors such as microbiome health, hormonal imbalances, or toxicity.
(3) Track your food — Log your typical food intake in a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal for a week or more, so you can measure what you might be lacking in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates). Based on this information, you can optimize the foods you eat and decide whether or not you need a supplement to target what you are not getting through food alone. Your objective should be to use food as medicine to ensure a sound foundation, and then use supplements based on lab results to keep yourself targeted and organized. Some people do well with phasing in their supplements every few days to see how they respond while others are perfectly suited to start them all at once. Depending on what you are taking, sometimes it is appropriate to spread supplements out over the day to maximize nutrient absorption.
(4) Read labels and look for Daily Values — Once you find out which supplements are pertinent to your unique needs (read the “5 Supplement Questions” below), pick a quality supplement with the correct dosage. Read the labels and look at the dosage and the Daily Value percentage (%DV). You may need more or less, but generally speaking, aim for 100 percent of the daily recommended value. If you are taking more than one supplement with the same nutrient, remember to add this to the percentage.
(5) Know what’s too much — Excessive consumption of water-soluble vitamins like like B-complex vitamins and C can be eliminated via urine, but fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K2 can be toxic if you take too much. This also applies to minerals like selenium, which in excess can cause hair loss, fatigue, and joint pain. Similarly, supplementing with iron in excess can be oxidizing, thereby fueling inflammation. Read labels, understand the upper limits and the differences between fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. The NIH website is a helpful resource.
(6) Know how your supplements play together — The supplements you choose may have harmful (or useful) interactions. For example, CoQ10, which is a great nutrient that many people can benefit from, has many potential reactions with pharmaceutical drugs like diabetes medications, beta blockers, blood thinners, and ACE inhibitors. Melatonin, the common natural sleep supporter, can interact with medications for diabetes, blood thinners, and birth control. For thyroid medications it is advised to wait at least three hours before you take any supplements (or foods) that contain calcium and iron. Calcium and iron can interfere with the absorption of your thyroid medication. An example of a “useful” interaction is the combination of curcumin and piperine, given that piperine (a black pepper molecule) dramatically increases the bioavailablity of curcumin. (Prohealth’s curcumin products do this by incorporating Longvida‘s enhanced absorption and delivery technology.)
(7) Weigh your doctor’s recommendations with your own sensibilities — Talk to your doctor if you’re taking any medications before taking a supplement. Be aware, however, that unless your doctor is trained in functional medicine or nutrition, (s)he might have insights on this subject, and will probably err on the side of caution, telling you to avoid taking the supplement.
Remember, supplements can not overwhelm a poor diet. Food is foundational, is essential, and supplements are — as the word itself suggests — supplement a whole-food, nutrient-rich diet.
How do you know if you choose supplements that are wrong for you?
Symptoms of excess supplementation vary, but digestive symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or stomach pain are often the first indications. It’s advisable that you check your nutrient/supplement requirements with various lab tests.
Personalize Your Supplements — Five Questions
My suggestion is that you answer five questions to help you decide if you should take supplements and which ones to consume. Between Dr. Cole’s considerations listed above and these five questions, you’ll be sufficiently informed to focus on the supplements that may be useful to support what you’re trying to achieve by vitamin supplementation.
- Do you consume the SAD diet (Standard American Diet)?
- Are you trying to improve your health or athletic capacity in a specific manner?
- Do you have a diagnosed health issue that supplements might help?
- Did your parents or grandparents suffer from a health issue that an be inherited?
- Have you taken a genetic test that shows you’re at risk for some disease?
Let’s examine each of these five questions.
1. Is Your Diet SAD?
Yes, the “Standard American Diet” is sad, because it typically makes us sick and fat, given that it’s dominated by unhealthy fats, sugars, blood-spiking carbs, salt and a chemistry kit worth of flavors, colors, taste enhancers and preservatives.
If your answer to the first question, “Do you consume the SAD diet” is “yes”, then you already know that you could benefit from supplementation. Consider the either list of ten presented below by Drs. Osborn and Cole, or get yourself a ram-packed muli-vitamin/mineral/herbal complex, such as:
To ensure you get enough phytochemicals so missing from the SAD due to the paucity of multi-variate fruits and veggies in this diet, also consider supplementing with a good greens mix, such as:
- Dr. Ben’s Organic Green Powder (the one I currently use — expensive but excellent quality and last a long time)
- Garden of Life Superfood Powder (have used this before)
Click the links above to read more about these supplements, or the images below:
2. A Specific Health/Athletic Focus?
Say you’re on a healthy diet, but want some extra nutraceutical support for a particular goal, say to build muscle or to support you’re body’s detox mechanisms.
The right supplements can be helpful.
For instance, one of the safest, most researched supplements to support muscle growth is Creatine Monohydrate. As Examine.com reports, there are other forms of Creatine other than Monohydrate, but none have been extensively researched enough to show they’re better. That said, know that the form known as ‘Creatine Ethyl Ester’ is actually much worse than creatine monohydrate, and degrades almost completely into the metabolite creatinine in the intestines.
Turning to detoxification; if that was your interest, my suggestion would be to first consult Examine.com for the most research-supported detox supplements and then see if Labdoor has ranked associated brands for quality.
Now, if you’re a beginner at this, the list of detox-oriented supplements presented by Examine.com when the term “detoxification” is searched for may seem overwhelming. You might just have to wade through them in fast succession to see which makes sense to you.
In my case, my eyeballs immediately picked out Glutathione, because I know that its a is a critically important antioxidant that helps to prevent cellular damage caused by reactive oxygen species such as free radicals and peroxides.
As I wrote in, What You Absolutely Need To Know About Detox Cleanses (But Don’t), your three detoxification pathways are based on the Glutathione System, and anything you can do to enhance their effectiveness is a good idea. To that end, you could supplement with Glutathione itself, or take two of its precursors, which help the body create more of its own Glutathione; namely, N-acetyl-L-cysteine and alpha-lipoic acid (read this study).
3. A Diagnosed Health Issue?
Right off the bat, I can tell you two commonly diagnosed, chronic health issues that supplements can help with:
- High blood sugar; and
- High cholesterol.
I’ve written extensively about reducing high blood sugar and sensitizing insulin, as well as describing the efficacy of the following supplements:
Click on any of the links to see which brands I use.
Read more about why this selection will do the job of reducing your blood sugar — presuming you’re not on SAD — in my article, You Absolutely Need To Lower Your Blood Sugar.
Turning to cholesterol, there are fewer proven supplement interventions; in fact, the gold standard is just one — Red Yeast Rice.
Here’s Examine.com’s description of Red Yeast Rice:
“Red Yeast Rice (RYR) is a rice product fermented by bacteria that contains the drug lovastatin, and is currently the most effective naturally occurring statin. It is able, like most statins, to reduce circulating cholesterol levels.”
Vitamin supplements can help with other health issues as well. To find the right ones, do this:
- Google for proven supplements that can help with your health issue.
- Search on PubMed if there’s some convincing research on the effectiveness of the supplement.
- Read what Examine.com has to say about those you’ve found.
- See if Labdoor has rated the relevant brands.
Click here for a list of Examine.com's Stack Guides.
Examine.com has 16 such Stacks; namely:
- Testosterone Enhancement
- Fat Loss
- Muscle Gain & Exercise Performance
- Mood and Depression
- Heart Health
- Sleep Quality
- Insulin Sensitivity
- Memory and Focus
- Skin and Hair Quality
- Libido and Sexual Enhancement
- Liver Health
- Allergies and Immunity
- Bone Health
- Joint Health
(Update: Just learned that a 17th guide has been added for 2016 that addresses the supplements helpful to deal with Anxiety. Learn about all the Guides here.)
DISCLAIMER: Don’t substitute supplements for stop pharmaceuticals you may be taking, or add them to such pharmaceuticals, unless and until you’ve gotten a green light from your doctor.
4. A Genetic Predisposition?
This is in the realm of Epigenetics; meaning in this case, that you may know that a parent or grandparent has a genetically transferable health condition, but don’t know if your gene(s) for it have been turned on.
As the saying goes:
Genetics loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger.
So, for instance, you’re father might have had type 2 diabetes (mine did), and you might also have that tendency, but your diet is excellent (mine is), so that “behavior trigger” isn’t pulled (mine hasn’t been).
If you’re worried that you might have inherited some genes that predispose you to some bad health stuff, consider getting a genetics test done, the subject of the next question to ask yourself regarding supplementation.
5. Has A Genetic Test Indicated Your Vulnerability?
Grandma had it, your Dad has it and you may have symptoms. If your symptoms are not clear enough to be substantiated by your doctor, you might want to get ahead of the curve and get a genetics test done, like that offered by 23andMe.
23andMe will produce some reports that may be of interest, but the real substance is all the genetic data the test offers that can be uploaded into a number of online genetic report generators that then offer many more insights into your health.
I did this for my friend, Deborah, and wrote about it in, 23andMe Genetic Data: Let Your DNA Optimize Your Health. In that article, I showed what you can learn by uploading your genetic data into FoundMyFitness, run by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, and LiveWello.
If you identify a health issue that has not been vetted by your doctor, you can first see if supplementation might be useful by going through the process presented above in #4, “A Genetic Predisposition”.
Now that you have a good idea how to evaluate whether vitamin supplementation might be useful for you, let’s look at the baseline supplements suggested by two doctors.
Dr. Cole’s Baseline Supplement Suggestions
Yes, you’ve already met chiropractor and functional medicine expert, Dr. William Cole, the person who guided us through a well thought out supplement strategy cited above.
He explains here why he chooses the following ten supplements (along with suggested dosages):
- Vitamin D3
- Omega-3 fish oil
- Tumeric (curcumin)
- Vitamin C
- Methylated B complex
- Vitamin A
As you’ll soon see, Dr. Osborn mostly concurs.
Dr. Osborne‘s Baseline Supplement Suggestions
If memory serves, I first learned of Dr. Brett Osborne via some Twitter mention. Intrigued by how this buff neurosurgeon walked his talk, I read his book, Get Serious, A Neurosurgeon’s Guide to Optimal Health and Wellness, written, he says, for “men and women of all ages” who are serious about health and wellness.
There are a lot of books written by smart people that divulge smart things you can do to become “the best that you can be”, as people like to say. But few of the authors are resplendent examples of the potential their books exclaim.
I was sufficiently enamored by Dr. Osborne and his insights that I wrote a two-part article about his supplement regimen entitled, A Buff Neurosurgeon’s Top 10 Supplements Recommended For You; namely, these:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Green Tea Extract
- Vitamin D3
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- B Complex
Read the article, to learn why Dr. Osborne recommends these particular supplements and his suggested dosages.
A comparison of Cole’s and Osborn’s respective list of ten supplements show that the two are pretty much aligned; in fact, the lists are identical except for Vitamin E and Green Tea Extract preferred by Dr. Osborn and Vitamin A, Spirulina and “Methylated” B complex preferred by Dr. Cole.
Which list is better for you is wholly dependent on you, as I explained in depth above. That said, if you’re going to take a vitamin B complex, choose the methylated variety.
The MegaFood vitamin supplement company describes why a methylated brand is a good choice:
“A certain percentage of the population –possibly as high as 30%- is unable to metabolize the unmethylated forms of specific B vitamins, namely Folate and Vitamin B12. The active forms of these B vitamins are referred to as the methylated form. This is the form that your body can actually utilize.”
Joe is the guy writing what you’re reading.
I’m often asked by my readers to divulge the supplements I take, which I’ve done as it relates to specific conditions, such as high blood sugar. But I’ve never written a complete list of the supplements I take primarily because they always change as I experiment with different ones, find out about new ones, and simply stop taking some that I don’t need or find useful.
Given what you’ve already read about the need to make your supplementation personal as befits your specific health condition and goals, you may not give a hoot about what what supplements I take. If that’s true, I complement you on a lesson well learned.
My intention is to create a Page on this website that presents my supplements, along with the raison d’etre for taking them, so that I can simply update the Page as needed. But for now, I’ll list what I’m using right now, right here.
My current supplements:
- Vitamin D3 — acts more like a hormone than a vitamin by regulating hundreds of very important pathways in your body. Besides your thyroid hormones, this vitamin is the only other thing every single cell of your body needs in order to function properly.
- Vitamin K2 — thought to promote longevity, reduce arterial calcification, increase insulin sensitivity and more.
- Ubiquniol (CoQ10) — Promotes cellular energy production in heart, brain and muscle tissue.
- Curcumin/Bosweilla — Supports a healthy inflammatory response and enhances joint health.
- Adaptogen Combo — A full spectrum formula that supports the body’s adaptogenic response, increasing its capacity to manage physical and mental stress.
- Maca — Provides foundational support for immunity, hormone levels, and prostate health. The women’s version is formulated to support hormonal imbalance and discomforts related to perimenopause and menopause.
- NAD+ — NAD+ is a coenzyme that’s required for essential biological processes, including energy creation, regulating circadian rhythms, and maintaining healthy DNA. Our supply of NAD+ declines as we age. Read, Can Elysium’s “Basis Pill” Really Make You Younger?
Mind you, this list names the fewest number of supplements I’ve taken at any given time since I began supplementing in earnest some 40 years ago.
The reason for this is homeostasis and hormesis.
Homeostasis refers to the ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. It is involved in the maintenance of the constant internal environment which includes the function of kidney, liver, skin, etc.
A simple example of homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain an internal temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, whatever the temperature outside. The body maintains homeostasis for many factors in addition to temperature. For instance, the concentration of various ions in your blood must be kept steady, along with pH and the concentration of glucose.
Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. The philosopher Nietzsche was onto something when he said,
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
Dennis Buckley writes that some of the key benefits and categories of hormesis that have been observed in the scientific literature include:
- Healthy immune cell proliferation
- Enhanced tissue repair
- Disease/Injury Resistance
- Healthy Aging/Longevity
OK, but what do these two principles of homeostasis and hormesis have to do with my supplements?
I periodically stop taking supplements so that I can disrupt homeostasis and be challenged by hormesis.
I don’t want my body to get used to a particular set of supplements, so I disrupt its tendency to become complacent by cycling in and out of supplements. Not only does this keep homeostasis from setting in, but it keeps my body’s innate antioxidant, immune and other systems from becoming complacent due to exogenous factors (the supplements) introduced to amplify endogenous (internal) mechanisms.
An apt example is antioxidants.
Our body naturally produces antioxidants to deal with free radicals. Given that free radical damage is thought to be a fundamental reason we age, antioxidant supplements are made to help us prevent free radicals; however, if we took so many antioxidants supplements that they entirely eliminated free radicals, our body’s would become less able to naturally make their own antioxidants.
Two other examples: thyroid medication and testosterone hormone supplementation.
If you take too much thyroid medication, your thyroid will stop producing T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), the main thyroid hormones. If you take too much testosterone, your testes will stop making it.
My current list of supplements will inevitably grow as I decide what I want to achieve with them. Stay tuned for that.
When you’re about to choose supplements for yourself, remember these five things:
- The supplements you need are wholly dependent on what you need or want.
- You may already know what you want, but you may need lab work or a visit to your doctors or a genetic test to determine what you need.
- Once you have a desired result in mind, do some poking around to find out if supplements can help (Google and PubMed), which have scientific backing (PubMed and Examine.com) and which brands are best (Labdoor).
- Cycle in and out of supplement taking. I’m unaware of some verified cycle regarding the ideal amount of time on and off supplements. I typically stick to a schedule of three months on, one month off, unless there’s a health issue that needs to be managed, in which case I’ll stay on the supplement longer and off it shorter.
- If you’re overwhelmed by all the choices and are unaware of specific supplements would be good for you, I suggest you consider some basic, all around supplements, such as one or more of these:
Hope this was helpful. If it was, please share.