There are entire stores and websites dedicated to supplements. Almost every result imaginable has been promised at one point by a supplement or system. Do supplements work or are they just snake oil?
One fundamental concept to remember is supplementation is effective when used in conjunction with a strong nutritional base. They are not a replacement for a poor diet. Taking many supplements but eating terribly is most likely just a waste of money and you will obtain your desired results. Some of the benefit of supplementation include:
A major benefit of supplements come from the convenience factor. There are times when it would be difficult or impossible to consume the desired nutrients. Protein powders are an example can quickly increase the amount of protein in a meal by either mixing it in or having it with the meal. It can be added to a smoothie or oatmeal to make a higher protein breakfast.
2. Obtain Adequate Levels
Some micronutrients are very difficult to obtain adequate levels from diet alone. Omega-3 fatty acids are very difficult to obtain from just your diet. You would have to consume multiple servings of fatty fish each week to even approach adequate levels. An omega-3 supplement can easily reach recommend levels of EPA and DHA.
3. Restore Nutrient Deficiency
If you have a nutrient deficiency, supplements may be able to help return levels to recommend levels. An example of a common deficiency is Vitamin D even though your body can be produced it. Your body can make Vitamin D from sun exposure but many people live too far from the equator and don’t spend enough time outside with exposed skin to produce adequate levels.
Make sure to discuss with your doctor about any and all supplements you are considering taking. Bloodwork may be required to make sure you don’t consume too much of a supplement. Remember more is not always better.
To answer the initial question of if supplements work…Yes, supplements work. But there are “supplements” which are actually just snake oil and do not produce the claimed results. Determining if a supplement actually works or not can be difficult.
The challenging part of supplementation is there are heavily researched products which have clearly shown effectiveness. There are products which have a long history of use but lower amounts of research or conclusive evidence. There are newer products which may or may not work in the ways promised but there has not been enough time or resources to properly study them. There are also products which have been clearly shown to be ineffective or minimally effective but have continued use because of marketing or even old wife’s tales. How do you know which supplements, if any, should you be consuming and at what levels?
Every person has differing opinions on the amount of evidence or research necessary to make claims on the effectiveness of supplements. Some people only want to consider large, double-blind, placebo control studies in human. Other people will accept observational studies. Some people will be fine extrapolating animal studies to humans (some studies cannot be done in humans for ethical, financial, or other reasons). Some results in animals appear to have similar results in human but some results in humans don’t translate to humans. There are some people who just want to understand the proposed mechanism of a supplement and are willing to try them.
Ultimately the level of evidence required is a personal decision and it should be discussed with a medical professional. As mentioned above, make sure to speak with your doctor about any and all supplements you are taking or considering taking.
General Rules of Thumb for Supplementation
You need to understand the reason you want to take a supplement. Is it out of convenience or to restore a deficiency or another reason? If you don’t know why you are taking a supplement, you cannot know if it is having an effect or not.
2. Conflicting Ingredients
Check for conflicting ingredients with the supplement. Some ingredients block or reduce the absorption of other ingredients. Calcium is an example of a mineral which is important to take but can reduce the absorption of zinc, iron, and manganese. Taking them together would be a waste of money and not produce the desired results.
3. Proper Dosage
Many supplements will use proprietary blends which means they have to list the ingredients but do not have to tell you how much of each individual component is in a serving. This can help prevent a competitor from just copying a product the company developed. However, it can also be a way for company to put a small amount of an ingredient so they can list it on the label but the level many be so small to not be beneficial. If there is a proprietary blend, it is impossible to know how much of the supplement you are actually consuming.
4. Correct Form
Certain supplements can be in different forms. Some forms have better absorption rates, different toxicity levels, and/or effectiveness. Make sure the proper form of ingredient is listed on the label.
Continuing with the correct form, make sure to understand if the supplement needs to be taken with another compound. Some spices can increase the absorption of supplements, some need be taken with fats or food, some need to be taken on an empty stomach. If you don’t consume the supplement in the optimal way, you risk wasting money and missing out on the benefits of the supplement.
A supplement can list all the items, in a proper form, and correct amounts on the label. But how do you know what is listed on the label is actually there and that there are no other impurities in it. Look for cGMP on the container. cGMP stands for current Good Manufacturing Practice which are guidelines of FDA.
Supplements can be both good and bad. Make sure you understand what you are consuming, why you are consuming it, and the risks associated with consuming it. Otherwise, you risk wasting your money or worse damaging your health.