The skinny on supplements

Will it help your body or hurt your wallet? photo: treasure / flickr

In the last few years, there has been a lot of controversy around the benefits and efficacy of taking supplemental vitamins. An argument is that they provide no additional health benefits or can even be deleterious.

As a naturopathic doctor, supplemental vitamins are one of the many tools in my practice, and I have found them to make impactful changes in my patients’ health. Supplements and herbs are powerful and have their place in the medical field as alternatives to medications with high side effects.

Here are a few points about safely and effectively taking herbal and nutritional supplements.


As humans, we have mastered the art of innovation unlike any other creature on the planet, but often our innovations have harmful effects on our world. Many medical advances have saved our suffering from acute diseases that cut our lives short. The issues we face now are extremely different from those of our ancestors. With increased toxic exposures in our air, water and food, chronic diseases have increased, making it necessary to work extra hard to stay healthy. Supplements assist in maintaining a healthy nutrient status, and can support detoxification from soil degradation and heavy metals in our water supply.


There is extensive media coverage surrounding the next new drug or supplement for just about every health concern. The advertising is tempting — take a pill and your concerns disappear. Unfortunately, whether it is a pharmaceutical drug or a nutritional/herbal supplement, no pill can be a substitute for a healthy diet, environment, and lifestyle. When we have physical health concerns, they are often signs of underlying issues, and it is best to address core issues directly.


I often have patients walk in with a long list of supplements, and I commend them for taking a health initiative, but I am also happy to help them understand what supplements best suit their personal health goals. It can be draining both energetically and financially to take a handful of pills at each meal. It is often more effective for the health of you and your pocketbook to seek a professional to help you determine your best regimen.


Just because something is naturally derived does not make it safe. Many of our strong pharmaceutical drugs are actually derived from plants. For example, digoxin, a powerful drug still used for people affected by irregular heartbeats, stems from the digitalis plant. Herbal formulas are incredibly healing, but should be managed under professional care to minimize potential interactions with other herbs and medications.

In the last 10 years, calcium supplementation has been recommended to prevent osteoporosis. Recent research finds that the recommended supplemental dosage was too high at 1,000 milligrams and was causing arterial plaque formation and cardiovascular disease. The current recommendations have been lowered to 500 milligrams and include complementary nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin K, and other minerals.


You are what you consume, but you are more so what you absorb. This past year, a study emerged stating that a multivitamin has no health benefits, and often people ask me if we just pass everything through our urine.

I want to stress the importance of good quality vitamins because there are different chemical forms of nutrients with various absorption levels. Vitamin B12, for example, has three common forms — cyanocobalamin, hydroxycobalamin, and methylcobalamin. Cyanocobalamin is the least absorbed form and methylcobalamin is the most easily absorbed by the body. It is best to take vitamins with bio-available nutrients so your body can easily assimilate them.

With water-soluble vitamins like B vitamins, your body takes what it needs and excretes the excess. This is what changes the color of your urine. With fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D, E, K, and A, your body has the ability to store the excess for later use. For therapeutic doses, it is important to monitor blood levels of these nutrients to avoid toxicity.


In the end, your health is your absolute best investment. Because supplements are not as strongly regulated as pharmaceutical medications, you can potentially impose more harm than health. For example, I have seen generic fish oil supplements with added hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils are extremely harmful to our health, and it is counterintuitive to add them to a supplement geared toward providing healthy fats. Other fillers in supplements could include heavy metals.

In my practice, I use professional supplement lines that go through the same testing as pharmaceutical drugs. It is important to read labels for heavy metals, potential allergens, and other chemicals. In terms of bioavailability, less expensive supplements will also use less expensive ingredients that your body may be unable to properly assimilate.

I use supplements in my practice because they therapeutically create space for my patients to make the other more important changes in their diet and lifestyle. Over time, I try to minimize the amount of supplements they take and ensure we are truly targeting their individual needs.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities, and her practice is primarily focused on weight management, hormone imbalances and gastrointestinal conditions. E-mail: [email protected]