Over the last few years, many people have become aware of the benefits of supplementation. However, there has also been a backlash. For every paper showing the benefits of a supplement, there's another splashed across the headlines showing that supplements are 'bad'.
The question on everyone's mind: do supplements cause more harm than good? Or are these research papers exaggerated and biased in their findings?
There is no straightforward answer—the truth is, sometimes they can, and sometimes they don't. The difference lies in the quality, safety and appropriateness of each supplement. Let's look at some of the facts behind supplements as a health intervention.
Dangers of Over-Supplementation
If you are going to take an excessive dose of any nutrient, you will be potentially endangering yourself. Nutrients, herbs and other natural supplements are just like anything else—dose dependent.
A common nutrient that may be over-consumed is iron. Although many women do suffer from a deficiency, many others supplement without testing. The problem with this is that the symptoms of iron overload are almost identical to iron deficiency. By supplementing blindly, you may actually make yourself sicker.
Fat soluble vitamins are also easily consumed to toxic levels. That's because, unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat soluble vitamins are stored in the body. If you over-consume these vitamins, you will experience toxicity symptoms. In some cases, it can even lead to permanent injury and potential death.
With the rise of 'natural' alternatives, there has also been an increase in supplement companies. Some are genuine in their beliefs, and do their best to ensure the purity and safety of each supplement. However, for every good egg, there's at least ten rotten ones. These are companies that are more interested in making money.
Many of these unethical companies sell mega-dosage supplements that are well and truly above the recommended dosage range. They push the belief that natural is better, and high dosage is even more so. What they don't mention is that high doses put you at risk of toxicity levels, strain your liver and kidneys, and don't actually offer better than the researched therapeutic ranges.
Does this mean we should always avoid supplementing? Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Although nutrients can be toxic in high amounts, they are still necessary in healthy amounts. Even water can be over-consumed to the point of death, but that doesn't mean you should avoiding drinking an adequate amount each day!
Whole-Foods Versus Isolated Products
There's also the question of how whole a supplement is, and how natural. Ideally, you want a natural supplement, and in a whole-food form whenever possible.
Natural supplements are better absorbed by the body. However, they also carry less risk than artificial and isolated supplements.
Whole-food supplements also come with a host of other nutrients that aid you in absorbing the supplement. They also have antioxidants and other compounds that can protect you from potential side effects of the supplemented nutrient.
On the other hand, artificial and isolated supplements are often the problematic choice. Many of the research papers that damn supplements as dangerous are based on this type of supplement.
A commonly cited 'danger' is the supplementation of fat soluble vitamins as an antioxidant booster. That's because antioxidants are a balancing act—you want a variety of them in order to be healthy. If you consume a high dose of vitamin A or E, you might not protect your body very well. But if you consume a whole-food supplement that combines these vitamins with other protective vitamins and antioxidants, you just might get the benefit you're after.
Exaggeration of Claims
It's no secret that the media can exaggerate claims and headlines in order to grab your attention. When it comes to nutrition research, it's definitely a big issue.
They may imply that a causal link has been found between two factors, such as supplements and death, but the research paper itself only shows a link.
One such example is that there was a link found between use of multi-vitamins and risk of death. However, that is only one piece of the puzzle. The headline doesn't take into account that people might be using supplements to treat chronic illness, or increase energy during palliative care.
That is why it's important to remember that headlines are often not to be trusted. A quick search for the research paper may reveal a completely different story. In this case, supplements aren't the bad guy—simply the fall-guy that takes the blame for something they didn't actually do.
The Benefits of Supplementation
If you do choose a supplement that is natural, preferably whole, and suited to your needs, there are plenty of benefits to reap.
Supplementation is not designed to replace a balanced diet. However, if you are missing out on nutrients in your diet, it may protect you. Some people might have lower intakes of nutrients due to dietary choices, such as veganism. Others might need extra nutrients due to health conditions, such as Celiac disease.
Supplements can also help you during times when you might run a little short on nutrients. A common supplement to use during stressful periods is magnesium. Magnesium can calm the body and the nervous system, helping you to cope.
They may also help with recovery from illness and injury by replenishing stores. If you've injured yourself, you might consider using a fish oil supplement to boost your anti-inflammatory stores. If you've been unwell, zinc might be your go-to nutrient to rebuild your immune system.
Finally, for the elite athletes and competitors among us, supplementation might give you a competitive edge. Many research papers support the use of certain supplements in sporting disciplines. Many athletes will also swear by the effectiveness of their regime, even if science hasn't caught up with them yet.
Are Supplements Safe or Dangerous?
The truth is, they can be both. It all depends on how you use them. If you are using a supplement in a way that could lead you towards toxicity, of course it is dangerous. The same applies to using supplements that are not pure, artificially made or untested.
However, it is clear that sensible and safe supplementation practices can offer a variety of benefits. From aiding in recovery, to reversing deficiencies and boosting performance, there is something for almost everyone.
You may not be certain about what supplements may be safe to use or how to choose one. In this case, your safest bet is to consult your qualified natural health practitioner for guidance and testing.