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What I Tell My Patients About Supplement Quality

Your naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, or nutritionist has recommended you start taking supplements to give your health a boost. You’re on a budget and you’re trying to figure out how to get a good deal. You’re a bargain shopper, and you want to find the best deal.

Here’s why it might not be worth it to bargain shop with supplements:

If your supplements contain cheap or low dose versions of the nutrients, you’re probably wasting your money.

You want to take a high quality, professional supplement, not sawdust that’s been shoved into a capsule. At best, poor quality supplements are filled with cheap fillers like wheat, corn, or soy. At worst, they’re filled with something toxic that could harm you.

Certain forms of vitamins, like calcium and magnesium, are better absorbed in different forms.

Cheaper supplements may not be effective treatment. It’s so important to talk to a doctor who knows what YOU need, because what you’ll need is unique to you.

Some nutrients are harmful in high doses.

A few examples of supplements where you can have “too much of a good thing”:
Iron: too much iron is inflammatory—if you don’t need it, don’t take it! A quick blood test will tell us if you’re low in iron.
Vitamin A: Can harm an unborn baby if mom takes too high of a dose.
Folic Acid: Can be harmful if you have a MTHFR gene variation.s


Here are some of the most common things you’ll hear me telling my patients about supplements:

1.  Since these are OILS, they can go rancid. Some people prefer fish oil in the capsule form because let's face it, fish burps are the worst! But, if it's inside a capsule, it can be hard to tell if the oil has gone rancid. Do the whiff test--stick your nose inside the bottle,  and if it smells like rancid oil/bad fish, replace it. If you’ve had it for a year, it's expired.

2. Fish oil supplements will concentrate heavy metals and other contaminants. Make sure you are using a high quality brand that tests for contamination.

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and has to be taken with fat in order to be absorbed in the gut. Are you taking your Vitamin D with meals high in healthy fats? If not, consider buying a Vitamin D already in a fat soluble base. Check the label and look to see if it already contains an oil- MCT is the oil most commonly used.

Are they a waste of money?
Well...it depends. If your health is great and your diet is rich in a variety of plant and animal products that are organic, local, and seasonal, and your digestion is on point, then you probably don't need a multivitamin.
If your diet is kind of healthy, you are vegan or vegetarian, you're pregnant or breastfeeding, or you have digestive problems that affect your ability to absorb nutrients--you may benefit from a multivitamin.

Cheap multivitamins (Centrum, Costco brand, TJs...) often have SO little nutrient levels--honestly, you're just wasting your money. Don't  even bother!

*Make sure your multivitamin has "methylated folate", and NOT folic acid. The newest research shows that many people have a decreased ability to utilize folic acid, and it may be harmful to have too much. If a supplement contains folic acid, it is generally poor quality. The reputable brands know to use folate (you may see it as MTHF on the label).

Be careful when buying herbs. ONLY buy from high quality herb companies.
You want to make sure you are taking the correctly identified herb in the right form that has been harvested at the right time and extracted in the right way that wasn’t grown with pesticides or herbicides. Some herbs are more potent when in a certain form like a capsule, tincture, or tea. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about good quality companies and what forms of each herb are best for you.

I hope this encourages you to take your supplement quality a little more seriously. Don’t waste your money, and get the most medicinal value you can out of what you take!

(I give all my patients access to my online supplement dispensary, found here. Everything I recommend from this site is professional grade and high quality. Current patients can receive 10% off of all purchases!)

Dr. Caitlin Fanning Dr. Caitlin Fanning, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and women’s health specialist at Pacific Coast Integrative Health in Santa Cruz, California. She provides compassionate and comprehensive care to patients of all ages and conditions with a focus on women’s health, hormone health, nutrition, stress management, fertility, and preconception care.

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