When it comes to supplements, it can be hard to tell the difference between ones that live up to the hype from ones that are overrated. While vitamins and minerals are crucial to our overall well-being, taking them in the form of supplements may cause health issues, especially if you are combining too many.
Here’s a guide to knowing which supplements are worth trying and which ones to stay away from, according to experts.
When Is Taking Supplements Beneficial?
A general guideline is to view food as the primary form of medicine.
So much of what we eat these days, like processed and packaged foods, is devoid of healthy nutrients, but it is all available in the supermarket, Dr. Gary Soffer, MD, Yale Medicine allergy-immunologist and Assistant Professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains. Most supplements are derived from food sources, so it makes sense for food to be the main source of vitamins and nutrients.
Supplements should be exactly what their name says—they are ‘supplemental.’ This means that if you can’t get it in your diet, you should supplement your diet with them. The perfect example of this is vitamin D, which has very limited food sources, Dr. Soffer adds.
Related: 40% of Us Are Deficient in Vitamin D, So We Found the 11 Best Vitamin D Supplements
“Most people can get the vitamins and minerals they need directly from their food (which increases the importance of eating a balanced, comprehensive diet),” says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici MD, PhD, the Clearing Chief Medical Officer. “That being said, certain groups of people may want to consider dietary supplements.”
If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, for example, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough folic acid (vitamin B9). Vitamin B12 can help vegetarians who may not be ingesting enough of it naturally. And along with aging comes higher risks of osteoporosis and nutritional imbalances, so if you are past 50, you might consider vitamin D and calcium, Dr. Hascalovici states. Each person has their own unique nutritional needs, which is why supplements are not really a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.
Supplements To Avoid
Pure supplements taken in appropriate doses are generally safe, but in high doses, they can be very dangerous—especially some of the fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin E.
The biggest cause for concern is often not the supplement itself, but rather the commercial products being sold on the shelves, Dr. Soffer states. It is important to know that in the U.S., regulations on how those supplements are produced, marketed and distributed are limited, which has led to several cases of people being harmed by over-the-counter products.
There could be specific circumstances where these supplements are advisable, depending on a person’s unique nutritional needs. But in other cases, these vitamins are better avoided or ingested from more natural sources, according to Dr. Hascalovici.
Often touted as good for the bones, calcium ingested as a supplement has been linked to a higher risk of heart attacks. As scientists learn more about calcium supplementation, it appears that it may be wiser to ingest calcium through foods rather than as stand-alone supplements. Even if you are concerned about osteoporosis, it’s good to double-check with a medical professional to ensure calcium supplementation is the right answer for you.
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Ginkgo biloba is natural and often viewed as beneficial for memory and blood flow. However, ginkgo biloba can interfere with many common medications, including drugs for mood disorders, diabetes and pain, sometimes with very negative consequences. People with epilepsy should generally steer clear of ginkgo biloba, as it can lead to seizures.
This makes vitamin A, and can, unfortunately, be overdone. In one study, researchers found that among men, beta-carotene supplementation was associated with a higher risk of lung cancer. Better to get your beta-carotene and vitamin A from sweet potatoes, carrots and other bright veggies.
While iron supplements can benefit people with anemia, the usefulness of copper and iron supplementation drops off rapidly for women after the age of 50. In fact, these supplements may actually raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s advised to avoid them after 50 or so. Copper and iron can be found in some meats, leafy greens, beans and nuts.
Related: What are the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency?
Even for these more popular supplements, it’s always best to talk to your doctor or nutritionist before starting. That being said, Dr. Hascalovici recommends the following supplements.
You’ve probably heard it before, and it’s not wrong: Almost all of us could use a little more vitamin D. If getting more sunlight isn’t for you, consider taking a vitamin D supplement to help ward off depression, fatigue and issues with bone health, digestion and even the aging process. You can also boost your vitamin D by eating eggs, dairy and mushrooms.
Generally, you can take vitamin D once a day, but speak with your doctor or nutritionist about the specific amount of vitamin D that’s best for you, as it is possible to take too much of it.
These vitamins influence a lot in the body, from liver function to stress and mood stabilization. A lack of it may lead to fatigue, weakness, cramping, anemia, skin cracking and more. Vegetarians and vegans should ensure they’re ingesting enough B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12.
Nutritional yeast is a great source of vitamin B12 and salmon contains it, too. And while the B vitamins are water-soluble, it is possible to overdo them over time, which can result in nerve problems.
This supplement supports your thyroid and can help stabilize serotonin, which can impact your moods. It can also support your blood pressure and help control inflammation. If you’re seeking more magnesium, then oat bran, wheat germ, fluffy greens and nuts are your friends. Supplements are recommended for some people, but not everyone.
Dr. Soffer doesn’t typically recommend supplements. “As an Integrative Medicine physician, I am always hesitant to add any more pills to my patients’ regimen—this includes things like supplements they may deem as more natural,” says Dr. Soffer. “I look to the most traditional ways people stayed healthy, so in my office, we always start by focusing on a healthy and nutritious diet. Often, with the right diet, patients don’t need any additional pills.”
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