How to Choose the Best Supplements for You (And What to Avoid)

With recent trends towards naturopathic medicine, supplements have gotten a huge popularity boost. Why take a prescription when you can get what you need from diet change and vitamins? While I’m a big fan of medical personalization and know that there are certain supplements that can support general health, most people take a boatload of supplements when they probably don’t need them. Add to that the fact that cheap supplements with fillers like sawdust that you can pick up at the drugstore are most people’s first line of defense and supplements can easily become more harmful than helpful.

So, how do you know if you need a supplement and where can you get the best ones for you? Let’s dive in.

Formulas: Who’s Regulating Supplements?

Patients and the general public have a notion that because supplements are over the counter and “natural,” that they’re healthier and safer carte blanche—but that’s not the truth. Part of the reason they’re not is because there are no federal standards for supplements. There is no one governmental or third-party organization that regulates non-prescription medications, so you can’t be certain that the vitamin C you grab off the shelf is active and useful for your body.

There’s also a difference between the professional formulas only your physician or practitioners can buy and what is on the shelves at the local drugstore chain. Many of these professional companies have created their own quality control division, and test each of their products to ensure a therapeutic benefit that is free of toxins and chemicals. The majority of them will also share their quality standards with the consumer—like how much mercury is allowed in the fish oil before they release it from the manufacturing plant.

But ultimately, those judgement calls are up to the company, making it important to find one that displays transparency and will be honest about their standards. There are a few companies who have created quality standards for over-the-counter supplements, making it easier to determine safe and accurate labeling (anything with a USP Verified Mark has been tested to ensure that what’s on the label is actually what’s in the supplement bottle).

Ingredients: Do They Matter?

Supplements often contain both active and inactive ingredients, and it’s important to be aware of the full ingredient lists for both. If you just lock in the “active” ingredient (like magnesium), you might miss the fact that the inactive ingredients contain fillers like gluten, dairy, sugar or something else your body doesn’t need.

When someone brings in a supplement into my office, I first scan the bottle for the form of the vitamin or nutrient. For example, in an adrenal support complex, a few different active herbs and nutrients could be used. I’m always scanning to find which herbs and if the active part of the plant is being used in that particular formula.

For example, with the ever popular ashwagandha: The root is the best part of the plant to use for its adaptogenic properties so if a formula doesn’t specifically say root, then that supplement isn’t working for you the way you want it to.

After I look at the active ingredient, I scan for the inactive, or other ingredients list. That’s where you’ll find what the capsule is made of, what fillers a company puts in to take up space, what dyes they used to make the pill a homogenous color (‘cause herbs look like dirt and who wants to take a dirt-colored capsule?), and any added sugar and preservatives. These are just as important as the active ingredient, since they can be hiding unnecessary components that you don’t need to be ingesting daily.

What a capsule is made of can make or break a supplement too. I prefer capsules that are vegetarian friendly, which is typically derived from cellulose. They’re also generally hypoallergenic, so I can confidently recommend them to patients with autoimmune conditions, environmental sensitivities, or food allergies, and not worry about them negatively reacting to the capsule itself.

In general, vegetarian capsules are more expensive to manufacture and can break more easily. That’s why many companies with lower price tags will instead use a tablet form or a cheaper, synthetic capsule. Neither of these take into account the supplement as a whole though, and can make them less usable for our bodies.

Where Should You Buy Supplements?

As someone who has done a lot of vetting of supplement companies, asked the hard questions about quality, and read the ingredient labels to see what things are inside the capsule, I have to say that you should buy them from someone you trust did the same thing, or do your own research. Almost anyone will sell you a supplement at this point, from your friend or family’s network marketing company to your local grocery store and Amazon.

What’s most important is that you buy from someone you can trust knows what they’re talking about, and is transparent enough to answer your questions. You’ll find a lot of people out there wanting to make a quick buck, but you’ll also find a lot of good people and companies who want to make a difference—and that’s who you should spend your money with and trust with your health.