For thousands of years, herbal medicine was the predominant form of health care on the planet. For many people, it still is. In our switch to modern medicine, much of that ancient wisdom was sadly lost, rejected as the superstition of primitive people. Recent research is proving, however, that our ancestors were smarter than they’ve been credited. It turns out that many of the benefits of traditional herbal remedies are being confirmed by modern science. People use and rely on alternative and complementary therapies more now than ever before.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA), a dietary supplement is defined as any product that is meant to supplement the diet. Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Common supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, and other nutrients. Supplements are available without a prescription and come in a variety of forms such as tablets, capsules, liquids, and powders.
Who Can Benefit From Taking Supplements?
More than half of all Americans use dietary supplements. So who can benefit most from taking supplements? The short answer is that, at some point, just about everyone. However, there are certain groups of people who may find supplements to be of more critical importance.
Vegans & Vegetarians
Despite what meat lovers might tell you, you can easily meet all your daily nutritional requirements on an organic, plant-based diet. The one possible exception is vitamin B12, as animal-based foods are the primary source of this vitamin. There are plenty of plant-based foods fortified with B12, but I advise caution, as these foods tend to be heavily processed. A vegan B12 supplement like B12 Blend can help fill this gap.
Pregnant Women & Nursing Mothers
It’s no surprise that growing a human being inside your body increases your nutritional requirements. There’s a number of pregnancy-specific supplement blends on the market today, but a few of the main nutrients you should pay special attention to are folate, vitamin D, and iron.
As we age, hormonal changes make getting the right vitamins and minerals increasingly difficult. Bone loss becomes an issue, especially for women. Supplementing with vitamin D and calcium can help reduce the effects. Vitamin B12 deficiency can leave seniors at risk for dementia. A quality B12 supplement can provide the nutrition they need. Other good supplements for elders include omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and probiotics.
Those With Absorption Issues
Malabsorption is when your body can’t absorb nutrients properly. Certain medical conditions can cause or worsen malabsorption. Likewise, certain medications, including tetracycline, antacids, and obesity medications, can cause malabsorption. If you have digestive disorders, serious illness, harmful organisms, or are undergoing aggressive medical therapies, adding extra vitamins and minerals with supplements may help you reach your daily recommended requirements.
The Top 6 Dietary Supplements
So what are the best dietary supplements? That depends. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of dietary supplements, and each has its uses. The best supplements for you depends on your needs, lifestyle, and physiology. This is a general list of the supplements most people could benefit from based on observations I've made over the course of my career.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, making up nearly 2 percent of total body weight. Globally, a staggering 3.5 billion people are at risk for calcium deficiency. Many of these are among the elderly. As we age, we tend to lose bone mass. A calcium supplement may help make up the difference. I recommend IntraCal™, a formula that combines calcium orotate and magnesium orotate to ensure optimal absorption. 
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is involved in numerous physiological processes and is particularly important to your skeletal, immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems. Your body can produce this nutrient when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, our society spends more time indoors now than at any point in history. Complicating this is our over-reliance on sunscreen when we are outdoors.
We’re so worried about skin cancer that we’ve become overly vigilant against the sun, blocking out all exposure to sunshine and depleting our vitamin D levels. Some studies estimate that as many as 77 percent of Americans live with some form of vitamin D deficiency, most without even realizing it. According to the Harvard School of Health, one billion people worldwide have low levels of this nutrient. The best way to solve this is to spend more time outside in the sun, but failing that, a vitamin D supplement like Suntrex® D3 can help.
Iodine deficiency is one of the most common health issues on the planet. According to the WHO, over two billion people worldwide are iodine deficient. Of these, as many as 50 million live with severe repercussions of iodine deficiency, such as brain damage. Iodine is crucial to the proper functioning of the thyroid and hormonal health. Overall, a quality iodine supplement can help you get the iodine you need.
4. Vitamin B12
Do you feel sluggish and sleepy during the day? You may be one of the estimated two-fifths of Americans who live with a vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is required for healthy red blood cells, brain function, and DNA synthesis. A deficiency can cause anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, and loss of appetite. Left unchecked, it can lead to difficulty walking, poor balance, confusion, and, in extreme cases, dementia.
Your body, especially your gut, is home to colonies of beneficial bacteria. We call this your microbiota, and it can influence your health in significant ways. It helps support digestion and your immune system. A healthy microbiota can even affect mental health.[13, 15] It’s important to keep your good bacteria healthy or the bad ones might take over. A good probiotic supplement can help keep your microbiota strong and your body in balance.
6. Weight Loss Supplements
More than any other supplement on this list, be cautious with weight loss supplements. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Weight loss doesn’t come from pills, it comes from hard work, willpower, and long-term lifestyle changes.
That said, there are some nutrients that, when combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise, can help a sluggish metabolism. These metabolism-boosting supplements can help give you an extra edge as part of an overall healthy lifestyle but will do absolutely nothing if you maintain bad eating habits and poor lifestyle choices.
How Safe Are Dietary Supplements?
In most cases, dietary supplements are safe when used as directed. However, it’s important to consult a trusted health care provider before starting any new supplement regimen.
Possible Side Effects
Some supplements can have strong effects on the body. While normally beneficial, these effects may interact with medicines in unexpected ways.
For example, vitamin K helps blood clot. As a direct result, it will reduce the efficacy of blood thinners. That’s not to say vitamin K is dangerous, it just fills a specific purpose. If you’re prone to excessive bleeding, vitamin K can be very useful, but it’s much less so if you’re trying to thin your blood.
Vitamin K is just one example. Every supplement has potential side effects depending on serving size, your physiology, and interactions with any other herbs and medicines in your system. Be extra cautious about taking supplements if you are pregnant or nursing, and never start a child on supplements without professional approval.
In the vast majority of cases, toxicity only occurs when supplements are used recklessly. Never exceed the recommended serving size. While excess amounts of some supplements, like vitamin C, will simply flush out of your system, others can build up to hazardous levels. For example, your body has no means of ridding itself of excess iron, and an overdose can lead to potentially fatal iron toxicity.
Natural vs. Synthetic
Be aware of the difference between synthetic and natural supplements. Each is exactly what it sounds like. Natural supplements are made using ingredients drawn straight from natural and plant-based sources. Synthetic supplements are manufactured with lab-made ingredients and chemicals. They are made to mimic the effect of natural vitamins but generally don’t perform as well in the human body.
How to Ensure Quality
When buying a supplement, safety and quality should be high on your list of criteria. So how can you make sure that the supplement you buy will deliver? There are a couple of ways to verify quality before you buy.
Only buy supplements from a respected company. Look for a company that has been around at least a few years. Does the company offer a money-back guarantee if you’re unsatisfied? An organization that has confidence in its products won’t hesitate to stand behind them.
Online reviews have taken a lot of the trial and error out of shopping for supplements. Chances are, someone, or sometimes hundreds of someones, used that supplement and wrote about their experience. Customers aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with any substandard product. If the company doesn’t provide reviews, that's a big red flag.
Read the reviews on the supplement company’s own site, as well as third-party sites like natural health blogs. Once you’ve used a product, pay it forward and leave a review of your own to help others.
Transparency in Sourcing
Where do the ingredients in your supplements come from? How are they processed? Supplements from shady companies tend to be bulk-harvested and processed with very little quality control, resulting in poor quality supplements. In worst case scenarios, bad manufacturing practices can turn supplements into poison. The FDA routinely investigates supplement producers for selling contaminated products.
Read the supplement company’s website. Are they clear about sourcing and manufacturing? If not, call their customer service and ask. If they don't make it easy to contact them, that’s another big red flag.
Look for responsibly-sourced, GMO-free ingredients. Do they test all ingredients to verify purity and screen for mold or other toxins? Are the products made in America? Make sure the manufacturing facility is FDA registered and follows Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).
Read the Label
The nutritional information on a supplement label is typically divided into two sections — active ingredients and other ingredients. Active ingredients are what supports your health. Other ingredients are the inactive parts of a supplement. This often includes dyes, fillers, flavors, additives, and anti-caking agents. Not all other ingredients are bad, but a good rule of thumb is the fewer, the better.
Supplements Are the Spackle in the House of Good Health
No supplement is a substitute for a healthy diet. A well-designed meal plan with a balance of essential nutrients will do more good than all the pills, powders, tablets, and capsules in the world. What supplements can do is fill the gaps in that plan. Think of a balanced diet as the foundation of the house of good health. Supplements are the spackle that fills any gaps, cracks, and holes. Just remember that you can’t build a house out of spackle.
Along with a healthy diet, you need regular exercise, effective stress management, plenty of rest, and a positive mental outlook. Supplements won’t work miracles, but they are one tool you can use to achieve a happy, healthy life.
- Phua, D. H., A. Zosel, and K. Heard. "Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicine Toxicities—when to Anticipate Them and How to Manage Them." International Journal of Emergency Medicine 2.2 (2009): 69–76. PMC. Web. 10 Oct. 2017.
- "Should You Take Dietary Supplements? A Look at Vitamins, Minerals, Botanicals and More." NIH News In Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Aug 2017. Web. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
- Pawlak, Roman, et al. "How Prevalent Is Vitamin (B12) deficiency among Vegetarians?" Nutrition Reviews 71.2 (2013): 110-17. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "Micronutrients for Older Adults." Linus Pauling Institute. Oregon State University. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "Malabsorption." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- Kumssa, Diriba B., et al. "Dietary Calcium and Zinc Deficiency Risks Are Decreasing but Remain Prevalent." Scientific Reports 5 (2015): 10974. PMC. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- Heaney, R.P., et al. "Calcium Nutrition and Bone Health in the Elderly." Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 36, no. 5, Nov. 1982, pp. 986–1013. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- Higdon, Jane, et al. "Vitamin D." Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
- Ginde, Adit A., Mark C. Liu, and Carlos A. Camargo. "Demographic Differences and Trends of Vitamin D Insufficiency in the US Population, 1988-2004." Archives of Internal Medicine, 169.6 (2009): 626-32. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "Vitamin D and Health." The Nutrition Source. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "Sustaining the Elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD)." World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- McBride, Judy. "B12 Deficiency May Be More Widespread Than Thought." USDA ARS. USDA.gov, 2 Aug. 2000. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "The Benefits of Probiotics Bacteria." Harvard Health. Harvard Medical School, 7 June 2017. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- Mohammadi, Ali Akbar. "The Effects of Probiotics on Mental Health and Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal Axis: A Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Trial in Petrochemical Workers." Nutritional Neuroscience 19.9 (2016): 387-95. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know." NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 17 June 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
- "FDA Investigates Elevated Lead Levels Linked to Ton Shen Health/Life Rising Dietary Supplements." U S Food and Drug Administration. US Department of Health and Human Services, 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2017.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.