Americans love supplements! Roughly half of us use them. We spent an estimated $35 billion on supplements last year, and that number is consistently climbing.

In one sense that’s a good thing: it indicates we are interested in being healthy, and are trying to do something positive.

But on the other hand, are we getting our money’s worth? Are all those supplements doing any good? Or are they perhaps doing harm? How can we know? Are we using supplements as an excuse to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle?

I’m not a fan of the US Food and Drug Administration, but I do believe we need to use science rather than hype to make decisions on what we put into our bodies. Anecdotes don’t convince me. Scientific research has its limitations, but it’s still the best we have in answering the question, “Is Product X safe and effective?” The FDA is, right now, the best we have – and they don’t control the supplement industry except when they make specific statements claiming to treat or cure disease.

Consumer Labs is a private company that does offer some independent evaluation for the plethora of nutritional products available. It independently verifies such information as accurate labeling, product content, and other quality measures. If you regularly use supplements, this is one source I recommend you check before making product decisions. (And by the way, I get no benefit from this recommendation.)

And just because something is, or claims to be, natural does NOT mean it is safe! Many if not most herbal substances have side effects just as significant, if not more so, than prescription medications. Drug-herb and herb-herb interactions can also be dangerous, even life-threatening.

Here are the criteria I use in choosing whether to recommend (or agree with my patient using) a given product or supplement:

  1. Scientific research. Is there good-quality unbiased research supporting the benefits and safety of this product or supplement? We will probably never have all the data we want on any product, but there needs to be some science backing any recommendation. Anecdotal reports don’t help here at all! The research must involve large groups, preferably randomized and placebo-controlled.
  2. Plausible claims. If the claims sound too good to be true, they probably are! The more wonderful the product claims to be, the stronger the scientific research must be to back up those claims.
  3. It Makes Sense. A healthy diet is always the best place to get the nutrition you need. But there are certain medical conditions where supplements make much more sense than others. Supplements are just that – designed to SUPPLEMENT a healthy diet, not take its place.

Here are the supplements I take, and those I recommend to my patients:

  1. JuicePlus+ – “fruits and vegetables in a capsule.” It’s what I take personally, and recommend first to those who ask. It’s the best all-around supplement I have found. (In full disclosure, I am an affiliate of this company – only because I believe in the product.)
  2. Fish oil/omega 3s – no specific brand. I believe the research supports the likely benefits for most people for cardiovascular health and brain health.
  3. Inositol – either myo-inositol or d-chiro-inositol for women with PCOS or ovulatory problems. Some exciting research supports improved ovulatory function in women taking these supplements. Two possible brands are Pregnitude or Chiral Balance (similar, not identical).
  4. St John’s Wort – research supports it may be as helpful for mild to moderate depression as many antidepressant medications.
  5. Multi-vitamins: I lend my very cautious support to taking a general multi-vitamin daily (not needed if already taking JuicePlus+). Evidence is mildly supportive that men, especially, may have a decreased risk of cancer in general if taking multi-vitamins.
  6. Green tea – the brewed kind ideally. Long-term use is associated with a decreased risk of many diseases including many cancers, and mental alertness is also increased in those who use it daily.

As you can see, my list is short. I can’t encourage people to spend money without strong scientific support indicating that money is likely to be well spent. There may be other supplements with adequate scientific research behind them, and I’m open to a larger list in the future. A supplement has to do a lot to get on my list!

Your turn: What supplements are you taking? Why are you doing so? Are you satisfied that you are getting your money’s worth? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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