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Reading Supplement Labels to Learn Their True Benefits

Supplement facts label on an open bottle
December 22, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Wow, do I really need all of those?” That’s often my patients’ reaction when I tell them how many supplements I consider essential. I’ll explain why they’re so important, but that’s not the whole story. When you’re looking at 10 different multi-vitamin formulations online or on a drug store shelf, it’s hard to know which is good, bad or best. So, I’ll also show you how to decide which one is best for you.

Why supplements are essential

Protecting your health isn’t easy—it takes a lot of work. So many battles to fight—against environmental pollution, stress, a sedentary office or personal life, lack of exercise, dangerous foods—the list goes on.

We’re not built to handle all of that un-natural stuff.

What if one of our Cro-Magnon evolutionary forebears—let’s call her Cromelia—showed up in our time?

Cromelia has never experienced polluted air, so there’s a good chance she’d soon have heart palpitations, a coughing fit, unstoppable sneezing, nausea, burning eyes, headache, trembling limbs.

That’s just for breathing and looking around, not to mention the severe stress of finding yourself 30,000 years into the future.

Cromelia has never known processed food, so if she grabs a bite at a local fast food joint, she’ll soon have severe gastric discomfort—more nausea, bloating, or heartburn. And if she survives the night, she’ll wake to a morning of all of the above, plus diarrhea, constipation, or both.

Our bodies haven’t changed much, but our environment and food sure have—very much for the worse.

The result is a culture of chronic illness—diabetes and its precursor, prediabetes, affecting more than 100 million U.S. adults, for example.

Supplements—maintaining and restoring health

If we had to pick Public Health Enemy #1, we’d have a tie—diet and lifestyle.

Bring on the supplements to fight the diet battle, because even a healthy diet can’t deliver all the nutrients you need.

Over-farming depletes minerals and other nutrient levels in our foods. And several key nutrients are lost to pesticides and herbicides, then reduced even further during transport, storage, and cooking. And of course, there are the antibiotics and hormones that Big Food forces into and through our meat, fish, and poultry—and ultimately into our own selves.

Bottom line: it’s impossible to get the recommended amounts of many nutrients from food alone.

Takeaway: we all need supplements. But which ones?

Which supplements do you need?

Everyone’s different, but some nutrient needs are universal, no matter how different folks are from each other. Those make up my Top 8 list, the essential supplements I recommend to all my patients. They’re in no special order. They’re all special.

As I said, everyone’s different. Every one of these factors is important in identifying specialized supplement needs:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Medical, family history
  • Activity level
  • Diet
  • Stress levels
  • Sleep patterns
  • Ethnicity
  • Current health and meds
  • Exposure to pollution, toxins

This is why I run several tests on every patient—which is where I got my list of nutrient deficiencies and needs common to almost everyone.

Of course, if tests have identified less common conditions that respond to certain additional supplements, I add them to the list.

Despite pushback from mainstream doctors and Big Pharma, even a simple multivitamin can improve everything from markers of aging and heart disease to memory and mood.

Supplements have even helped several of my patients reverse conditions that mainstream doctors would have handed over to powerful Big Pharma meds or unnecessary surgery. That includes heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure—one of my patients even cancelled a heart transplant after taking the right supplements.

How to choose quality supplements

As I mentioned earlier, there are literally dozens of variants, in price and formulation, for each supplement I recommend.

So here are some suggestions on how to choose a quality product. You’ll need to study package labels in some cases, so bring a magnifying glass. And be ready to do some homework—the label isn’t your only source of information.

Danger—marketing hype and buzzwords ahead

Why do marketers insist on over-selling their product benefits? Could it be because it works? And because consumers and regulators fail to insist on truth in marketing? Watch out for claims like Most powerful ever! or 1,000 times more effective! or Lose 20 pounds in 5 days!

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“But Dr. Connealy, how do we know it’s hype, not fact?”

Perfectly legit question, especially since many of my products make some pretty strong claims themselves.

Ask for supporting evidence

Supplement manufacturers should have websites and toll-free phone numbers on their labels. If you have questions about their product, visit the site or call the manufacturer. If you get no response, or an unhelpful one, that could be all you need to know about the company and its products.

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Tested how?

If a product claims it’s been “tested,” know what kinds of tests there were. Typically, the tests are either too small to be useful, too short (a few weeks or less), or were tested only in a lab, not in long-term, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials with animal or human subjects—the gold standard.

Natural or synthetic?

While you’re doing your homework, find out which type of supplement you’re researching.

There are two types—natural, made from food sources, and synthetic, artificially created in a laboratory, from chemicals.

I recommend the natural type where you can get them, but I recognize that natural is often much more expensive, or just plain not available. Better to get a decent synthetic of something you need, rather than skipping over it.

A complete formulation? Read and question the label.

Leaving aside the fact that synthetic chemicals may not be healthful, you should look for cofactors.

Vitamin C, for example, works wonders on its own. But when it teams up with cofactors called bioflavonoids, you get even better benefits.

The label of your vitamin C supplement should mention bioflavonoids in the ingredients list. If they’re not there, you’re not getting all of vitamin C’s wondrous health-promoting goodness.

But not all supplement labels clearly list the nutrient as synthetic or natural, so you may have to contact the manufacturer. Generally, synthetics are much less expensive than natural forms since the ingredients are cheaper and easier to formulate.

To get the best from your vitamin C and E supplements, look for:

  • Vitamin C with bioflavonoids
  • Vitamin E in its natural, most potent form, d-alpha-tocopherol, preferably with mixed tocotrienols—not the synthetic, less active form, dl-alpha-tocopherol

Artificial non-nutrients

All supplements, including mine, contain some inactive ingredients, such as binding agents or transport “helpers” that move capsules or tablets through the digestive tract. But some manufacturers add unnecessary, non-nutritive ingredients like dyes, chemical coatings, and sugar.

Read the label and avoid supplements that list:

  • Artificial flavor (natural flavor OK)
  • Artificial coloring
  • Sugars (ingredients ending in “-ose”)

Quality controlled and guaranteed?

Though the regulatory laws somehow don’t require it, a trustworthy manufacturer will thoroughly test its supplement’s every ingredient for purity, potency, and contaminants. The finished products should also be analyzed to make sure they contain the exact amount of each ingredient listed on the label.

A quality manufacturer tests raw materials and final products for all these reasons. They also check for bacteria, heavy metals (such as lead and mercury), and other impurities. If any batch doesn’t pass, it gets destroyed.

That’s why they should guarantee your satisfaction and offer a generous return policy. A guarantee less than 90 days suggests they’re hiding something.

Follow directions

Most supplements are best absorbed when taken with or immediately after a meal. This helps the supplement get absorbed more slowly and more fully.

Taking vitamin E without food, for example, can reduce absorption to just 3 percent. That’s not just depriving you of an essential nutrient, it’s throwing your money away.

This isn’t true of all supplements, so do read the dosage instructions for specifics.

Don’t try it just because

If advertising, or a celebrity superstar, or a friend make it sound great, don’t try it just because someone else loves it. What works for some doesn’t work for all. Some supplements are incompatible with some medications, so consider your own unique state of health and any meds you’re taking, and get a second opinion—that of your doctor.

Store right and toss when expired

Supplements must be stored in a cool, dry place, never in direct sunlight—the fridge, a cupboard that’s not near a heat source. And pay attention to expiration dates. Check your supplements monthly to ensure they’re still effective. Beyond the expiration date? Don’t just toss them—ask your pharmacist what to do.

Give it time

Some supplements, such as digestive enzymes, produce results fairly quickly. Others build up to 100 percent effective over time—up to 4 to 6 weeks. Be patient as your body heals. The payoff will be worth it.

Don’t let price be your only yardstick

The cheapest supplements are usually the cheapest to produce. As with many products, you really do get what you pay for…within reason. You don’t need to shell out $100 for a good multivitamin…but if you’re spending $10 or less, you’re probably getting a small quantity of synthetic junk.

Check dosage info

Your supplement label should advise how often to take how many or how much. Do the math—a cheap product to be taken 3 times a day could end up more costly than a top quality product taken 1 or 2 times per day.

Know the limits and do your part

Taking the right supplements gives you better than a fighting chance to defend against disease and heal damage already done. But they can’t do it unless you play your part—by eating for health (try the Mediterranean diet), and living a health-maximizing lifestyle:

  • Seven to eight hours sleep a night
  • No smoking, moderate alcohol, limited caffeinated and sugary drinks
  • Half an ounce per pound of body weight per day. So: if you weigh 140 pounds, 70 ounces of water—paced through the day. It’s easier than it sounds
  • Whole, fresh foods—lean meats and poultry, organic fruits and vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy (or alternatives e.g., almond or rice milk)
  • Good fats—avocado, olive, sesame oils
  • Celery, garlic, raw cacao, cayenne pepper, and eggs
  • No high-sodium foods, fast food, sugar, processed food, or trans fats
  • De-stress with therapy, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, deep breathing, visualization, or exercise
  • Walk for 10–15 minutes a day, increasing your time and distance, or interval and weight training

I hope this has helped you understand why I’m so keen on supplements, and how to choose the best ones for you. As always, consult your doctor(s) before adding any supplement to your diet.

Take good care.


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