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Effective supplements: how do you know if they’re working?

A glass globe in the glowing woods
May 10, 2018
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Whenever I recommend a supplement, I make sure my patient knows what to expect from it. But no matter what its purpose, I tell them either “Give it time, and you’ll feel it working,” or “Give it time, and you won’t feel it working.” To which many patients say, not unreasonably, “Huh?” So I explain why there are two kinds of supplements.

Let’s tackle the “Huh?” supplements first, the ones you won’t feel working.

How do I know I need a supplement?

When there’s a vitamin or other nutrient deficiency, it’s sometimes symptom-free, something you won’t know you have. You may assume that “I feel fine, so I must be fine.”

Unfortunately, in the case of nutrients like vitamins C and D3 and nutrients like CoQ10, to name just a few absolutely essential health givers, it’s unlikely you really are fine.

I’ll focus on D3 for the moment, but almost every other supplement falls into the “feel it” or “won’t feel it” category.

Around 90 out of 100 patients I see are dangerously D3 deficient—and don’t know it. I say dangerously because a 2014 study found that people with vitamin D3 deficiency were twice as likely to die prematurely—from all causes.

Why?

The logic is simple. D3, as well as C and CoQ10, are prime players in millions of cellular interactions we literally can’t live without—and can contribute to an early death if not present or not functioning properly.

In the US and Europe, it’s estimated that more than two-thirds of the population is D3-deficient, and that roughly 13 percent of all deaths in the US, and 9 percent in Europe, could be attributed to D3 deficiency.

I invariably find similar deficiencies in vitamin C, in the B vitamins complex, in CoQ10, hormones, essential minerals like magnesium and potassium, essential fatty acids. Just about everything we need to thrive, most of us just don’t keep a full tank of.

So here’s a gentle reminder to all of you good people who feel fine—please get yourself tested for D3 and any other deficiencies. Remember that all of the essential nutrients, working together, can reliably:

  • Help boost your immune system
  • Reduce your risk of high blood pressure
  • Lower your blood pressure if it’s high
  • Reduce your risk of depression
  • Reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and several kinds of cancer
  • Help delay, even prevent, cognitive decline, generally, and Alzheimer’s, specifically

How I recognize and manage deficiency

In my practice, I start with simple tests to see my patient’s benchmark levels of all the essential nutrients. No matter what condition a new patient shows up with, or how well a current patient is doing, I urge them to take this test every 6 months.

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A twice-yearly C-Reactive Protein (CRP) test, and other tests like the hemoglobin A1C test as needed, are dependable measures of what’s going on in your body. Their results will help your doctor customize an overall health plan that might include a supplement or two.

So now let’s look at the other type of supplement, the type that brings results you can feel or see.

How do you know your supplement is working?

It depends on what your supplement is meant to do. If it’s meant to relieve symptoms or attack their causes, you should feel it working over time. Because nutritional supplements work with your body’s natural chemistry to gradually correct deficiencies or imbalances, they can take a few days to several weeks before you feel them “kick in”.

For example, if you’re taking a supplement for arthritis, it could take a week or two to start to feel more flexible and limber…with results that continue ramping up over the next several days and weeks.

Your joints didn’t start hurting overnight…so we can’t expect a healthy and effective remedy to work overnight either.

But here are just a few conditions that you can expect quick results from:

  • Pain
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestion
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

On the other hand, if your supplement is meant to slow a disease’s progression, or to strengthen, rebuild, or replenish damaged cells or systems, it won’t be fast acting. Healing takes time, especially when it takes place at the micro-cellular level. So does your body’s adjustment to something new that you’re putting into it. And just as many diseases have no overt cause or symptoms until a long time has passed, it might be weeks or months before improvements show up in a measureable way.

Finally, if you’re supplementing for more strength or energy, it depends, of course, on your own benchmark level when you start. If you’re doing a maximum 10 repetitions of an exercise now, for example, and can do 20 repetitions a month later, that’s a pretty good sign your health is improving. If you can walk briskly for 10 minutes without feeling out of breath when you start, and you’re up to 20 minutes after a few weeks or months, ditto.

One last note on ensuring your supplement does what you want it to do.

You’ve got to believe. Studies have shown that a positive state of mind improves all health results.

But again, the best way to see if your supplement is working is to get tested before you start taking it, and test again after 6 months. If you see positive changes in what you’re testing for, congratulations. You can be sure your supplements are working.

So here’s to your good health. Keep up the good work of taking good care.

References

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