The Dirty Little Secret About Supplements I Wish More People Knew: A Doctor Explains
Maybe your doctor recommended you start taking a supplement. Maybe you stumbled across an article somewhere that suggested a certain variety would cure what ails you. Or maybe you heard that everyone over a certain age should be taking a daily multivitamin.
There are any number of reasons to take a nutritional supplement. And in today’s world, where our internal detoxification systems are running at capacity, our diets tend to be less than ideal, and our lifestyles can be hectic and stressful, I find that taking the appropriate supplement can be a critical part of a healthy life.
In my medical practice, I've seen again and again that the right supplements in the right doses can help patients reverse complex symptoms and regain energy and vitality.
But here’s the big dirty secret of the supplement industry: There is almost zero oversight. They don’t have to prove anything. FTC and FDA regulations require that dietary supplements have nutritional labeling and a list of ingredients. However, it's important to remember that supplement labels and ingredients aren't evaluated by the FDA before they're marketed and sold.
You might have heard common multivitamins referred to as "bedpan bullets." Do you know why? Because they are often so full of binders and fillers that the tablets make it all the way through the digestive system perfectly intact. Meaning: You're not even absorbing the vitamins and minerals.
I view drugs and supplements as the same thing — both should be produced under exacting standards.
This lack of quality oversight poses two major issues. First, if you need a nutritional supplement, you really need it. In my practice, I view drugs and supplements as the same thing — both should be produced under exacting standards. A supplement needs to contain exactly the ingredient your body needs in pharmaceutical quality. If it doesn't, you're not getting the medicine you need.
The second problem is that the supplements that can be bought in grocery stores and health food stores might contain ingredients that are actually harmful to consume.
A few recent examples illustrate how supplement businesses are abusing this lack of oversight. Just this fall, the Oregon Attorney General accused supplement giant GNC of selling products labeled "all-natural" that were actually laced with Picamilon, a synthetic drug prescribed in Russia to treat neurological conditions. Earlier this year, a similar debacle happened in New York that resulted in entire product lines being pulled from shelves after the attorney general's office found major retailers were selling supplements that were inaccurately labeled and even potentially dangerous.
And a 2013 study into herbal supplement quality that looked at 44 herbal products from 12 different companies concluded:
“Most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers. These activities dilute the effectiveness of otherwise useful remedies, lowering the perceived value of all related products because of a lack of consumer confidence in them.”
As a functional medicine physician who builds treatments based on an individual’s precise biochemistry, I prescribe supplements daily.
Unfortunately, I feel I can't just send my patients to any store to buy the supplements. For example, I recommended melatonin to one of my first clients who was complaining of sleep problems. She bought some from a grocery store and it didn’t work. She came back and complained, so I gave her high-quality melatonin instead. She slept like a baby.
It does me little good to be a physician with four board certifications and dual masters' degrees if my patients end up with low-quality supplements to try my treatments. The treatments will simply not be effective.
So how are the right supplements made? Quality, pharmaceutical-grade supplements have extensive control measures. They assay the raw ingredients for impurities and heavy metals and test to be sure it's the exact genus and species that is effective. Then, after the supplements are made, they batch test it all again to be sure they're pure and contain the right amount of active product. They reject batches of raw materials due to impurities or lack of active ingredient. It raises the question: Isn’t this the way all supplements should be made?
But for now, you can't assume that all supplements and multivitamins are of the same quality, or even that the tablets are safe to take.
That's why I recommend buying only "pharmaceutical grade" supplements, the highest level of quality. (The label will often carry a USP Verified seal, meaning it was verified by the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s Dietary Supplement Verification Program.)
And if you go to your grocery store pharmacy and don't see anything of quality available, ask that they start stocking pharmaceutical-grade supplements. You'll be doing yourself, and the industry, some good.