Are You Taking Too Many Supplements? Here's Where To Draw The Line
People who love wellness often immerse themselves in finding the best way to optimize their health. Their health journey invariably can lead to what we affectionately refer to as "the supplement graveyard." You know, that cabinet filled with all the vitamins, powders, and potions that accumulate, leaving many to wonder what the heck to even take.
So is there such a thing as too many supplements and vitamins? Let me go over exactly what you need to know when deciding which supplements to take. There are so many to choose from, and constructing an effective—yet manageable—supplement routine is more of an art than a science. Here's how to hit that sweet spot:
1. Know your goals.
Do you want to bring down inflammation and heal your gut? Increase your energy levels, balance your hormones, optimize your nutrient levels—or all of the above? The first question you should ask yourself is what you are trying to achieve with your supplement regimen. This way you can fine-tune and focus your efforts.
2. Get a baseline.
If you want to make sure you're not spinning your wheels and taking unnecessary supplements, go see a functional medicine practitioner and get some lab work done. Tests for vitamin D, B vitamins, iron, selenium, and magnesium are very simple and can all be done through basic conventional blood tests. We can also run more comprehensive labs that test for underlying factors such as microbiome health, hormonal imbalances, or toxicity; these can provide a lot of direction when it comes to your health and what supplements would be a wise addition to your routine.
3. Track your food intake.
For at least one week, log your typical food intake in a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal. In these programs you can see what you're lacking as far as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and even macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates). Based on this information, you can optimize the foods you eat and decide whether or not you need a supplement to target what you are not getting through food alone.
Many functional medicine doctors, with the best of intentions, will recommend a number of supplements depending on your case. Personally I always use food as medicine primarily for a strong foundation and use supplements based on labs to keep it targeted and organized. Some people do well with phasing in their supplements every few days to see how they respond while others are perfectly suited to start them all at once. Depending on what you are taking, sometimes it is appropriate to spread supplements out over the day to maximize nutrient absorption.
4. Read labels and look for daily values (DVs).
Once you find out which supplements are pertinent to your unique needs, the next step would be to pick a quality supplement with the correct dosage. Read the labels and look at the dosage and the daily value percentage (%DV). We all have different needs and requirements, so it may be appropriate for you to talk to a qualified functional medicine practitioner here, but generally speaking, getting around 100 percent of the daily recommended value is a good idea. If you are taking more than one supplement with the same nutrient, remember to add this to the percentage.
5. Know how much is too much.
Our bodies tend to pee out extra water-soluble vitamins like B-complex vitamins and C, so toxicity tends to be less likely an issue. On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K2 can be toxic if you take too much for your body. This also applies to minerals like selenium, which in excess can cause hair loss, fatigue, and joint pain. Similarly, supplementing with iron in excess can be oxidizing, fueling inflammation. Therefore, reading labels and understanding the upper limits (which you can find on the NIH website) and the difference between fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins are very important for your health and safety.
6. Be familiar with common supplement interactions.
The supplements you choose might be right for you in theory but not in reality. This is likely due to interactions with prescribed medications you may be taking. For example, CoQ10, which is a great nutrient that many people can benefit from, has many potential reactions with pharmaceutical drugs like diabetes medications, beta blockers, blood thinners, and ACE inhibitors. Melatonin, the common natural sleep supporter, can interact with medications for diabetes, blood thinners, and birth control. For thyroid medications it is advised to wait at least three hours before you take any supplements (or foods) that contain calcium and iron. Calcium and iron can interfere with the absorption of your thyroid medication.
7. Talk with your doctor, but still think for yourself.
If you're taking any medications, I suggest talking with your prescribing doctor before taking a supplement. The problem with this advice, however, is that unless your doctor is trained in functional medicine or at least nutrition, they might not know what to tell you and will probably err on the side of caution, telling you to avoid taking the supplement. Why is this? Medical schools in the United States offer, on average, only about 19 hours of nutrition education over four years of medical school. Only 29 percent of U.S. medical schools offer med students the recommended 25 hours of nutrition education. On the flip side, many doctors have taken it upon themselves to earn extra degrees and certifications in nutrition and functional medicine and will be able to help you safely manage your supplements. Regardless, I'm still a major advocate for having an open, honest dialogue with any prescribing doctor so that they, as medical professionals, are looped into your health decisions, and you can make the most educated choices for your health.
Remember, you can't supplement your way out of a poor diet. Food is foundational, and supplements are meant to do just that: supplement a whole-food, nutrient-rich diet. So how do you know if you're taking the wrong supplement or too much for your body? The symptoms of overdoing it on a supplement can vary, but digestive symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or stomach pain are typically the first indication. I suggest that most people check in on their body with labs occasionally, depending on what they are going through or what they are supplementing with. One of my goals as a functional medicine practitioner is to fine-tune and tweak supplement protocols and food plans as time goes on.
Want to start a new supplement? Read Dr. Cole's essential supplement guide first.