DietaryÂ supplements areÂ a $23 billion business. That’s a lot of pills and powders, folks. Do you take any? Are they doing you any good? Worse, are they doing harm? I got sucked into taking supplementsÂ for several years before the sobering reports started flowing in. I decided to do my own research to separate the facts from the hearsay.
What I took
For about 3 years, I’ve been taking a fish oil supplement (1 pill); for at least two years, I wasÂ taking glucosamine and chondroitin (1 pill) and a general “women’s supplement” with calcium (1 pill). Then for about a year, I had taken vitamin D (2 pills–more on this later). So, 5 pills every day for a year (or more).
Why I did it
I had taken glucosamine and chondroitin off and on for a long time. I had heard somewhere at some time that you should take it for healthy bones. It was never actually recommended by a doctor, but when listed on any medications sheet, no doctor ever flagged it as a concern or questioned it. The women’s supplement, however, was mentioned by my doctor several years ago (before all the studies had been done), as a “good idea as women get older.” I was in my mid 40s at the time. I bought into it and rushed out to get some. Keep in mind that I had no symptoms or deficiency noted by the doctor. I have since learned that calcium supplementation is neededÂ for the aged because old women (not someone in their 40s or 50s with a proper diet)Â are no longer able to absorb enough calcium.
As for the vitamin D, I took this at the doctor’s specific recommendation followingÂ a stress fracture to a bone in my foot. I had a bone density test done after the fracture occurred to get a baseline. My doctor told me then that my vitamin D levels could be a bit higher and to take 3000 IU of vitamin D. However, from what I found, you have aÂ 2000 IU option and aÂ 5000 IU option. So I purchased 2000 IU vitamin D pills and took 2 of them each morning ( a total of 4000 IU instead of the 3000 IU recommended). I had no idea at the time, of course, that this was a bad idea. Megadoses ofÂ vitamin D have been shown to cause serious problems, especially if you have other medical issues. Thankfully, I did not.
One of the biggest failings I found from my medical professional (and indeed due to my own ignorance) was to not ask HOW LONG. How long should I take this recommended supplement? Don’t make this same mistake. As it turned out, I was only on the too-high dose of vitamin D for a year. My bone healed completely within a couple months of the fracture and I was able to return to my normal, active lifestyle. A year later, I had experienced no further issues. That was when I stopped taking vitamin D.
I was mostly just lucky. Excluding the multi-vitamin, I never bought into a lot of the hype that most people have succumbed to when they choose to take vitamins. There are some that can be quite harmful in high doses, especially Vitamins C, A and betacarotene, E, B6, and multi-vitamins.
How to Move Forward
The general opinion of experts is that you should use supplements ONLY if your healthcare professional has recommended them due to a health-related reason. And you should definitely ask how long you will be required to take the medicine.
Several years ago, I was prescribed a specific dosage of Omega-3 fatty acids through fish oil pills. There was a medical reason for this and I continue to take 1 daily omega-3 fish oil to this day as well as eating a lot of fish. You see, my mother developed what is called “wet” macular degeneration in her early 80s–the worst kind you can get. Her vision deteriorated rapidly and she is now legally blind. As soon as she was diagnosed, I went to my optometristÂ for my routine annual exam. When I told her of my mother’s diagnosis, she prescribed the fish oil as an ongoing requirement to hopefully prevent the same occurrence in me.
As it turns out, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is the only supplement that every article on the subject agrees is acceptableÂ for both eye and heart health. Obviously, as with all vitamins, your goal should be to get the necessary nutrients from food first. Omega-3 fatty acids are no exception. The American Heart Association recommends at least 2 servings of fatty fish per week (a serving is 3.5 ounces cooked–never fried).
Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel (avoid king mackerel, however, due to high levels of mercury), herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna. The AHA also offers some tasty recipesÂ (at the bottom of the article) to help you get started on the right path.
As the author of one article I researched recommended, do yourself a favor and save your money by not buying unnecessary, potentially harmful supplements. Take only what your doctor recommends IF you have a specific deficiency and only for the periodÂ stated. Even better, spend that money on good, healthy, nutritious food that mayÂ eliminate you ever needing supplementation.
For Further Reading
Information for this article came from many resources. Among them, these were some of the best andÂ most informative:
The American Heart Association offers it scientificÂ positionÂ on supplements, which is short but worth your time.
Forbes offers its Top Six Vitamins You Should Not Take.
The most in-depth and comprehensive information I found is from this outstanding opinion pieceÂ in the New York Times.