Supplements are a great tool to use to "supplement" our nutrition, help us address specific deficiencies or imbalances in the body.
The thing with supplements is, there's definitely a time and place for them.
They're not meant to be used as a substitute for nutrients that you can get through whole foods in your diet. While yes, the soil our produce grows in does have less nutrients than it did decades ago (which is reflected in lower nutrient availability in our foods), it's really important to make sure you're getting enough of the food, first!
It's also important to be careful with supplementing blindly (ie. without knowing if you actually need to supplement with say, iodine to support your thyroid), because supplementing with a nutrient when your body doesn't require it, can actually be problematic and even damaging.
So how do we choose high-quality supplements?
NPN and DIN-HM Numbers
In Canada, there are certain criteria that health products and supplements have to meet in order for them to be considered safe, effective, and high in quality (according to Health Canada).
When a product goes under this assessment process and is approved, the product will receive an NPN number (Natural Product Number), or in the case of homeopathic, a DIN-HM number (Homeopathic Medicine Number).
An NPN number means that the product has been supported by proper evidence (which could mean clinical studies, published studies, journals, etc.), to be safe and effective — which is important when it regards something we're going to be consuming, right!
I always recommend looking for NPN numbers when choosing a high-quality supplement.
Be mindful of fillers, additives, etc.
One thing that's important to be aware of with regards to supplements, is the process of manufacture, and other substances that are added to these pills and capsule, beyond the nutrient itself.
Some of the additives and fillers that are commonly found in supplements are: binders, fillers, colouring, artificial flavours, preservatives, coating, lubricants, and more.
Some of these are necessary to extend the shelf life of supplements, to coat and protect them, etc. While some of these are probably less concerning than others, like in the case of cellulose, which is an indigestible fiber from the cell wall of plants, some of them are unnecessary, and potentially harmful, like in the case of carrageenan or artificial colours and flavours.
Here are some fillers and additives that you may want to avoid when choosing your next supplement:
Aside from these fillers and additives being potentially unnecessary, and even harmful, it's also frustrating when you pay good money for supplements, and end up with capsules that are full of things besides the nutrient you're looking for.
While some supplements are great for "maintenance," some supplementation, especially in a clinical setting when working with a practitioner, are used therapeutically for a specific purpose.
This is where it's important to have quantitative data to work with (like blood work, or hormone or stool testing), and a health care professional or practitioner to help guide this process.
Therapeutic dosages are typically higher than "maintenance dosages" of the same nutrient, and used for a short period of time, for a specific purpose.
For example, in my practice, if I run a GI-MAP stool test for a client, and the results come back with "insufficiency dysbiosis," (where levels of the "good" bacteria in the gut were very low), plus some other markers reflecting a compromised intestinal lining, I might recommend a therapeutic dosage of probiotics for a short period of time to support their system, while working on feeding their good bugs.
Supplementation is nuanced, and should be very individualized based on your physiology, health concerns, and test results!
Another thing that is important to look for when choosing high-quality supplements, in the form of the nutrient.
Nutrients come in different forms — synthetic, natural, methylated, etc. And form matters! We want to be choosing natural (as found in nature), bio-available forms of nutrients in the supplements we take.
Here are a couple of examples:
Folate (5-methyltetrahydrofolate) vs. Folic Acid Folate is this B vitamin's natural form, Folic Acid being the synthetic man-made version. The concern with man-made versions of vitamins is that they may not be utilized and as readily absorbable by the body. Folate (5-methyltetrahydrofolate) is the methylated form, which is a more bio-active, bioavailable form. This means it's easier for our body to use and absorb!
Methylcobalamin vs. Cyanocobalamin These are two forms of vitamin B12, one an active, methylated form, and one a synthetic man-made form of the vitamin. The methylated version of B12 contains a methyl group, is a natural form of B12, and is more biologically available to the body (ie. its easier for the body to use!). Cyanocobalamin is a man-made form, and contains a cyanide molecule (which may not be ideal to ingest over time), and tends to be a cheaper alternative, thus used readily in supplement manufacturing.
Supplementation can be an overwhelming, confusing space. I always recommend checking with your doctor or practitioner to see what supplements might be necessary, or helpful for you, and your unique body.
Also, a gentle reminder that nutrition (in my opinion), should come first! We can't out supplement poor nutrition, and I personally believe that supplements are to be used as a tool — not a replacement for fruits and veg!
If you want to learn more about supplements, and how to support your digestive health, then check out my definitely check out my FREE Beginners Guide to Gut Healing.