Nutraceuticals: Tips on Purchasing Nutritional Supplements with Proven Benefits

Over the years, I’ve heard many patients express to me their confusion and overwhelm when going to the store to buy nutritional supplements. There are hundreds of thousands of supplements in the public market, each touting their unique health benefits. Not only are there multitudes of products to choose from, but just one supplement can have multiple variations and forms. Take probiotics, for example. Which one is better, the refrigerated one or the shelf-stable one? Multi-strain or single strain? 5 billion live microorganisms or 25 billion? Capsule form or pearl form? Cultured in dairy or all vegan? And which of the hundreds of brands to choose from? (To briefly answer: multi-strain, high potency, vegan, and from a trusted brand like Jarrow, Pure Encapsulations or Standard Process are best. Some require refrigeration, but shelf-stable forms are excellent as well. Different bacterial strains have different actions, so it’s worth asking me or your doctor, and also doing a google search, to see which strains are best indicated for your particular health concern). With all these options and all this medical jargon, it’s understandable that supplement shopping can be a dizzying experience. But it needn’t be so. With the guidance of your natural healthcare or functional medicine practitioner, some online research (which most of you are so brilliant at doing), and wise consideration, you can confidently zone in on the very best supplements for you and your family.
Are there nutritional supplements that claim to have health benefits but really don’t live up to their claims? Absolutely. The dietary supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar free market. Some companies will try to sell stuff with hyped up claims just to turn a profit. Or they may really believe it works, but it’s based on old wives’ tales or pure anecdote. It’s nothing to be cynical about – it’s just the way the world is. This is why you must do your homework and partner up with a healthcare practitioner you can trust. And this is also why I am committed to nutraceuticals. Aaaahh, how I love this term. It’s a beautiful and succinct word, coined by Dr. Stephen DeFelice, MD, to describe nutritional supplements that have been shown through a credible scientific study (or studies) to have a real and measurable health benefit.
I offer nutraceuticals to my patients on a daily basis. They are a necessary support in a life filled with stress, toxins, infectious agents, pollutants, medications with side effects, inadequate sleep, inadequate exercise and mobility, poor diets, poor-quality commercial foods, and produce grown in suboptimal soils. I always explain what the nutraceutical is, what it’s proven health benefits are, and why it’s wise for my patients to take it. I’ll often write them down on a notepad paper and encourage my patients to research them, so they don’t just take my word for it, and it empowers them to read, learn, and understand what they are purchasing, what they are consuming, and what benefits they can expect.
Here are seven helpful tips when you are purchasing nutraceuticals:
1. Natural isn’t always pure. The legal qualifications for labeling a product “natural” are very loose. Here’s a quote from the FDA’s website on “Natural” Food Labeling:
Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term “natural,” we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
So “natural” on the bottle of a nutritional supplement could still allow for ingredients that have been sprayed with insecticides or pesticides, irradiated, or molecularly denatured by high heat such as in pasteurization. And, as the FDA explained, “natural” on the label doesn’t impart any proven health benefits.
2. Natural isn’t always safe. This is a popular misconception. A natural supplement can still cause adverse reactions. For example, the adaptogenic herb ashwagandha is great for supporting a healthy stress response, lowering cortisol, improving energy, and regulating hormones. However, it can make some people feel jittery or have an upset stomach. Although its negative side effects are rare, SOMEONE will experience it, and that someone can very well be you. So you must be well informed, and well aware of how you feel when taking a “natural” supplement.
3. Cheaper isn’t always better. I always cringe a bit when my patients tell me they’re getting their supplements from Target, Walmart, Costco. I have nothing against those stores – I frequently patronize Target and we appreciate Costco for their discounted prices for bulk goods. However, I have found that the nutritional products they carry often contain sub-optimal forms of nutrients. These sub-optimal forms are not well-absorbed or assimilated efficiently into the bloodstream, so you’re not getting much of a therapeutic effect. These sub-optimal forms of nutrients are cheaper to produce, and so they end up with a cheaper price tag for you. I say spend a few bucks more for a quality product that will actually be used by your body (and not just go in your mouth and out the other end). Let me clarify: I’m not saying ALL nutritional products from these stores are a waste of money; I’m saying there are typically higher quality products manufactured with higher standards found outside of these stores, and for a higher but worthwhile price.
4. Read the entire product label for ingredients, allergens, and contraindications. Familiarize yourself with all the ingredients listed on the label, along with fillers. If you are vegan, this is a vital step because oftentimes animal ingredients can be used in the sourcing or manufacturing of the listed ingredients. If you are taking prescription medications or have allergies to known substances, you definitely want to be aware of all ingredients as well as any potential interactions or contraindications. For example, omega-3s are extremely beneficial in improving brain and heart health and reducing inflammation, but because it may reduce platelet activity, it is contraindicated if you are taking blood thinners.
5. Know the right dosage and frequency.  Just like prescription medication, the dosing and frequency of intake of your nutraceutical is of critical importance. Too little and you may not get a therapeutic effect. Too much, and you may risk side effects.
6. Choose a trusted brand. Who wants to flush their money down the drain with poorly manufactured products, such as probiotics that really have no live, active microorganisms by the time you purchase them as a consumer? More importantly, who wants to put their health at risk by taking nutraceuticals that have toxins or potential pollutants in them, such as fish oils that may contain mercury? Always choose a trusted brand.
7. Consult with a health professional. You’re probably great with searching the internet, but it’s always best to have wise counsel. I and other holistic health / functional medicine practitioners have years of education, training, and clinical experience to help you in making the wisest choices with your nutraceuticals – which ones are best indicated for your health condition, which ones you could omit, which ones are best in a formula, which ones you can take in isolated form, on an empty stomach or with a meal, how much, how often, and how long. These are important considerations that can make all the difference between getting better, getting no benefit, or even getting worse.
Nutraceuticals are a powerful, effective, and often necessary component in healthcare, healing, and maintaining wellness. Seek them out and use them wisely and diligently.