If you’re new to supplements and this is something you’ve thought about or said out loud, this article is for you.
It’s January at the time of writing this, and “being healthier” is never higher on the list. The gyms fill up, my clinic gets busier, and people’s interest in using supplements tends to peak.
“I want to know what supplements I should be taking.”
The supplement landscape can seem overwhelming, and often the marketing doesn’t match the benefit. Still, this article will discuss how to transcend the marketing filled with testimonials and unkept promises and genuinely find the supplement you should be taking.
The first step is to get intentional about what you want.
A small survey looking into why people used supplements found that over fifty per cent of people were looking for more energy and vitality, twenty per cent were looking for better cognitive performance, and a smaller percentage were trying to treat a cold.
These reasons are a great place to start, but I think you have an opportunity to be more specific. Let me help.
Based on this small survey, let’s use energy and vitality as our example intention for using supplements.
One of the first questions I would ask in a clinical setting is one you can ask also.
“How would you know a supplement for your energy and vitality is working?”
The answer to this will reveal one of two things. The easy one, “I don’t know.” It probably means you should think about it more. The second could be “I don’t want to feel exhausted when I get home from work,” for instance.
Going with more energy when getting home, you can continue the enquiry, “What do I want that energy for when I get home?”
For some, you might want to exercise and get moving as it’s your only chance. For others, you might want to be able to read something you’re interested in without falling asleep in two minutes or play with the kids before they go to bed.
It’s this level of specificity that you can use to work then on which supplements might benefit you. For example, if you want more energy at night to exercise, then a supplement to make you feel physically capable might be more appropriate.
If you want to read your book or have some fuel to get some more work done, you may need a supplement to help you maintain your mental capacity.
Now, these are just examples, but I’m looking to show you how it’s possible to get reverse engineer what you want just in the space of asking two or three questions.
Knowing what you want also allows you to track what you’re getting as a result of your action.
Anything you do for your health, supplements, diet change or otherwise, should enrich the quality of your day.
Or at least this is my opinion.
I say this for two reasons—the first we’ve covered. The more specific you can be, the easier it might be to find something that will work or to articulate it to someone who can help you. The second and possibly more important is you get to track the success of your supplement choice with some tangible indicators.
For example, if you are taking something for your immune system or, more specifically, “you don’t want to keep getting sick,” and you get sick within two weeks of starting said supplement, maybe it’s worth considering that it wasn’t the right one for you.
Just because one supplement doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean supplements, in general, won’t ever work.
You might just need to do a bit more research or ask someone you trust in the health space to give you some direction. My advice is to choose a practitioner rather than an influencer.
Sorry, I said it, and I meant it.
The help you need may not actually be to buy another supplement. It might be time to do blood or functional testing to see whether a different form of attention is necessary.
For example, there is a way I do this in the clinic you could ask your practitioner about called the organic acids test. The organic acids test is often the first test I would consider if someone asked me what supplements they should take.
Aside from checking in on your microbiome, brain chemicals and detoxification, it also checks on some features that dictate your energy production. Thrown in this panel are the vitamins and nutrients that pay for the transactions that create your energy.
For instance, did you know that the B vitamins pay for quite a few biochemical transactions that turn the glucose from your carbohydrate intake into energy for your cells?
Not only this, an amino acid called Acetyl L-carnitine helps transport that fat into the cell so it can be used as energy.
All these markers can be tested for, giving you some personalised direction for which supplements will get you that energy.
Remembering that the aim is to find supplements that are personal for us, what better way to find out that to get given the indicators via a test?
Another way to use testing to help you personalise your supplement use is via DNA testing.
A big caveat with DNA testing is that, in my opinion, you always need to have someone trained in genetic counselling to explain the results to you. When it comes to nutrition, you can use your DNA to gain ideas about nutrients that you might be better off supplementing.
For example, I had a patient who was taking 2000iu of vitamin D as a supplement daily to maintain her healthy levels. Ordinarily, when I hear someone doing this, I think it’s a great idea, as did my patient.
You imagine her surprise when I said I wanted to test her vitamin D levels anyway when her tests came around.
“I already take vitamin D. Why would it be deficient?”
Fortunately, my patient was open-minded enough to go with me on this. Lo and behold, four of the five vitamin D receptor genes had changes in them that meant my patient was less effective at activating the vitamin D she got from the sun and her supplement.
From this result, we doubled her dose of vitamin D and, over twelve weeks, got what we were looking for on the retest.
My patient’s experience shows that dose and duration are another way of ensuring you are taking the supplements right for you.
In other articles on the website, you can find me discussing how important the dose is. My patient’s experience with DNA testing and vitamin D gives another example of how you can work with someone to help you take the right supplements.
But that’s not all!
There is an easy way to think about how supplements can help.
I’ve done an entire article on how vitamins and minerals are a source of currency. Still, it’s good to revisit it in the context of which supplements to choose. I mentioned earlier that there is a way to transcend the reliance on marketing and word-of-mouth referrals from friends and family regarding your supplement choices.
Better still, the way has a grounding in nutritional biochemistry.
One of the reasons we can use tests such as the organic acids I mentioned earlier is that we know that the body uses dietary vitamins and minerals to pay for the chemical reactions that either build things up or break things down.
Learning about this can help you choose the most appropriate supplements for your goal.
For instance, zinc as a mineral can help your immune cells multiply themselves in response to infection and assist the immune system in using the right cells for the particular types of immune challenges.
Zinc is also highly concentrated in the limbic system of the brain. When zinc is deficient in the diet, it can affect the brain’s hippocampus, which in turn impairs learning and your sense of smell.
Zinc is a great example of a mineral that pays for transactions in multiple different systems of the body.
Yet, one of the lesser-known elements of zinc is that its deficiency isn’t as widespread in the developed world as made out to be. In developed countries, it is generally seen more often in people with poor diets, seniors or loss with chronic illnesses such as Celiac disease.
Facts such as these lead us to handle another common question about supplements.
“Do I have to take these supplements for the rest of my life?”
The answer is no. If we carry on with zinc as our example, your health practitioner can test your zinc levels in the blood, along with B12, Iron, Folate, Vitamin D, Selenium and Iodine.
You can use these facilities to find out whether there is a deficiency or not. This ability to learn more about yourself speaks to my earlier notion of being more intentional when choosing supplements.
If there is a deficiency, then it’s possible to take a supplement, knowing it’s going to lead somewhere. From there, you can retest after some time and find out if the supplement has worked.
This knowledge speaks to the different contexts in which supplements can be used.
We’ve touched on, just now, the correction of dietary deficiency. We mentioned some of the key reasons why people take supplements at the beginning of this article, but “diet insurance” is another valid one.
A tip from me when looking to use supplements as “diet insurance.”
Typically, when looking to use supplements for diet insurance, the minerals such as zinc and magnesium come up. In Hong Kong, this can commonly be calcium as well.
In my opinion, these micronutrients are the second stage of supplementation you should be worrying about.
Most people don’t get enough protein or fibre in their diets, and deficiencies in these will significantly affect the quality of your day more than the smaller deficits we see in the micronutrients.
You can read about the more profound benefits of correcting your fibre and protein intake in the comprehensive articles I’ve written about them.
For now, let’s use protein to illustrate our example. Recent studies suggest that daily protein requirements should be increased now to roughly one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. This new guideline surprises most, especially my male patients, who carry a little extra weight than they like.
Protein-free and low-protein diets induce fatty liver and weight gain, as well as changes in how the body uses energy.
All are leading to more significant problems in the long run than those you might see with vitamin and mineral deficits in the diet.
Depending on which context you see things from, this can be nuanced. My point here, though, is that if you intend to use a supplement to fill in the gaps present in your diet, then it might be best to cover your fibre and protein intake first.
Beyond supporting recovery from illness, supplements should be used with the intention of getting from point A to point B.
Point B is a shift in dietary or lifestyle habits that can maintain the work the supplements have done. Now in some cases, this can be a little idealistic and unrealistic, which I understand.
Let’s use protein as an example again. Suppose you have calculated your daily dietary protein intake and found yourself thirty grams lower than your goal.
A few eggs in the morning at six grams of protein each and a scoop of protein powder equating to twenty grams brings your daily intake back up to par. After a while, what if you were to get that twenty-gram serving via some fish or plant-based protein?
If you can do that, then you’ve reached point B.
It’s not just the macronutrients like protein and fibre you can do this with but the minerals also. If we use zinc as our example again, fresh oysters once a week will help and brazil nuts too.
It takes a bit of intention, and you can go from beginner to really getting the best out of your supplement use.
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