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If you’re like me, you find the vast array of dietary supplements – and their wildly different pricing – to be a bewildering and daunting list to choose from. When you’re getting started, these are the two most important questions to answer:
One of the most reliable ways to determine the dietary supplements you need is through lab analysis of your blood, which may be ordered by your licensed healthcare provider. In addition to your annual exam and general blood workup, your symptoms may serve as the trigger for additional bloodwork, so it’s important to track your symptoms (such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, pain, differences in mood or cognition) and share them with your healthcare provider.
When it comes to vitamin and mineral supplementation, knowing which of these you have a deficiency, insufficiency or excess of is crucial to determine what to add or eliminate. While taking a general multi-vitamin may be appealing for its simplicity, it could mask a deeper deficiency for which fewer, but more targeted nutrients may be the right answer.
Some supplements, however, are not simply meant to improve upon deficiencies but rather to optimize health and address existing disease conditions. For example, there are a number of blogs on this site that provide information, based on research, that highlight how the right supplements may help with disease conditions like Alzheimer’s, arthritis and diabetes.
Different dietary supplements have been studied to support different health conditions. People who are already on prescription drugs for health conditions should also look up which vitamins, minerals and other co-factors are depleted by the medicines they are on before making the choices that they need to.
A simple way to determine if your supplements are effective is to look at your blood work before and after supplementation. For example, if your Vitamin D is low when you get your lab results back, and you supplement for a period of time (say three months), you should be able to retest and see a difference in your blood Vitamin D levels. This may seem obvious, but not every healthcare practitioner is able to follow a patient’s care this closely, due to constraints in time and manpower. In order to be your own best advocate, you may want to request a retest of your blood vitamin levels (or whatever deficiency you are taking supplements to correct) two to three months after you begin supplementation to ensure you are getting the intended effects of the supplement. Additionally, this can help to prevent over-supplementation.
If you do not see a difference in your blood levels of the vitamin or mineral you are supplementing, your doctor can help you determine whether this is due to a poor quality supplement, or some other underlying health factor.
When you take dietary supplements to help reduce side effects of drugs or to help manage the disease itself, you should begin to feel better when the supplements work. For example – you have diabetes, you’ve been taking diabetes medication for a long time, and this causes the side effect of feeling pins and needles and/or numbness in your feet. You begin to supplement with vitamin B12 and in a month or so, the symptoms improve.
Quality control is one of the legitimate reasons one dietary supplement may be costlier than another. The FDA does not regulate supplements in quite the same way it regulates prescription medications. It limits the claims that may be made about supplements, and it regulates them when they have adverse effects on users, such as in the case of contamination, but that’s where regulation stops.
Companies that practice high quality standards will often price their products higher to meet these costs. Krill oil, for example, is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, but if krill are harvested incorrectly, they quickly decompose, making the product less than desirable and effective by the time the consumer takes it. Harvesting krill correctly, therefore, requires more care and increases the expense to the consumer. Quality control testing for both animal- and plant-based products adds to their cost.
Cheaper brands have been found to contain fillers that lead to poor bioavailability (i.e., they are not easily absorbed by the body), or to have significantly less active ingredient than is advertised.
“Fillers” may sound rather benign, but some of them may cause more harm than the good we hope to gain by choosing supplements that are full of these. Yeast-based manufacturing processes, for example, have become ubiquitous among whole food supplements (indicated on the label as yeast, brewer’s yeast, or nutritional yeast), fillers that can actually promote candida and compromise gut health.
According to AgriBiotech, a resource bank on agricultural biotechnology compiled by leading U.S. Agricultural Schools, “The food industry has used genetically engineered bacteria and yeasts for more than 20 years to produce vitamins and nutritional supplements.”
Unfortunately, for consumers with susceptibility to yeast infections (like women and children), choosing such dietary supplement products could actually compromise their health.
Several independent agencies help monitor quality control for supplements, and their stamp of approval increases your chances of picking a quality product. Check to see that products you are considering have at least one of these agency’s assurance of quality:
Additionally, you may want to check with PubMed’s Dietary Supplement Subset site to determine if a supplement or brand has research to support its use with specific health conditions.
Once you’ve determined that a brand has some quality assurance, where you buy it may be one of your biggest leverage points for price. If you already know the brand has quality assurance, it’s safe to buy that product from the least expensive source. A more expensive store or website doesn’t add anything to the value of the product inside the bottle.
After you’ve identified products you trust, shop around for discount websites and coupons. Amazon.com frequently carries the same dietary supplement products from different providers at varied costs. Because websites are changing constantly, you may want to conduct a search for “discount vitamins and supplements” to see who some of the most popular sellers are for these products. Groupon.com also frequently provides coupons for online and bricks-and-mortar stores, and you can search there for supplement coupons.
Finding high-quality supplements requires a bit of detective work on the consumer’s part. At Sepalika, we hope to take some of the burden off the consumer by leading you in the right direction and giving you some tools. We believe it’s worth the time and effort up front to identify the products with integrity because the health cost of not doing so is too great, and the benefits to be gained are also too great to ignore.
Two-time Nobel Prize Winner and Celebrated Science Researcher Linus Pauling, who we count as a major inspiration for this site put it succinctly. He said,
“I believe that you can, by taking some simple and inexpensive measures, lead a longer life and extend your years of well-being. My most important recommendation is that you take vitamins every day in optimum amounts to supplement the vitamins that you receive in your food.”
We may pay more for better quality supplements, but the investment is well worth the health savings down the line.