Frequently in my initial consults with clients, I hear the following:
“I’d rather not take any pills, including supplements, I want to do everything with food.”
I understand where this thought process comes from. Not only are folks tired of the conventional medical treatment of a “pill for every ill”, they are also tired of the common holistic sales pitch about herbs and supplements.
In functional medicine, I find it’s especially common to see practitioners focusing first on supplements, putting clients on long lists of pills to address deeper concerns, with very little regard for modifying the diet to make up these differences. It’s frustrating and, in my opinion, not in keeping with the real principles of functional medicine which rely heavily on nutritional changes to bring about optimal health.
But supplements do have their place, especially in those with chronic health conditions and there is definitely a need to include some supplementation to get the kinds of dramatic results we are likely seeking.
I always think of the supplement question like this: a supplement is designed to boost what we already might take in through food or to replace a nutrient we don’t get from food. Probiotics help to improve the balance of bacteria in our guts, for example. Vitamin D helps us boost what we naturally get from the sun and multivitamins bridge nutritional gaps from our diets.
When we don’t have a great diet to begin with, or when we are beginning to change our diet but have already found ourselves in a health hole, sometimes food alone is not enough to get the amount we need. If we take hormonal birth control, NSAIDs, Metformin, or many other prescription drugs, we may be actively depleting nutrients from our bodies as well, making it even harder to get enough.
Our soil quality is lacking, which makes it difficult as well. At one time, we could get enough minerals like zinc from foods grown in organically rich soil, but with modern agriculture combined with modern diet, we have to eat more of the same healthy foods to get the same amount of nutrient we might have gotten fifty years ago. Zinc is one example of this, many Americans struggle to get enough zinc and this is one mineral with drastically smaller amounts in soil and produce than before.
Chronic illness is associated with nutrient deficiency so when we have a chronic condition like PCOS, we should suspect that we may have deficiencies in some nutrients. Common nutrient deficiencies in PCOS are glutathione, folate, and zinc. In the American population at large, the most common nutrient deficiencies are potassium, omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin D.
The average person may be willing to eat more healthful foods and there will be major benefit to doing this. But the average person is probably not likely to spend the amount of detailed time and energy to daily assure they not only meet their minimum daily requirements, but consume enough excess of certain nutrients to have therapeutic benefit. This is where supplementation can really help.
Many of us have struggles with absorption and digestion, as well. If you deal with food allergies, autoimmunity, or IBS, you may struggle with absorbing as much as you can from foods. The same issue will still likely happen with supplements, but a more concentrated dose ensures more will make it into your system while you are working to improve your underlying health.
Research shows benefit for many nutritional supplements in modern health condition. There is ample evidence to support the supplementation of certain strains of bacteria, of antioxidants, of b-vitamins like folate, vitamin D supplementation in the deficient, and many more.
We often vacillate as a society between saying the supplements are worthless or that they’re dangerous and should only be prescribed by doctors. Which one is it? It cannot be both.
Just because something is natural, does not mean it is inert or that any benefits you see are the result of a placebo effect. If we know that many supplements can give us toxicity in high enough amounts, then we also know that something is happening when we take them. If we know that supplements can interact with prescription medications, then we know that they are not just passing through us. I believe, as do most in the field of nutrition, that supplements should be carefully consumed and ideally monitored by someone with educational credential on the supplement itself and possible interactions in the body and with medications.
Many medications have begun as simple components of foods that were distilled into their most powerful components and then packaged into pill form to provide therapeutic benefit. The same can be true of supplements when taken in the right dosages and the right quality.
The major problem with supplements, in my opinion, is that they are so easily overrun by capitalistic desire to benefit off people’s fear and ignorance.
The supplements found at a grocery store or marketed online are often low quality, not third party tested (so they often contain contamination- even things like lead), contain proprietary blends that are just covers for weak amounts of active ingredients, and have a very throw something at the wall and see what sticks approach.
Many brands of supplements that are dedicated to safety, quality, and purity don’t allow their products to be sold on grocery store shelves or via large online retailers because they want to ensure only qualified practitioners like doctors and licensed nutritionists can recommend these supplements and ethically monitor the clients they put them on.
This is why many of the brands that I frequently use aren’t even available to the public.
However, there are several high quality brands that do make their products available to the public and these are the ones I typically recommend through my blog and social media channels. These brands also pay me a commission when I market for them but I only align myself with brands I trust and have used before I ever had the opportunity to make online income marketing them. When you buy through my links you help make sure I can dedicate continued time to my online work and I’m so grateful for that.
Recently, I’ve been trying to streamline my supplement recommendations on the blog, so I’ve created a “recommended supplement” page. On this page I plan to include common issues I’m asked about- things like PCOS, inflammation and insulin resistance and to provide a few key supplements that may help the average person with those issues improve their overall health. I’ll include information about what they do and why and link you to my dispensary if you’d like to purchase the specific one I recommend.
This page will not act as a substitute for higher levels of support, but it might be a good place to start. You can take these products to your health practitioner and ask them to make sure they are safe for you.
If you’d like higher level help with supplements and you have PCOS, consider taking my PCOS course- Functional PCOS. This course is a comprehensive, 12 week program designed to help with your PCOS from the root and includes meal plans, grocery lists, educational modules and resources, as well as a guide to supplements for PCOS that is very thorough. You can find Functional PCOS here.
My colleague, Hannah (of The Conscious Nutritionist) and I will also be running a group program for PCOS in Fall 2022. If you’d like to stay up to date on that, please add your email to my list here.