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  • Writer's pictureMadalyn Otto

Choosing the BEST Supplements

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

The Supplement Industry is like the Wild West. How do we use these natural tools safely without getting burned?

There was a big “bust” in 2015 by the New York State Attorney General’s office when GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart were all found to be selling supplements that were adulterated, incredibly misleading, and down-right unsafe for consumers. Upon independent testing, their herbal and nutritional supplements were guilty of having NONE of the main ingredient actually in the product, as well as containing a host of ingredients NOT LISTED on the label! That means that the Ginkgo supplement you bought contained ZERO Ginkgo, but may have contained a big dose of rice, garlic and fillers.

As a functional medicine doctor, I find this beyond disturbing for many reasons. First of all, it confirms that my ongoing fury about the lack of regulation within the supplement industry is warranted. As a consumer within the natural health world, you would think you would at least be guaranteed verified ingredients on a label.

It’s hard enough to be an every-day customer out there in an unregulated market when you truly cannot believe any of health claims proposed as many of them are without evidence. Unless you are under the care of a qualified practitioner who is deeply familiar and experienced with the natural medicine toolbox, you are most likely depending on dubious information sourced slowly and painstakingly from internet pages. Now, on top of that, if you’re buying supplements commercially, these “supplement busts” that pop up every few years prove that you’re likely getting scammed.

I’ve always been big on personal liberties. I’ve always felt that patients should decide on their health path and how they source it. But this will always be true: You get what you pay for. Whenever you purchase inexpensive, commercial supplements, you take a risk. In my practice, I use/recommend professional-grade supplements for two primary reasons:

1) SAFETY: Not only will a junky supplement from many retailers be totally useless to you, but it may very well be harmful. That Turmeric formula you bought may contain substances to which you have an allergy, or may be contaminated by harmful microbes, heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, or herbal alkaloids that haven’t been standardized. This could at best cause other symptoms, or at worst, be the reason for “a supplement” to land you in the hospital.

2) EFFICACY: My entire practice is based on using lifestyle and nutritional/herbal medicines to create positive and often drastic improvements in an individual’s health. I need to know that I am prescribing the highest quality, clinically verified, and thoroughly and independently tested formulas so that I can successfully manage a patient’s case from start point to end point. Simply put, if I didn’t have access to the gold-standard professional nutraceutical companies that I use, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

How do you know if a company is quality? The easiest answer to this question is to ask your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor. And no, your primary care doc or conventional specialist likely won’t have a clue how to truly differentiate companies. The reason for this is that the supplement industry is one of the most poorly regulated industries out there (hence repeated incidences like the one in the aforementioned “2015 bust”), and the bar for quality of manufacturing is pretty low.

The “Good Manufacturing Practices” requires standardization, consistency and traceability of manufacturing practices (though the actual enforcement of even these bare-bones requirements has been questioned). However, it says little about what quality actually means, and what optimal procedures are or should be. For instance, sourcing and harvesting botanicals (herbs) is complicated, and to ensure potency and efficacy, testing throughout the process including during cultivation and as well multiple steps throughout manufacturing and shelf-life is crucial to confer physiological benefit and prevent harm. For example, some herbs can actually be quite harmful if they are not harvested properly and are contaminated before manufacturing even begins. There is a lot of discussion in herbalist communities about this:

That lack of appropriate sourcing and testing practices by the supplement industry are the true cause of the rare instance where an herb is implicated in causing harm or death to consumers, rather than the herb itself.

A professional-grade company does not simply comply with “GMP” (Good Manufacturing Practices") guidelines, but exceeds them with shooting stars and flying colors. They guarantee high sourcing standards including supply source and raw material testing. They test for microbial impurities, heavy metals, potency and bioavailability throughout the production process. This means before harvest to ensure harvesting is occurring at the right time (if we’re talking herbs), as well as repeating this extensive testing at every stage of production to prevent contamination in the final product. Then, they perform stability testing for the entire shelf-life of the product you bought. So if you purchased something in July of 2015 and it expires July of 2018, you can know for certain that in June of 2018, the product is still valuable. They will use extraction/processing methods that have been verified by both data from literature as well as by the hundreds or thousands of years of empirical clinical data (hmm…consulting with professional herbalists to understand how herbs should be used…imagine that). And, they avoid using chemicals like hexane, acetone and other solvents to extract (this is a big problem when it comes to protein powders - a brief explanation about extraction processes of protein powder supplements can be found here).

They will also only use food-grade fillers. And last but certainly not least, their labels are ACCURATE. They label the actual ingredients and dosages as well as any allergens, excipients and genetically modified ingredients. All of their products are then third-party tested to ensure that the label information is accurate so that the consumer (and health care provider) can make informed decisions about treatment changes.

I could go on and on about how companies sacrifice quality to cut costs, vitamin and mineral forms and bioavailability, etc., but we’ll save that for another time. Bottom line, if you want to use natural medicines to support your health or to help correct a disease process, quality is essential. I hope this article gives you insight to make the best health decisions for yourself and your family.

In Health,

Dr. Otto

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