What to Believe When Choosing a Supplement?


Is it all just expensive pee? How do you know what to believe when choosing a supplement?

Do vitamin and mineral supplements even work? Isn’t popping a nutritional or herbal pill an expensive way to colour your pee yellow? There is so much conflicting information about supplements in the news and on social media how do you work out the fact from the fiction?

Almost every day a client will tell me they are taking magnesium for their period pain/ mood disorder/ sleep issues / muscle soreness/ constipation but it is not working and they are upset because of the wasted time, money and failed expectations. .  

I typically ask my clients to bring in all the supplements they are taking or have lurking in a cupboard so I can eyeball and educate.  As we work our way  through the bags and bags of pill bottles most women have at home we talk about:

-     what each ingredient in the supplement has been studied for

-     if it is in fact useful for what they were hoping it would do

-     what dosage to take to reach the health goal desired

-     best time of day to take the supplement

-     with or without food

-     medications interactions

-     other supplement interactions

-     how long they should take the product.

Most of my clients have never been given this information and yet they have bought literally hundreds and hundreds of dollars in supplements that are not working for them.

So let’s set the record straight about how to sort the good from the bad!

Here’s what you need to know and ask before you get out your wallet, find your credit card and invest your pay packet in what could be the most helpful thing you did in your journey to wellness or very expensive pee.  

1.       What dose and for how long?

If the person recommending the supplement cannot answer or research how much and for how long you should take it - do not buy what they are selling! 

Good quality scientific research done on humans always states dosage and duration with the results achieved. Why would you spend money on something that has not been researched on humans?

If you are shopping online you need to hunt down the research yourself or read blogs where they describe the research- there is a reason why the product you are buying is cheaper online there is no need to build in the cost of staffing.

2. Who were the people the study was performed on?

If the person recommending the supplement cannot answer or research if you match the population the nutrient was studied on - do not buy what they are selling. 

Have you heard iodine is useful in thyroid conditions? Let’s talk about it!

Do you match the population the nutrient was studied on: does the amount of iodine a healthy Japanese person eating a traditional diet equate to the amount of iodine needed by an Australian, American or British person with Hashimoto’s or Graves eating a standard western diet with an anglo-saxon ethnicity?  

Dosage:  Should you take more or less iodine if you are not of Japanese ethnicity eating a fish & vegetable diet?

Do you take more or less iodine because you have a thyroid condition but the Japanese population statistic does not specify if they factor in autoimmune thyroid conditions?

What is your weight as compared with average weight of the Japanese people studied?

Have you asked yourself what if it goes horribly wrong? Does the person selling you the iodine accept the very real consequences of the guess they made if you end up in hospital with the symptoms of a heart attack? Do you?  

Using another very common weight loss example I see regularly: 

is a weight loss supplement researched only on fit and healthy men aged 18 - 21 mean weight loss can be expected by a post menopausal woman aged over 55 on multiple medications for chronic conditions living a largely sedentary life? If you choose to take the supplement studied only on fit, young men with large amounts of muscle on no medications do you take more of the supplement or less of the supplement? 

3. When did study participants take the supplement?

A supplement may only be beneficial at one stage of a disease or condition and not another, so studies done at different stages may have different results.

Some supplements are better at night or in the day. Some are boosted by being taken with food and others need to be taken on an empty stomach to even have an impact.

For example Vitamin C may be an increase the amount of hormones your body gets from thyroid medication whereas calcium or iron may reduce the amount of thyroid medication absorbed.

4. How did researchers measure the supplement’s effectiveness?

If you are told a herbal remedy gives you more energy what does that mean? Is it sleeping less or sleeping more, mental acuity or physical energy? Is one more important to you than another?

5.  Was the ingredient studied the same ingredient that is in the supplement?

A study done on the impact of a plant on the weight loss of women with Hashimoto’s was from the plant’s dry seed pounded into a powder and put in a capsule. If you take a liquid form of that plant extracted into alcohol should you expect to get the same results?

The answer to the question do supplements even work is - YES! As long as the right supplement, in the right dose is matched with the people studied in the research.  If not there it is a lucky draw if you are helping or harming your health.

The Harvard School of Public Health published a guideline to shoppers on how to work out if a supplement might be useful to you or not and it is this article that started the conversation with you.  Jump here to read their article.

Have you ever been given advice on a nutrient or herb that you later found just simply did not work for you?

In health,

Sonia x


Harvard School of Public Health (2018). “Supplement Studies: Sorting Out the Confusion” Retrieved from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/supplement-studies/?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Chan-Twitter-General

Sonia McNaughton