I recently started working with a new functional medicine patient. This person has a gluten-mediated autoimmune condition as well as a sensitivity to corn. After a review of their medical history & symptomology, my clinical experience lead me to believe that other grains may be causing an issue as well. In addition to recommending a trial removal of all grains, I suggested that they start on a basic anti-inflammatory supplement regime.
Due to multiple sensitivities, the patient had been wary of taking any supplements. In her experience many contained ingredients of dubious quality that may have been derived from corn. Often the people at the health food store could make recommendations about what she should take, but couldn’t verify that any given formula was safe for her.
Let’s just say she wasted a lot of money on those supplements, for not much benefit. She even reported that a few of them made her feel even worse.
Even though I am very careful about the quality of the products I carry and recommend, I went a step further and called the companies directly to verify exactly where all of their ingredients in each of the formulas I had recommended came from. (This was more for her benefit than mine. I have been using this line of products for quite some time and knew them to be of very high quality.) A company making a quality product will know exactly where all of their ingredients come from and use the highest-quality ingredients possible. They will also test their products and source ingredients regularly for purity, which is part of what drives up their cost.
Unfortunately, you just can’t say that about all the of supplement manufacturers. It’s sort of the Wild West out there in that there is very little regulation and oversight. A few recent studies have shown that samples taken from store shelves don’t have nearly as much of a given vitamin as stated on the label; in same cases, the formulas are contaminated with harmful ingredients. In this 2013 study, the authors concluded
Although there is considerable evidence of the benefits of herbal medicine, the industry suffers from the unethical activities by some of the manufacturers, which include false advertising, product substitutions, and contamination and use of fillers.
Because this problem is so widespread, some have even called for all vitamins & supplements to be regulated by the FDA. I don’t agree with this. These products in and of themselves are generally safe and I think these ‘folk remedies’ should remain in the hands of people to use at their discretion. Regulating them generally means that a gatekeeper will have to control access to them. It is too likely that that level of control will drive up prices and limit the ability of people to heal themselves of minor or self-limiting conditions.
To maintain access to these remedies and supplements, I think its important for patients to be conscious and use common sense when taking them. First of all, if your condition is getting worse despite the use of a formula to help it, seek out the care of a medical professional. Also, make sure to tell your doctor about any and all herbs and supplements you are taking. Better yet, tell your pharmacist when you are picking up your prescription medications, if you take them. Though herbs & supplements are generally safe, they can have problematic or even dangerous interactions with prescription medications.
The other thing is be conscious of the quality of the supplements you are taking. Yes, there is often a big difference in the quality of a supplement you get from a licensed healthcare practitioner and one you buy at the Big Box store and yes, that quality is often reflected in the price. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you are taking herbs & supplements in the first place, it’s probably because you are trying to avoid developing a bigger and more costly health problem? So why skimp on that protection?
The difference in quality often means that the supplement is more effective as well. Going back to the patient I referenced at the beginning of this post, she’s doing significantly better on the anti-inflammatory protocol I put her on. The supplements have made a huge difference in her quality of life- she has more energy, fewer aches and pains and recovers faster from flare ups than she did before. The supplement protocol has helped her so much in fact, that she is afraid to run out! As functional medicine practitioner, its important to me that patients use the highest quality supplements not only for safety, but efficacy as well.