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Supplements have a multitude of health benefits, but understanding which ones are right for you and how to best utilize them in your daily routine can feel overwhelming at times. We have created this guide in order to provide some tips and tricks for taking supplements in a safe and effective manner. 

Supplements Overview

A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a dietary ingredient, intended to supplement the diet. The dietary ingredients in these products may include vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites.

Supplements can be used to maintain good health, manage micronutrient deficiency, provide energy and macronutrient needs that are difficult to achieve through food intake, directly enhance performance, manipulate physique, alleviate pain, accelerate injury recovery, and improve mood.

Why are Vitamins so Important? 

PennMedicine describes it perfectly, “Vitamins and minerals are essential to helping your body develop and function as it should. While most people get all of what’s recommended by eating healthy, others need a little extra nutrient boost. That’s where supplements come in — providing you with the support your body needs to stay healthy.”

The standard American diet is full of refined carbohydrates, processed foods and excessive sugar intake. Unfortunately many people are lacking the essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can leave you deficient in many key nutrients. We know many of these deficiencies can lead to chronic disease. For some, supplementation fills a void due to dietary constraints or food allergies. For others, supplementation is a way of being proactive in order to avoid future deficiencies. In this sense, supplements are sort of like an insurance policy. Overall, supplementation can help decrease your risk of chronic disease and reduce your long term health care costs. 

Your supplement regimen needs to cater to your specific individual needs. Taking the functional medicine approach and identifying the root cause of the deficiency is always the first step. Whether it is poor lifestyle choices, lack of exercise, an existing poor diet, poor digestion, lack of energy, stress or a medical condition, we believe that examining these variables and working with a healthcare professional to create a customized plan is crucial when building a healthy supplement regimen. 


Supplementation Best Practices

There can be a lot of questions when discussing dietary supplements: When should I take my supplements? How can I measure my vitamin levels? How much iron supplements should I take? How many supplements are too many? Can I take supplements on an empty stomach?... All valid questions, but in order to accurately break down the best individual plan of action it is necessary to start by looking at a few parameters in order to narrow the focus. Appropriately prescribed supplements that follow a diligent planning process fall into four relatively clear categories:

  1. Nutrient supplements for the treatment or prevention of nutrient deficiencies
  2. Foods providing energy or nutrients when it is impractical to consume everyday foods
  3. Performance supplements that directly enhance exercise capacity
  4. Supplements that provide indirect benefits through recovery, body composition management, and other goals

When building a supplement regimen that works for you it is important to clearly define your goals and acknowledge any current deficiencies or obstacles within your existing diet/lifestyle. 

Third Party Testing Supplements

When considering which supplements to take it is essential to consider purchasing high-quality supplements from trusted sources. Whether you are an individual looking for a supplement that adheres to dietary restrictions, a competitive athlete in need of sport-compliant regulations, or you simply want to make sure your supplements are manufactured according to quality standards, third-party certifications can help guide you. 

Third-party certified products are helpful because they typically display seals for each acquired certification directly on the product’s label to help consumers make educated decisions on both quality and source. 

Common third-party certification include:

  • Gluten-free (e.g., Certified Gluten-Free)
  • Non-GMO (e.g., Non-GMO Project Verified)
  • Organic (e.g., USDA Organic, Canada Organic)
  • Vegan (e.g., Certified Vegan)
  • USADA - NSF Certified for Sport

Third-party testing of supplements can also help determine whether a product is free of contaminants, such as heavy metals and pesticides. You want to make sure that your are giving your body the nutrients these supplements are intended for. You also want to be wise and not waste money on false claims. Understanding third party testing protocols and the third party certifications will help you make informed decisions as a consumer and ensure you are getting the intended benefits of the products themselves. 

Water-Soluble vs. Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Bioavailability: “The proportion of a drug or other substance which enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.”

Vitamins are absorbed into the body in many different ways. In order to better understand these processes we classify them as either being fat-soluble or water-soluble:

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins include the B-complex group (all 12) as well as vitamin C. These vitamins are dissolved in water and readily absorbed into tissues for immediate use. They often need to be replenished via one’s regular diet since they are not stored in the body. These vitamins do not accumulate in the body and any water-soluble vitamins that go unused are primarily flushed out of the system through urine.

Type of water-soluble vitamins:

  • Vitamin C 
  • B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, folic acid, and B12

Fat-soluble Vitamins

Simply put, these vitamins are dissolved in fats and are absorbed through the lymphatic system. As these vitamins get absorbed they are stored in your body’s liver, adipose (fat) tissue and skeletal muscle and can remain available for extended periods of time. This is why it is crucial to monitor fat-soluble vitamin levels since excessive amounts can cause adverse effects. 

There are four types of fat-soluble vitamins: 

  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin A

Key Takeaways

  • It is crucial to take a systematic approach to supplementation to ensure maximum efficacy with minimum risk
  • Supplements should be used as part of a balanced diet where deficiencies are identified
  • Supplements should not be used to replace whole foods
  • Supplement dose and timing are important, and more isn’t always necessarily better
  • Make sure to read the labels carefully and look for proof of quality third party testing 
  • Consulting a sports nutritionist or dietitian will ensure that an effective and safe supplementation plan is created.