Is Taking Supplements Worthwhile? An integrative medicine physician’s point of view.

May 12, 2011

In my opinion, there are no cookie-cutter supplemental regimens. Every person should have a custom-tailored regimen to fit his or her health concerns.

In recent years, public interest in supplements and herbs has been expanding. Due to this growing interest in complementary medicinal options, research institutions are being given increasing funds to study these potentially therapeutic tools.

As a result of this increase in clinical research, physicians are now able to formulate evidence-based treatment regimens utilizing supplements and herbs for those patients who are interested in complementary therapies. Why am I using the word complementary?

In my opinion, when treating a patient, optimal health is achieved when we use all appropriate medical methods. That means integrating various medical methods that complement each other in order to obtain the best health outcome. As a fellowship-trained, board-certified integrative medicine physician, I believe it is essential for patients to find the appropriate combination of conventional as well as complementary therapies so as to maximize health benefits, while minimizing side effects.

Supplements and herbs should be used at dosages seen to be safe in clinical studies and aimed toward maintaining health against the symptoms or diseases addressed in the clinical studies. This is the same philosophy used by physicians in regards to prescribing conventional medications. It is important to decide on the treatment goals, and then you can decide on the most appropriate dosages of the supplements needed to help achieve these goals.

I use this same philosophy when I recommend supplements and herbs. They can be as similarly beneficial as some medications when used at appropriate dosages for a specific treatment goal, but they can also pose as much risk when used inappropriately.

While every person’s regimen should be specifically chosen for the individual, there are a few supplements that are relatively safe and appropriate for most people. For example, in general, if you are young and consume a balanced anti-inflammatory diet, you may not need a multivitamin. As we age, however, our ability to absorb nutrients from foods decreases. Older populations may need a multivitamin as a gap-filler, even if they eat a well-balanced diet.

Another supplement that may be beneficial for most people is vitamin D3, at about 1000 IU/day, because most people are deficient. However, some people may need more D3 to achieve optimal levels. Vitamin D deficiency has far-reaching negative impacts on health, including increased cancer risks and osteoporosis, just to name a few. If you are taking vitamin D3, you should also have your physician monitor levels to make sure you are correcting your level appropriately.

Fish oil is another supplement that most people are interested in taking. However, dosages that are too high may increase risks. Therefore, you should speak to your physician to see whether you should take an omega-3 supplement and at what dosage. Usually, a low dosage of 1000 mg/day is relatively safe, but again, you should discuss all supplements usage with your physician to make sure you are being monitored for side effects and getting the appropriate dosage to achieve your intended health goal.

In my opinion, there are no cookie-cutter supplemental regimens. Every person should have a custom-tailored regimen to fit his or her health concerns, just like every person should be custom-fitted for conventional medications. Ultimately, by having your physician cautiously integrate supplements and herbs with conventional medications, you may be able to achieve the optimal health outcome while decreasing adverse side effects of conventional medications.