PSA: Your Vitamins Might Be Full of Sh*t
To most, “wellness” means nurturing physical & mental health, better food choices and taking an array of vitamins and supplements. But are these vitamins really helping?
With a cascade of questionably endorsed vitamins, teas, powders and shakes (some of which have allegedly caused devastating side effects), the line between expectation and reality can get blurry in the wellness world.
Fun fact: the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements. This leaves some potentially harmful brands touting false information on store shelves, while most consumers are none the wiser.
The evidence that vitamins are even necessary is shaky at best, and the results from study after study are mixed; when asked, most nutritionists will tell you that eating a healthy, well balanced diet will give you all the nutrients you need. No supplements required.
Despite weak evidence and inconsistent results, vitamins and supplements remain in high demand. Vegans/vegetarians, older adults and pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular are encouraged to take supplements, whether they're lacking vitamins due to diet or natural changes to their bodies (1). Over the last few decades, the introduction of Chinese herbal medicine into Western society has also brought age old remedies to modern consumers who may be seeking alternative solutions to traditional supplements.
So, what's the scoop? Are our beloved daily doses of health actually full of shit?😳 Here’s what you need to know.
Choose reputable vitamin brands
The #1 vitamin rule you must NEVER forget: Only. Buy. From. Trusted. Manufacturers.
While it’s tempting to trust an enticing marketing strategy boasting incredible results, purchasing supplements from unaccredited companies is dangerous. With no FDA regulation, dietary supplements are free to list nutrients under false pretenses. Just to give you an idea of how deep this goes: some companies have attempted to boost sales by labelling incorrect percentages of vitamins, even going so far as to list ingredients that aren’t actually included at all. Yes, that's straight up lying. Yes, we're shook too.🤔
To ensure this doesn't happen to you, start with a company you know you can trust. Luckily, several brands have emerged from the increased global interest in wellness and built their businesses around the idea that vitamins should be exactly what they say they are. Ritual, the “transparency first” multivitamin brand first introduced in 2016, is one solid choice. Ritual makes a point to lift the veil between the consumer and product development, with features like clinical studies available to read on their website.
Although the extra cost may deter some, the phrase is true: "you get what you pay for".
Unsure of a brand’s reputation? STOP, RESEARCH, THEN DECIDE. A quick Google search for reviews can save you time and money, not to mention the pain from taking bad supplements, or the disappointment of buying a defective product that actually does nothing.
Considering a *sweeter* alternative? Although tempting and delicious, gummy vitamin brands (we’re not naming names, but you know which ones we’re talking about) simply aren’t as potent as taking a regular vitamin pill. Loaded with crappy ingredients to create the sugary, gummy texture consumers crave, brands end up choosing taste over efficacy, leaving important vitamins out in favor of flavor. Our advice? Stick to regular pills, powders and tinctures for best results.
What vitamins should I take?
This is where things get a little... tricky.
Depending on who you ask (and who you are), you may get a different answer to this question. Like we said before, most nutritionists will tell you that you already consume most of the vitamins you need through your everyday diet.
However, if you aren’t eating well already, have dietary restrictions (like being vegan/vegetarian), or deal with any other vitamin deficiencies, supplements can help rebalance your nutrient levels. Here’s a few to consider:
We’re spending an exorbitant amount of time indoors this year, which translates to less sunlight exposure. Taking a Vitamin D supplement can make up for less outdoor time, and it helps promote strong bones in the process. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to hair loss and an increased risk of getting sick (which is obviously concerning in a time like this). Unlike most vitamins, it's difficult to consume enough Vitamin D, so supplements are not only helpful but, in most cases, necessary.
Zinc helps keep your body running in tip-top shape by supporting immune function and effectively fighting the common cold (2) (don’t let the Vitamin C hype fool you - zinc will do the trick just fine). Although you probably get enough zinc in your diet already, those with gastrointestinal diseases, vegetarians, and pregnant women should consider adding zinc to their medicine cabinet. Feeling a bit stressed out? Zinc levels lower when you’re under pressure, so taking a supplement could help minimize stress-related ailments.
Contributing to better brain function and increased energy (3), iron is an important aspect of female health during periods of growth and development (like puberty or getting pregnant). Women benefit from iron supplements around the time of her menstrual cycle in particular. If you’re skipping red meat in your diet in favor of plant based options, consider adding a daily dose of iron - you might not be getting enough otherwise. However, be wary: having a stomach condition like ulcerative colitis can make iron too harsh to digest, leading to digestive issues, so start slowly and monitor results carefully.
Taking a vitamin that’s not on this list?
That's fair - but you might already be consuming enough of it in your diet.
If you’re eating a well-rounded mix of protein, fruits and vegetables, congratulations: you’re probably ok without a supplement. However, if you think you might be lacking somewhere, consult a doctor to find out which supplements are necessary for you. Not only can they assess your current diet and recommend the correct vitamins to add, but they can also recommend the safe and proper dosage. Believe it or not, you can overdose on vitamins, putting your health at risk which can cause serious long-term damage. The bottom line: be careful.
Alternative solutions: Chinese herbal medicine
There's a long and storied history behind Chinese herbal medicine, both scientifically and spiritually. Although controversial in many ways and in need of a lot more research, herbal medicine has become increasingly common amongst those seeking alternatives to traditional Western supplements. Around one in five Americans are using herbal medicine on a regular basis to improve their health.
*Finally some good news*: unlike dietary supplements, herbs are heavily regulated by the FDA . Due to extensive standards for manufacturing, labeling, and marketing of herbal remedies, these products are generally safe for consumption as long as the merchandiser follows proper protocol.
TL;DR: do your research, just like with vitamins!
Traditional Chinese herbal medicine: the cliffnotes
Tapping directly into the spiritual aspect of wellness, traditional Chinese herbal medicine practices center their work on your energy. A practitioner will first examine your Yin and Yang, which represent the two energies in balance within your body. These two energies are collectively referred to as your Qi (“chee”). The practitioner will then take note of your stress levels, pollution exposure, diet, emotional state, and any possible infections you may have. Finally, they prescribe a concoction of herbs to directly address what these energies and external factors tell them that you need.
Simply put: instead of adding specific vitamins to fill deficiencies, Chinese herbal medicine uses herbs to balance the function of your entire system. Bonus: many herbs have anti-inflammatory effects, which helps keep your skin moods pleasant and manageable.
These days, tinctures, powders, and pills containing ancient Chinese herbs are used to help fight stroke, heart disease, mental disorders, and respiratory diseases like bronchitis or a cold (4). Herbal medicine, unlike most vitamins, are made from a mix of extremely potent natural elements. Because of this, it’s important to dose carefully - too high of a dosage can lead to harsh side effects and extreme discomfort. A practitioner can help you figure out how much is best for you, so always seek professional guidance (or buy from a trusted brand).
Still on the fence about Chinese herbal medicine? you’re not alone. Scientists have long struggled to definitively dismiss or admit claims of Chinese herbal medicine's effectiveness. Certain traditional practices have even been deemed unethical, causing more controversy in its wake.
Even still, progress has been made to seal its legitimacy: just last year, for the first time the World Health Organization included Chinese herbal remedies in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) (5). While the murkiness surrounding the topic is evident, there is still increased public interest in experiencing the effects of herbal remedies. With a nod of approval from WHO, we could see more traditional Chinese practices reach a mainstream audience in the near future.
If this has convinced you to experiment with alternative medicine, we want to make sure you stay safe while science catches up: be sure and stick to trustworthy brands and retailers, and do you research before clicking purchase. This will ensure you’re consuming non-toxic herbs, supporting ethical practices, and getting the most accurate dosage instructions to help you heal from the inside out.
A more balanced you
Clearly, supplements of any kind aren't a cure all.
However, some aren’t even being truthful with their products, causing frustration and unexpected health issues for consumers. The best approach is to maintain a balanced diet and take note of what your body is telling you, then narrow down where you could use vitamin boost (if at all).
Take a second look at your medicine cabinet to ensure you’re taking only what is necessary, and visit your doctor - or Chinese herbal medicine practitioner - to learn more about your current needs and what works best for you.
Written by Adrianne Neal