The Mindful Guide to Supplements
WE SORT THROUGH THE HISTORY AND THE HOOPLA TO HELP YOU MAKE THE BEST CHOICE
Our collective interest in wellness is rooted in our desire to improve. Whether it’s getting stronger at the gym, moving up at work, or expanding knowledge by taking a class or reading a book, we are always looking to “do better.” Our health is no different, and dietary supplements are an extension of this desire: something we can use to impact our health in the hope of seeing change.
The challenge lies in becoming an informed consumer. In a crowded market plagued by misinformation and flashy marketing, how do you decide what to take? Supplements can be a powerful tool for building a body that feels like home—provided you do your research and choose your regimen mindfully.
From Traditional Medicines to the Present
You could say that the original supplements were developed by practices like Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, with their focus on herbs and botanicals as beneficial additions to a regular diet. Take, for example, Chinese medicine and green tea: the earliest known brewing of green tea occurred as early as 2737 BC, yet western civilization didn’t make the connection between green tea and its full cognitive benefits until the late 20th and even early 21st century, when scientists began studying the full spectrum of benefits that amino acid L-theanine, found in green tea leaves, offered.
While ancient cultures and practices continued to use the power of plant-based cures and nutrients for centuries, the development and understanding of the “dietary supplement” was essentially brought about by two separate entities working separately at the same time: the popularization of herbal remedies and the development of the first multivitamins. Here’s what happened.
It All Starts with Snake Oil
There’s a reason that we obsess over quality and transparency in our supplements today. Not only has regulation struggled to keep up with the rapidly expanding market, the first “supplements” themselves were false promises. They were full of ingredients that didn’t match up to their labels, bogus remedies that masqueraded as cures. Unfortunately, it seems like many supplement brands haven’t learned from the past, as a recent study found that four out of five supplements didn’t contain any of the herbs listed on the label––causing many to automatically brand all supplements as “snake oils.”
If you’ve ever watched a western film, you’ve probably seen this character: a peddler or traveling salesman selling “snake oil,” a miracle elixir that can heal everything from sore throats to animal bites with instant results.
This caricature is rooted in fact. The 18th century in America brought an influx of approximate Chinese immigrants, who ventured west to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. With them, according to historian Richard White, was the original, real snake oil. Made from oil derived from the Chinese water snake, this original formula was rich in omega-3 fatty acids and therefore legitimately effective; its anti-inflammatory properties helped workers relieve painful joints after days of hard railroad work. The Chinese workers then shared this oil with their American counterparts, who decided to recreate it.
But the snake oil that the Americans began to sell wasn’t the real deal. The first problem: supply chain. Chinese water snakes were native to China, so peddlers needed an alternative source, and turned to rattlesnakes to create their version. The second problem: the rattlesnake version was far less effective than the original Chinese one. Despite this, Americanized snake oil became a hit.
Reining in a Wild Market
Yet as you can imagine, we refer to products that are falsely advertised as “snake oils” because these products were not effective in the slightest. The beginning of the 20th century marked the US government going after bogus medicinal products. After Upton Sinclair wrote his book, The Jungle, which put a spotlight on horrific conditions in meatpacking plants, The Food and Drug Act of 1906 was swiftly passed, which put the first restrictions and guidelines on these industries –– specifically, introducing accountability by requiring that food and drugs be labeled accurately and regulated. This act lay the groundwork for the Food and Drug Administration to be founded years later, in 1930.
Snake oil was one of the first on the chopping block. After decades of false advertising, in 1915, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment, which was arguably the most popular snake oil product, was publicly debunked by the US government. A government-ordered test revealed that it was composed of light mineral oil, turpentine, and beef fat. Unbeknownst to his customers, it contained zero actual snake oil. Clark Stanley was charged and fined $20.
Meanwhile, the Vitamin
While the US government was catching up to the products on the market, scientists were working on another product: multivitamins. 1906 was a big year, not just for the Food and Drug Act, but also because it was the year that scientist Frederick Gowland Hopkins first hinted at what is now regarded as “vitamin theory” during a speech in London, saying: “...no animal can live upon a mixture of pure protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and even when the necessary inorganic material is carefully supplied the animal still cannot flourish” –– something that Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines had long believed and practiced.
This prompted further research, to discover exactly what substances gave our bodies nutrients. They were called “accessory food factors,” by Hopkins, and officially, in 1912, coined “vitamines” by scientist Casimir Funk, who went on to discover thirteen vitamins, including vitamin C; eight forms of vitamin B; and the four fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Scientists began to realize that specific health concerns could be traced back to diet, and the lack of essential nutrients could prove detrimental to human health. By the 1940s, multivitamins had been introduced to the market, marking the beginning of skyrocketing growth. By the 1970s, the market was inundated with “high-dose multivitamins” –– prompting a focus from the FDA.
specific health concerns could be traced back to diet, and the lack of essential nutrients could prove detrimental to human health.
The FDA Steps In: An Official Definition
It’s safe to say that we’ve come a long way from snake oils, but as the supplement industry continues to grow rapidly, it is perhaps more essential than ever to scrutinize the quality and ensure that what you’re getting in your supplement stands up.
Though several acts had been passed throughout the early-mid 20th century in an attempt for quality control and safety, the FDA had an issue: there was confusion as to whether dietary supplements should be classified as food or as drugs, meaning that there was difficulty in determining exactly how they should be regulated.
In 1994, the FDA passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which set the official regulations and guidelines as not only to what supplements definitively are (“a product taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement or enhance the diet,”), but also how they should be named, labeled, and described. It was made explicitly clear that they are not drugs and “are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure disease,” and that anyone found to claim otherwise could be held legally responsible.
It came just in time. In 1994, more than 4,000 different dietary supplements were on the market. By 2000, that number expanded to 29,000, and the market is expected to reach $216.3 billion dollars by the year 2026. With more products brings more options, but also additional information, making it tricky for you to determine exactly what you should be taking. And even though the foundational legislation has been passed, food is still more heavily regulated than dietary supplements (just take the fact that the Health Department conducts regular, surprise inspections of restaurants for example!), most likely because people are still confused as to what dietary supplements are: food, drug, or something else entirely? The regulatory buck is passed, putting the onus on you, the consumer, to seek out quality.
it's essential to scrutinize the quality and ensure that what you’re getting in your supplement stands up.
So Which Supplements Do You Need?
Think of your body like a house to be built. You have to start with a sturdy foundation. Once that’s in place, you can build the walls, the ceilings, the floor, the roof. But if you skip that foundation, or build one with shoddy materials, the rest of your house will come crumbling down, leaving you to have to build it up from the base again. And, just like a house, as time passes, your body may need different materials to keep it up and running, from repairing the joints or focusing on different, separate sections that weaken with age.
So while you may want to try a hair-skin-and-nails vitamin or debloat pill, it’s the equivalent of trying to hang a picture in your house before you’ve put up the walls. Filling in your nutrition gaps and giving your body the right doses of essential vitamins and minerals each day is crucial when it comes to supplements.
With more products come more options...making it tricky for you to determine exactly what you should be taking.
Start With A Strong Base
With that in mind, we turn to build out our nutritional base. There are 13 vitamins and 16 minerals that our bodies need to function; in addition to proper levels of protein, which helps build everything from muscle to skin; omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive support and heart health; and the right balance of bacteria in the gut to keep digestion smooth.
Ideally, our diet would provide us with everything we need, as our bodies are best at absorbing and using nutrients from food, but this isn’t always an option. Even those who eat a “perfect diet” rich in cruciferous vegetables, proteins, minerals, and more could be subject to deficiencies.
This is where supplements come in. To guarantee that your nutritional bases are fully covered, dietary supplements fill in the areas where you may be lacking, allowing you to build your healthiest body.
How to Choose Supplements: Four Things to Look For
The easiest place to start is to look into essential multivitamins, or curated daily supplement packs that take your body’s overall well-being into account instead of targeting specific health goals. Remember: you have to build your house before you decorate. Look out for these nutrients, considered fairly universal for human health: a multivitamin, an omega, a probiotic, a B complex, and a mineral supplement with calcium and magnesium.
Look for brands that create supplements derived from ingredients you recognize, ideally ones that are food-based. If you see a label that describes their ingredients as “bioavailable”, this is a good thing! This means that the ingredients are presented in their most absorbable forms, and are more effectively used by your body.
Keep an eye out for B vitamins in their methylated forms. Methylation is a natural chemical process that occurs in the body, in which B vitamins are converted into their active forms, which are important for several bodily functions. Some people have a MTHFR gene mutation, meaning that their bodies are unable to complete this process naturally, and need to take methylated vitamins to ensure they get the correct, regulated doses of B vitamins. Even if you don’t have that gene, it is still safe for you to take methylated vitamins, but just covers that base.
Many mineral supplements offer mega-high doses, but quality beats quantity here. Choose a mineral supplement that is “chelated,” meaning the minerals are bound to amino acids to ensure that your body can use them entirely, without leaving any excess behind (which could lead to free radical damage within the body). Chelated minerals can be nearly twice as absorbable by the body as the more common citrates, meaning you can take a smaller dose to get the intended effect.
How to Choose Supplements: Three Things You Should Avoid
The safety of artificial colors and flavors has been debated for decades, and many have been found to be toxic or carcinogenic. As it currently stands, the FDA only approves seven dyes for use in the United States. Avoid the risk by steering clear.
All of these ingredients have been linked to detrimental health effects, from kidney damage to stomach cancer. Any supplement that contains one or more of these is definitely one to avoid.
The nutrients in your supplements have to come from somewhere, so not knowing where your ingredients come from means you can’t be sure what you’re taking. For instance, did you know most vitamin A comes from fish livers? That means you could be ingesting mercury or other toxins along with your multivitamin. Prioritize supplements that are transparent about their sourcing practices.
At the end of the day, it’s all about trust. If you need to, do some background on the company: are they cruelty-free? Where are their ingredients sourced from? What research backs their formulas? When in doubt, a good policy is to simplify. Start with the essentials, and go from there. Take the time to build your house right the first time, and you’ll have a body that feels like home.
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