The health supplement market is growing rapidly. In 2018, the revenue from supplements is around 31 billion dollars and it is expected to increase over a billion more in 2019.  The most common reasons for using supplements were to “improve health and wellness and address nutritional gaps in one’s diet.”  Interest in health and wellness continues to increase and so too are the questions on the safety and benefits of taking supplements.
Despite the booming market for supplements, the regulations on these are relatively loose. Also, most people take supplements without consulting a healthcare provider. Only less than a quarter of supplements taken by adults were recommended by a doctor.  These are probably the reasons why there is an ongoing debate on whether supplements are good or bad for health.
Should you take supplements? I hope for you to be able to understand this by the end of this article. The goals here are for you to become your own authority in health and be able to decide whether taking supplements is right for you.
The Lens of Public Health
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article that talks about the problem with supplements. The article makes a strong case against supplements as it looks at things from a public health perspective. Well-meaning professionals look at widespread studies with thousands of participants. While they do make a difference in the health of the population, examining supplements from a public health perspective poses some problems:
- They don’t pay attention to the individual.
These studies analyze a broad sweep of the population with thousands of participants and then make recommendations without considering individual differences. They look for patterns and shifts then make public health recommendations. They are often unable to dissociate data from public-wide statistical analysis. The subjects of these studies are reduced to numbers and data. Everything is viewed as black and white. They underestimate the individual variability of the population.
- They are focused on mortality instead of morbidity data.
They're often focused on mortality data, that is, if you give people x, then the death rate is y, and therefore, we need to make z recommendation. This ignores that people have various complaints that don’t show up on mortality of morbidity data. Aches and pains, sleep trouble, general inflammation, exposure to toxins, alcohol etc. are all examples of things that have been addressed by supplements but those studies do not have the interest of people who are used to giving opinions on questions like “should people take supplements?”
Deciding on Supplements Through Personalized Medicine
To be able to know whether supplements are right for you and which ones to take, you need to be able to see them from the perspective of personalized medicine, which considers individual variability. This acknowledges the fact that everyone is different in so many ways and takes into account those differences. Now we have advancements in medicine like nutrigenomics that studies how genes and nutrition interact with each other. There are also advancements like metabolomics and proteomics that have implications for using supplements.
Sir William Osler, MD, Canadian physician and arguably, the founder of modern medicine in the US once said, “It is important to know what sort of person has a disease, then to know what sort of disease a person has.” All too often, medical doctors forget this. When a doctor sees a patient, the reflex is that he is immediately categorized as having a disease and then the doctor decides which medication to give according to that patient’s category.
Sir William Osler, MD is reminding us to know the person we are treating and to not characterize or categorize the patient. This is the essence of personalized or patient-centered medicine and believe it or not, it is also the foundation of modern medicine--even if it seems to have been forgotten by many.
When you look at supplements from the perspective of personalized medicine, you will be able to choose supplements according to your unique biological needs. You will be seen as an individual with specific needs, which can be determined by conducting in-depth patient interviews and laboratory tests.
We need this personalized information, whether that’s genetics, existing disease or predispositions, food allergies and other relevant details about the patient to be able to make the right recommendations on supplements.
I hope that understanding supplements from the perspective of personalized medicine will give you the confidence and motivation to make the right decisions on how to use these to optimize your health. In Part 2, I will address what the so-called experts have to say about supplements.
Want to become your own authority in health? Let’s talk. Set up a free consultation with me.