Supplements: Ensuring a profitable return on your investment in your health

By Pamela Ruane, Assistant Professor

Welcome to Therapeutic Thymes! If you have been drawn to this magazine, it is clearly because you have an interest in natural and holistic health practices for the betterment and maintenance of your own and/or your loved ones’ health. In lending my voice to this publication, I hope not to be your “sage from the stage” but rather your “guide from the side”. Sharing knowledge from my experience as both a naturopathic and a traditional allopathic practitioner will help to set the course in empowering you to help your body do what it was biologically programmed to do: stay healthy and heal naturally!  As a naturopath, I believe that a healthy, complete diet, daily exercise, and spiritual connectedness are the foundation to good health with the base of the foundation being the diet.

“What supplements should I be taking?” In my years as a generalist in the field of family practice, it is a question I have heard often.  Daily, patients would come to my office with plastic grocery store bags filled with colorful bottles of capsules and tablets which they would dump out onto the exam table eager for my opinion. Often, the better part of our visit would be spent reviewing each one and with me seeking an explanation of why the patient elected to buy it. If our daily diet was truly nutritionally complete we would not require supplementation because we would already be supporting our bodies with all that we need. However, living in the hectic pace of life today where it is easy to grab something quick but not necessarily nutrient rich when we are hungry and also in eating produce from nutrient depleted soils, a healthy diet is not as easy to maintain as it should be. Maintaining a diet that supports good health and promotes the body’s natural healing process can be hard work and can involve a life style change for some.

Good health is your investment in the future and the money you spend on supplements should be viewed as an investment in your health. There’s no doubt that you can and should supplement where ever possible in areas where you might be deficient.  But, in light of the fact that many health supplements are loosely regulated by government agencies and that consumers spend a lot of money (an average of $30 billion, according to the National Institute of Health) on supplements, there are a few things you need to think about to ensure that you are getting the best return from your investment!

Knowing that there is limited oversight of natural supplements should prompt us to do a bit of research. Before you buy that supplement, critically evaluate it based on the following: necessity, dose, safety, authenticity, ingredients, and evidence.

Necessity – Do I really need this supplement? What do I hope to achieve by taking it? Realistically understanding what supplementing your diet with certain vitamins, herbs, and minerals can and cannot do for you can help guide whether or not you really want to add another pill, capsule, or drink to your daily regimen. Partnering with a medical health professional who is familiar with complementary health practices and who can guide you in making good choices can make a lot of difference both in maintaining the health of your body and your pocketbook. It can also make a big difference in your satisfaction with your choice of a health care provider.

Safety – Has the supplement I want to take been the subject of any health warnings? Are there any safety advisories related to the supplement?

If the product you want to take contains a blend of ingredients, consider researching them individually. One of the places you can check is the FDA’s website where you can see if there have been any safety advisories, recent recalls, and market withdrawals related to any of the supplement’s ingredients:

Additionally, an organization called ConsumerLab has also maintained a list of health warnings and recalls for more than a decade:

Don’t be eager to quickly jump on the band wagon when you see a new product on the market. New products are continuously released and may not yet have any warnings associated with them so you should periodically check back to see if the product is deemed safe before starting it.

Evidence – Is there any documented evidence that the supplement I am planning to take does what it is intended to do?

There have been many studies on the effects of various vitamins and minerals in the human body but, while herbs have historically always been used as medicine, initiation of well-designed and documented studies is still something that is in its infancy. Locating a reliable source of information is important in making a decision about what to take and what to avoid.

Two excellent resources that you can use are maintained by the National Institute of Health (NIH). One is via the Office of Dietary Supplements: and another is via the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus: The Office of Dietary Supplement’s website provides scientific evidence about the impact of specific supplements on the human body while the latter site goes into a lot more depth about studies that have been done.

Dose – Do I know what the correct dosage is in order to get the most benefit from the supplement?

Doing some research beforehand is important in determining not only what to take but also how much. Keep in mind that there are few efforts to regulate standardization of natural supplements. From manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from lot to lot by the same manufacturer, there can be differences in the amount of the ingredients within the capsules or tablets.

Always tell your doctor if you are taking a supplement. Supplements that we obtain over the counter are just like prescription drugs. Taking too little will provide no benefit and taking too much can cause serious health problems. Additionally, if you are taking other medications, supplements may interact with them!

Ingredients – If I find a supplement I want to take, has its contents been evaluated by an independent laboratory?

In February of 2015, the New York State Attorney General’s office investigated 24 store-brand supplements sold by four of the nation’s leading retailers; Walmart, Walgreen’s, GNC, and Target to see if they contained the DNA of the herbs they purported to contain. They found that all but 5 of the products contained either unidentifiable DNA or DNA from plants other than what was advertised. A few of them even contained wheat and beans, two ingredients known to cause allergic reactions in some people.

While the FDA does regulate marketing and labelling of supplements, they do not have an active role in testing the supplements to ensure content. There are some private labs that have stepped into this role. One you can check is the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). The USP offers a voluntary program to manufacturers in which they inspect and certify the quality of a company’s products and facilities. If the company passes the quality checks, they are allowed to use a yellow and black “USP Verified” seal on their product’s label. The international NSF Public Health and Safety Organization also operates an accredited certification program for manufacturers in which they ensure product and ingredient safety through provision of training, monitoring Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance, and also by providing testing services to ensure the content of the products.

Some other organizations such as and LabDoor perform random testing of dietary supplements and make reviews of their findings available for free to the public. Full reports of the results are accessible to paid members.

In the case of herbal products, standardization can be very tricky. It isn’t just about the amount of the herb contained in the product but also about how much of each active ingredient that is in each herb that is within it as well. Many variables such as growing conditions, harvest timing, and storage can affect the active ingredients within each herb.

Authenticity – Does it seem too good to be true?

The FDA forbids manufacturers from making claims that a product can “cure” a disease but over embellishment of a supplement’s purported benefits is, unfortunately, very common.

Personal testimonials and money back guarantees should not guide your decision. Testimonials can, of course, be fabricated and many companies offering these “wonder drugs” are very hard to reach once it comes time for a refund.

Although we wish there were, there really are no wonder drugs or magic pills. The old adage “if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is” applies.

Making well informed decisions and arming yourself with a bit of knowledge feels good; especially when it comes to taking control of your health. Look for me in future issues where I will explore some specific supplements and how they can be safely used to support good health. I will also give you some tips on the use of supplements to tackle some common health concerns.

Speaking of feeling good, fall is the time of year when some people feel their best! This season brings with it the cozy warmth of our homes and the prospect of fun times with friends and family over the holidays. As fall fades to winter and the air in our homes gets drier leaving our skin dry as well, I’d like to leave you with a really nice but simple, “feel good” recipe that you can use to pamper yourself.

Coconut Oil Hand Cream

5 tbsp. coconut oil
1 ½ tbsp. almond oil
10 drops lemon essential oil
10 drops lavender essential oil

Use a double boiler or place a small saucepan in a larger one that is filled halfway with hot water. Add coconut oil to the double boiler or pan and warm over low heat until it is melted.
Add almond oil while stirring continuously until blended.
Remove from heat and stir in lemon and lavender essential oils.
Pour into glass jars and add lids when cream is cool. Be sure to label the jars!
It’s ready to use when cool and makes a great gift!

Until next time, stay healthy my friends!    ~ Pam

About Pamela … Pamela Ruane is an Assistant Professor for Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Physician Assistant Program. She lives in rural Potter County, PA with her husband, their sons, and a passel of finned, feathered, and furred family members. She has earned a M.S. in Health Science, Physician Assistant Studies as well as a Ph.D. in Natural Health and Naturopathy with a focus in herbal medicine.

Pam is an Usui Reiki Master Therapist and also works part-time as a Hospitalist on the post-acute care floor of a rural critical access hospital. In the past, she has worked with clients as a naturopath and herbalist in Ellicott City, MD and has spent time as a clinician in pediatrics and family medicine in the suburbs of Washington, DC as well as South New Jersey. In her spare time, she enjoys teaching adults and children about native herbs and loves to grow medicinal herbs and wild craft sustainable native species. She writes our Mortar & Pestle column.

Editor’s Note:
This article appeared in the Winter 2016 Issue of Therapeutic Thymes Magazine, which was the Premiere Issue. To read all of Pamela’s articles, as well as all of our great authors, be sure to subscribe today!