Founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, Dr. Mark Hyman shares his views on how taking poor quality supplements may at best provide no benefit, and at worst, potentially harm you. He argues that you can't just take any supplement and expect it to provide your body with the raw materials it needs, but instead you must find the right high-quality supplements to support your health. He has built his practice around the belief that it is only when you do this that your body's natural intelligence to heal will take over and you will then be able to regain energy, clarity of thought, sleep more soundly, lose weight and improve your overall health and vitality.
To aid in this effort, Dr. Hyman tells us what to look for when choosing supplements and how to locate the best products available to support your health. He teaches on six key areas of importance regarding supplements:
- Why your doctor probably doesn't have any idea about the role of vitamins and minerals in health;
- How supplements can help prevent long-latency deficiency diseases like heart disease, cancer, depression, schizophrenia, ADD, and Alzheimer's;
- Why it is no longer possible for us to get the vitamins and minerals we need exclusively from the foods we eat and why it is important for everyone to take a basic regimen of vitamins and minerals;
- Exactly which supplements you need to properly support your body so it can overcome health problems;
- Four key steps you need to take to ensure you don't buy inferior products and instead provide your body with the raw materials it needs; and
- How poor-quality supplements can harm your health even more and why it is essential to avoid this.
Finding and taking the best supplements to support your health isn't easy. In fact, finding high-quality products that support health has always been the most difficult part of Dr. Hyman's job as a practitioner of Functional Medicine. The lack of adequate enforcement of government regulations, the dizzying number of products on the market, and the large variations in quality all create a minefield of obstacles for anyone trying to find the right supplement, vitamin or herb.
Fortunately, in a sea of poor quality and lowered standards, there are a few companies that stand out and have stepped up to the responsibility of producing safe and effective products. Only these meet Dr. Hyman's specific criteria for quality and effectiveness. What follows is how Dr. Hyman suggests sorting the wheat from the chaff to get the products you need to heal your body and support your long-term health.
Why Your Doctor Doesn't Understand the Importance of Supplements
According to Dr. Hyman, most doctors simply don't understand the role of vitamins and minerals in our bodies. "This is tragic, because so many conditions respond to a few simple supplements," says Hyman. He says he has personally seen many patients completely recover from chronic conditions like depression by employing a few lifestyle changes and taking a few supplements, where even the best medications don't promise complete recovery.
"What's remarkable is how most conventional doctors have it completely backward when it comes to vitamins and minerals," says Hyman. "Doctors tend to only use vitamins if medications don't work. They should be prescribing the vitamins in the first place and then supplementing with pharmaceuticals only if vitamins and lifestyle changes prove ineffective."
Dr. Hyman states that this "backward thinking" begins with their education and training. "In medical school doctors learn that vitamins are important to prevent deficiency diseases—that is, diseases caused by a lack of specific vitamins or minerals," says Hyman. "Deficiency diseases include things like scurvy from too little vitamin C and rickets from too little vitamin D."
"Like most doctors, when I graduated from medical school, I thought if you just had enough vitamins and minerals to prevent these deficiency diseases, you didn't have to worry about how much you were getting. I also thought that if you ate 'enriched food' like white flour with a few vitamins added back in, or milk with vitamin D added in, additional vitamin supplementation was a waste. That is the extent of the average doctor's nutritional training—and it is woefully inadequate."
In the medical field today, he says there is a new concept emerging. This concept says that having enough of a nutrient to prevent one of these deficiency diseases, but not enough to optimize cellular function, may lead to "long-latency" deficiency diseases (diseases that take a long time to manifest themselves) like heart disease, cancer, depression, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer's.
He gives an example: "If you are severely deficient in folic acid, you will have anemia after a few months, or have a baby with birth defects. This is a deficiency disease. But if you don't have enough folic acid for optimal function over 30-40 years, you will double your risk of Alzheimer's disease. This is a long-latency deficiency disease. There are dozens of examples like this of diseases caused by long-term nutrient deficiency."
Dr. Hyman says the reality is that most of us are deficient in one or more of these critical vitamins and we are setting ourselves up for illnesses that we could easily avoid by investing a few pennies a day in our health.
The Epidemic of Vitamin Deficiency in America
Dr. Hyman believes that many of the day to day complaints we think we have to live with as we age are the result of nutritional deficiencies. These problems include conditions like reflux, allergies, and asthma to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
He says that whether you are suffering from a bad mood, difficulty concentrating, or have a more serious condition such as depression or Alzheimer's disease, it is likely that nutritional deficiencies are one of the primary causes.
How does he know that nutritional deficiencies are likely a problem for you? He says it's simple. "Today, even with our "enriched food supply," over 92 percent of Americans are deficient in one or more vitamins, according to a report from The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, " cites Hyman. "That doesn't mean they are receiving less than the amount they need to get for optimal health. That means they receive less than the minimum amount necessary to prevent deficiency diseases."
A USDA survey recently showed that 80 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient and treating people with adequate vitamin D (often 10 times higher than currently recommended) could save 400,000 lives a year and reduce health care costs by $30-$50 billion a year. And that's one vitamin.
He reports that today we are seeing overweight kids who have scurvy and rickets, because they eat a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor diets that leaves them overfed and undernourished. These are conditions we haven't seen in the proportions they appear today for more than 100 years.
Dr. Hyman is convinced that the foods we eat no longer contain the nutrient levels required for optimal health for many reasons. Crops are raised in soil where nutrients have been depleted. Plants are treated with pesticides and other chemicals so they no longer have to fight to live, which further diminish their nutrient levels and their phytonutrient content (not to mention the toxic exposure received from such chemicals). Animals are cooped up in pens or giant feedlots eating food they weren't designed to eat instead of roaming free eating the nutrient rich wild grains and grasses they once consumed.
To complicate this further all of us are exposed to hazardous toxins and chemicals that poison our bodies, we live with too much stress, we don't sleep enough, we don't exercise enough, and we are inflamed making the nutritional demands on our bodies even heavier.
That is why he believes in today's world everyone needs a basic set of vitamin and mineral supplements to support health. The research is simply overwhelming on this point. And his experience in testing nutrient levels and treating thousands of patients has proven the same to him without a shadow of a doubt.
The Importance of Supplements
Due to nutrient deficiencies, the generally poor quality of our diet, our exposure to environmental toxins, and a number of other factors, Dr. Hyman recommends everyone go on a basic regimen of vitamins and minerals that provide a foundation for long-term health. Even if you are completely healthy right now, he suggests you begin taking these supplements to optimize your chances of lifelong vibrant health.
What he recommends differs slightly depending on whether you are a man or a woman.
UltraWellness Essentials for Men
For men, he recommends a combination of 4 daily supplements:
- A high-potency, high-quality, highly bioavailable multivitamin and mineral
- Vitamin D3
- Omega-3 fatty acids
UltraWellness Essentials for Women
The nutritional needs of women differ slightly from those of men, so Dr. Hyman suggests a slightly different supplementation program for women:
- A high-potency, high-quality, highly bioavailable multivitamin and mineral
- Calcium and magnesium
- Vitamin D3
- Omega-3 fatty acids
For the details behind these recommended supplements, please visit his web page on Essentials for Men and Essentials for Women. He also provides Essentials for Kids.
According to Dr. Hyman and his research, the key to supplementation is finding high-quality, professional-grade products. He says when it comes to supplements all brands are not created equally. Dr. Hyman recommends looking for products that are supported by credible third-party analysis and testing, abide by good manufacturing practices, have some basic sciences or clinical trials behind them, that have a long history of clinical effectiveness, and supplements that are free of the preservatives and other chemical agents typically included in low-quality products.
Dr. Hyman provides four key steps that he insists will help you avoid getting taken advantage of by unethical supplement companies who masquerade their products as health-promoting when, in fact, they are health demoting.
Step #1: Only Buy Supplements that Abide By Good Manufacturing Practices
Manufacturers of supplements do not have to have someone come and review their facilities or the quality of the products they produce. However, there are a few manufacturers who have taken it upon themselves to hold their products to a higher standard and voluntarily go through a qualification process governed by the FDA that provides them with a certification known as "good manufacturing practices" often referred to as GMP or similar practices.
Dr. Hyman recommends you only choose supplements that have the GMP certification or equivalent. If you see the letters GMP on the label, do further investigation into the supplement. If you don't, put it back on the shelf.
Step #2: Make Sure Your Supplements Have Gone Through a Third Party Analysis for Verification of Active Ingredients and Contaminants
Dr. Hyman states some supplements don't even contain active ingredients or they contain too much of active ingredients. Lower-quality products are often contaminated with preservatives and other toxic chemicals that actually compromise your health.
To address this problem a variety of companies have developed services that provide third-party analysis for supplement manufacturers to ensure their supplements are free of contaminants and contain active versions of the ingredients listed on the label. This means a company other than the manufacturer tests the product to make sure it actually contains what it says it contains.
"This is an extremely important process for verifying quality products, and I recommend you only choose supplements that have been tested and verified by third-party analysis," says Hyman. "As long as you are choosing supplements that abide by good manufacturing practices, you should be safe in this regard."
Step #3: Choose Products Based on Basic Science
There are supplements on the market that have clinical trials and science to back them up and there are those that don't. To separate the good from the bad, Dr. Hyman recommends choosing products that have some basis in science. He says the easiest way to determine this is to review the product information pages on a supplement manufacturer's website. If they cite clinical trials that support the supplements they are selling, that's a significant step in the right direction. You can then confirm these citations with web searches on the particular vitamins or minerals or ingredients in the product you are considering. It is easy on PubMed to search for the research on any particular nutrient such as magnesium or vitamin D.
Step #4: Use Clean Supplements
According to Dr. Hyman, if you choose the wrong supplements you could be adding toxins, allergens or additives to your body instead of the healing nutrients you need to help support its optimal function.
And, he says another important thing you need to avoid when purchasing supplements are food allergens. Food allergies are an unrecognized epidemic today, and many people suffer from hidden sensitivities to common foods they eat. For some, these allergies are at the very root of their chronic health problems. Once the allergic substances are eliminated from their diet, their problems clear up almost overnight.
Dr. Hyman strongly encourages choosing supplements that are hypoallergenic – the products should be free of gluten, dairy, yeast, and other allergens. To determine whether or not this is the case, read the product labels carefully. Only truly top-quality manufacturers ensure products that are hypoallergenic so this is an extremely critical point to keep in mind.
The True Cost of Supplements
High-quality supplements are indeed going to cost more money in the short term because "you get what you pay for" – higher quality. However, in the long run, Dr. Hyman believes you will save thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding costly chronic diseases, expensive yet unnecessary surgeries, powerful pharmaceutical medications with dangerous and unknown side effects, lost work days, injuries and more.
Dr. Hyman wants you to ask yourself these questions: What kind of quality of life do you want to have? How healthy or ill do you want to be? How do you want to treat your body? How much joy and happiness do you want to experience with your friends, parents, children, spouses and others? Do you want to provide yourself with the best chance to overcome whatever ails you now and live the rest of your life to the fullest; fully experiencing everything that life has to offer? Or do you want to live with the specter of disease haunting you for the rest of your days, limiting what you can do, creating astronomical medical costs?
He thinks that the choice is obvious – a little extra money invested in your health now will pay you dividends for decades to come.
In conclusion, years of reading independent research and treating thousands of patients has proven to Dr. Hyman beyond any doubt that high-quality supplements are a critical component of a comprehensive plan for lifelong health. Taking the supplements you need in the right amounts is essential if you want to overcome chronic illness and move toward optimal health.
But he warns that choosing low-quality supplements is a waste of your hard-earned money, and it's simply not worth the additional risk you expose yourself to. This is why he recommends sticking to the highest-quality supplements you can afford. "These products cost a bit more money in the short term, but the investment is worth the tremendous long term benefits to your health and happiness and your wallet," says Hyman. "It could mean the difference between suffering with chronic illness for years or freeing yourself from the burden of your condition for a lifetime."
There are companies out there that have risen to the challenge of producing products that support your health. Dr. Hyman insists these are the only products worth purchasing because in the long run, they will save you money, and could save you years on your life as well.
There are many resources for finding good supplements, but Dr. Hyman has provided an easy resource at www.drhyman.com/thedanielplan that links to the Healthy Living Store to find the right supplements for you.
i U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010. 2nd ed. With Understanding and Improving Health and Objectives for Improving Health. 2 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 2000.