Supplements: When Is A Good Thing NOT A Good Thing?

Looking at the world through the lens of a yin/yang spectrum means that things are rarely absolutely ‘good’ or absolutely ‘bad’, and there’s usually a lot of grey area in the middle.   In the realm of food, for instance, there’s a lot of space between fresh vegetables on the ‘good’ side and high fructose corn syrup on the… well I’ll just say it – the Dark Side.  But even healthy foods can have a ‘dark side’ if you eat too much of one thing in high concentrations or for an extended time.    So, is a good thing ALWAYS a good thing?  If studies have shown that a supplement or food has beneficial properties, how could it hurt?

Just because a scientific study says it’s “good for you” doesn’t mean that it’s good for everybody, all the time.  The beauty of the basically-healthy, balanced diet is that you don’t get too much of one good thing – you get a little of a lot of good things that balance each other out.  Beyond that healthy, balanced diet, anything that you take daily or concentrated in large quantities is going to affect you in some way and in most cases, should not be the stuff of long-term, everyday consumption.  A recent commentary written by Tim Byers, MD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, makes this very case.  Byers states, “My conclusion is that taking high doses of any particular nutrient is more likely to be a bad thing than a good thing.”  We see a lot of examples of this good/bad thinking in the clinic as well, so let’s try to forget about the labels of good and bad and go with some TCM common sense.  We’ll start with supplements:

Supplements

Have you ever started taking a new supplement or vitamin and felt GREAT, but then later, after a month or so of taking it consistently, started to feel sluggish and worn-down? What happened to that great feeling?  There are studies coming out all the time about the beneficial effects of this or that food, supplement, or nutrient, but that doesn’t mean that it’s definitely the right thing for you at this time.   The answer lies in (you guessed it) your own body’s balance and needs.

Here are a few reasons why taking a certain supplement might not be leaving you feeling as peppy as it once did:

  •  You may have been deficient in a vitamin or mineral, but after taking it consistently for a while, your body has built up its stores.
  • The supplement you are taking may come in a form that is difficult for your body to digest.
  • It may be that the beneficial item in question is good for you in small quantities but larger, concentrated quantities make your body work harder and don’t provide added benefit.

Now, I don’t want to seem down on supplements – there can be a lot of benefit to taking certain supplements at certain times.  Sometimes, however, we have to use our common sense (and a little TCM perspective) when it comes to evaluating whether or not a supplement is actually good for us, at this time, and in this amount.   Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Fish oil:  You may have heard about the amazing anti-inflammatory properties of fish oil, and indeed, it’s all true. But fish oil is still an oil, so if your body already shows a lot of dampness, taking a supplement in the form of an oil is not going to help your condition as much as ‘studies show’.  That doesn’t mean to never take it, but a daily dose just because you heard that it’s good for you is not an ideal use of the supplement.  If you have an inflammatory condition, high doses of fish oil might be helpful for a short period of time to break the cycle of inflammation, but you also need to deal with the root of the problem.  Keep an eye on your tongue – if you start to see that the coat is getting thicker or greasier, it’s probably time to take a break from the fish oil.  And see the turmeric section below!

*Even better than popping fish oil pills is to incorporate grass-fed meat products and wild-caught fish into a mostly high-fiber, plant-based diet.  If you are a vegetarian, flax and chia seeds are also a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, the pre-cursor to Omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Vitamin D:  So many of us in North America are Vitamin D deficient.  It really is an epidemic.  Between our sedentary indoor career-driven lives and living through winters, our opportunities for Vitamin D production are often seriously lacking.  Taking Vitamin D supplements could be the answer to a number of your health complaints… until it’s not.  Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it is stored in our fat cells and it is easier to reach toxic levels.  Having levels of D in the body that are too low OR too high can cause health problems.

*The best way to get your daily dose of D is to spend at least 15 minutes in the sun each day (longer in the winter).  Your body has built-in mechanisms that regulate its production of Vitamin D, so you won’t overdose from sun exposure.   Instead of taking Vitamin D supplements every day, save them for rainy days or grey days during the winter months when the sun isn’t as strong.

  • Turmeric:  Turmeric is an amazing herb, full of medicinal potency and anti-inflammatory power.  It’s useful for everything from tendonitis to aiding digestion to protecting against cancer and possibly Alzheimers disease.  We use it in Chinese herbal medicine for digestion, arthritis, and shoulder and arm pain, among other things.  It is a great tool to have in your herbal toolbox.  But, it also has spicy, bitter, and warming properties.  These properties are great for many people, but for others, they may add too much heat and contribute to Yin deficiency.  If your tongue is bright red and there’s no coat on it, turmeric in large quantities might not be the best choice for you right now.
    Now you might be thinking, “wait inflammation seems like heat”, right?  “How is it anti-inflammatory if it’s warming?”  The answer is that inflammation in the body can come from a couple of different places.  It might be that there’s excess heat, or not enough Yin fluids to balance the heat that is there.  OR, it may be that there’s actually an accumulation of cold dampness.  (Think of post-nasal drip, where the mucus sitting on your throat causes irritation and inflammation.)  Those excess dampness cases are where Turmeric is a great boon to health and it’s anti-inflammatory powers are the most helpful.  That doesn’t mean it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it means that it’s important to understand its power.
  • Calcium:   A LOT of people, women especially, take calcium supplements in the hopes of warding off osteoporosis in old age.  We need calcium to keep our bones strong, but evidence is mounting that taking calcium in the form of a concentrated dose once or twice a day may do more harm than good.  A recent study tracked the dietary habits of 24,000 German participants between the ages of 35 and 64 over 11 years.  It found that those who took calcium supplements regularly were 86% more likely to have a heart attack than those who didn’t use any supplements.  “It is now becoming clear that taking this micronutrient in one or two daily [doses] is not natural, in that it does not reproduce the same metabolic effects as calcium in food,” the researchers say.  This isn’t the first time that studies have found that heart attack risk is tied to calcium supplements (see here, here, and here), and these have all been large scale studies and reviews.

*By far, the best way to get your calcium is by eating something green and leafy everyday.  One cup of chopped kale (before cooking) has 90.5 mg of calcium!  So grab some kale or collard greens the next time you shop, and leave the calcium supplements on the shelf.  If you still feel like a calcium supplement is the best for you, try to find a food-based calcium (New Chapter and Rainbow are two brands) that also has magnesium and Vitamin C and D to increase the absorption rate.

So, I hope that you come away from this understanding that anything you take daily will affect your body, and sometimes those effects may be unwanted.  The best way to stay healthy is by:

  • eating a balanced diet filled with vegetables
  • (if you eat them) eating wild-caught fish and meats that are grass-fed
  • getting some exercise in the sunshine on a regular basis

Certain supplements may have their time and place but they are best used under the consultation of a health care provider, whether you’ve decided to work with an Acupuncturist, a Naturopathic Doctor, or an MD.

Check out Part Two of When Is a Good Thing NOT A Good Thing? where we explore coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate.   Also, we’re talking a lot here about looking at your tongue.  If you’re curious to understand more about tongue diagnosis, you can read our post on that very topic!

Ed note: This post was revised on May 24th 2012 to add the information on calcium supplementation.

[Photo credits: Bradley Stemke, Lindsey Turner, Naomi Skoglund]

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