NEW YEAR PROMO: Use code "NEWDIET" for 20% off a DNA diet test kit Shop Now
Last updated on

Are your supplements making you sick?

Are supplements healthy?

Sacrilege, right?

Supplements are healthy!

They provide us with the important micronutrients our bodies need, but can’t always get from the mineral depleted foods of the modern farming system.

They boost mitochondrial function!

Yes, in some cases, those statements are true.

Supplements do have benefits, and I find the constant drumbeat of supplement “debunking” articles to be little more than click bait nonsense.

For example, I have found tremendous benefit supplementing with nutrients such as methyl folate and zinc. Saccharomyces Boulardii is a staple in my medicine cabinet, and I turn to it every time I have an upset stomach. Quercetin, in staggered doses, is a great mast cell stabilizer and natural antihistamine.

Overall, I am pro supplement, you could even say I am very pro supplement, and we write a good deal about supplements here on the Gene Food blog.

I thought processed foods were unhealthy?

But here’s the deal: when it comes to dietary supplements, there is a massive inconsistency in the functional and integrative medicine worlds. The party line on processed foods is avoid at all costs due to the fact that they are made in a factory and contain numerous additives. However, the predominant thinking on supplements, which are also highly processed and contain numerous murky additives, is go ahead, your mitochondria will thank you!

But wait a minute.

If we weren’t designed to eat processed foods, why does it logically follow that we were designed to eat boat loads of processed supplements?

Supplement additives

The supplements on the market vary widely in terms of quality and almost all contain trace amounts of ingredients which are potentially just as harmful as the Frankenstein concoctions you see in the middle aisles of any grocery store in the United States.

In other words, why is the tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios a terrible thing, but the magnesium stearate in supplements a good thing?

The thought leaders in the health and wellness space who will freak out if you eat a pancake (refined grains!), often advocate for swallowing an elephant size dose of supplements every morning as part of an “anti-aging” routine. Supplements that contain ingredients like microcrystalline cellulose, magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, rice flour, soy lecithin, MCT oil, etc.

Liposomal supplements and heart health

Many of the “liposomal” products out there, which are all the rage because they are designed to increase bioavailability of certain nutrients like Curcumin and glutathione, actually contain harmful phospholipids that are prone to oxidation, and when absorbed into the blood stream, can actually bind to certain APOB carrying lipoproteins, making them more atherogenic (bad for your heart). The makers and promoters of these brands often don’t know, or worse, fail to disclose that their products could have these effects. Furthermore, the scientific discussions surrounding liposomes fail to highlight the 20-30% of the population who tend to hyper absorb these additives, making their trendy supplement regimen that much more dangerous.

Now, I know what you’re going to say.

“John, these additives are in such tiny amounts that they can’t possibly do us harm, you’re being paranoid, enjoy your supplements, man!”

I do still take supplements myself, so I see value and I think that argument makes sense, at least in my life from what I can observe.

Supplements and chronic illness

But here’s the rub, chronic disease is growing at an alarming rate in this country. There are many people out there who take in excess of 10 supplements a day because they think it’s helping them. Many of these supplements are sold by medical clinics and wellness companies who make a large percent of their bottom lines selling supplements. The same offices that sell supplements argue that even small amounts of environmental toxins can carry big consequences.

Yes, dental amalgams leach out only small amounts of mercury, but overall they raise serum mercury and therefore are to be avoided. Certain brands of oats contain only trace amounts of glyphosate but those pesticides do us harm, so they are to be avoided. Why does the same logic not apply to supplement additives? Is it that hard to believe that the most sensitive among us, those suffering from chronic illness, may also be sensitive to nutrient powders made in a factory and swallowed in mega doses far greater than what nature intended?

Again, this is not to say everyone, or even most, has issues with supplements. My focus here is on the heavy users who are looking for a solution to their ongoing sickness. Even in cases where there are good studies looking at the impact of a particular nutrient on a given condition, it’s unheard of for the study authors to throw a mega cocktail of supplements at a control group. They study one or two nutrients at a given time to determine what works and what doesn’t. Even in cases where a combination of nutrients works, as is the case with black pepper and Curcumin, there can be downstream effects that are rarely taken into account. As a for example, piperin (black pepper) increases Curcumin bioavailability, but also slows the body’s ability to metabolize certain drugs, which can lead to the build up of unhealthy levels of pharmaceuticals.

Examples of supplements causing unwanted side effects

And if you think it’s the supplement additives that are the only potential issue, think again. Every popular supplement, no matter how beneficial, has reported side effects in at least a subset of the population.

Quercetin, a supplement I believe in and sometimes take, can cause kidney toxicity when taken for extended periods of time. (R)

Beta carotene supplements have been linked to increased cancer risk in certain subsets of the population, especially smokers. (R)

L-carnitine, another supplement I like situationally, can increase TMAO levels in some people, and if those levels are already predisposed to being high, could increase the risk for heart disease.

High doses of both methyl folate and B12 have been shown to increase the risk for cancer in some populations of women. See B vitamin supplements and cancer risk: how to make smart decisions.

NAC, another potent antioxidant and glutathione precursor, has also been shown to increase cancer risk in some cases. (R)

Variants in the CBS family of genes that impact sulfur metabolism can have a big impact on how people react to products ranging from epsom salt to alpha lipoic acid.

Fish oil, one of the nations’s most beloved supplements, often contains high levels of oxidized fats and toxins that take it well outside of what could be considered healthy and many of the studies done on EPA and DHA are done with therapeutic products not available to the public.

MCT oil, advocated as a cure all to be liberally sprinkled on everything from sushi to coffee, can raise lipid numbers to dangerous levels in some people and causes a host of other side effects in others.

High dose Vitamin D can draw down on magnesium levels causing chest pain and tightening.

Pycnogenol, and antioxidant I love, that is great for jet lag and sperm motility, gives some people terrible stomach pain.

And as this Scientific American piece discusses, the very idea that taking antioxidants in supplement form is beneficial is being called into question by a growing number of scientists who believe some of the stress the body experiences in times of illness, i.e. oxidative stressors, are actually beneficial in the right context. The use of antioxidants can protect both good cells as well as bad cells, such as cancer cells.

The bottom line

The bottom line here is simple. If you’re a fan of supplements and find they provide benefit, keep taking them. I will continue using certain supplements on and off for the foreseeable future and have a core list I really love.

However, if you are one of a growing number of people out there who have become trapped inside of a supplement marketing vortex that tells you more is always better, exercise caution.

Just as some people have obscure food sensitivities, others have sensitivities to supplements and the additive ingredients they’re made with.

If you’re sold on a given supplement or combination of supplements, know the research inside and out. Learn how the ingredients you’re taking might interact with each other or with drugs you’re taking. Know what brands can be trusted and which cannot.

To the extent you can, understand the long term effects of the supplements you take.

If you’re taking a ton of these things and aren’t getting better, or even getting worse, maybe it’s time to stop and clear the deck for awhile.

Try a 7 day supplement fast.

You might be surprised to find that you feel better.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

The very latest on genetics, nutrition and supplements delivered to your inbox!


Leave Comment

  1. lynn says:

    If one is to take a supplement “vacation”, would you suggest going cold turkey…just stop everything for 7 days?

  2. MartyE says:

    I enjoyed the post. I would like to learn more about the concerns you listed with liposomal supplements. Please post any references on the topic for further reading. Thank you.

  3. Tamara Smith says:

    This is an interesting take on supplements! I appreciate it! I’ve been experiencing supplement fatigue lately, and recently cut waaaay back on how many I was taking. I was taking probably 15-20 supplements every day in an attempt to feel better! And while some problems did feel better, my progress seemed stagnant. The idea occurred to me that I’d been taking supplements most of my life. What if they’re not making me better, but worse? So I’ve been trying to eliminate any that are not whole food based that I can do without. I have a couple deficiencies that I have to correct before cutting them out, but I’m going to check them for additives that could be affecting me. I’m definitely a canary. Just inhaling nightshades (steam from potatoes for example) can make me break out. Inhaling synthetic fragrances triggers headache and fatigue. So if anyone were to be bothered by supplement additives, it’d likely be me.

  4. Michelle says:

    First, I want to say THANK YOU for all the valuable information I get from this website. I appreciate all the hard work that goes into each post. I take LOTS of supplements and my OCD/Type A personality keeps me tied to them. However, I have developed a strange rash on the left side of my torso and something tells me it may be connected to supplements! This article is the push I need to take a little vacation from from them, so thank you. I just wish I didn’t have to wrestle with the OCD while doing this!

    • Thanks for reading Michelle! And yeah, it’s hard to make yourself do, but sometimes taking a break from supplements is the best thing. Always a good idea to know what works and what doesn’t.

Leave a Reply

Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon Pinterest icon Google+ icon YouTube icon LinkedIn icon Contact icon Info icon