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Discounted supplements – what’s not to love?

Like most anything, you get what you pay for. Most kids in my practice need supplementation. When I meet them, they typically have nutrition deficits big enough to interfere with their lives. That is, they aren’t sleeping well, growing as expected, behaving or learning easily, or have chronic conditions like constipation, asthma, sensory integration problems, or super picky appetites. Even when usual lab tests look normal enough, nutrition can be marginal to the point of dropping your child out of the range of their optimal ability. Just eating enough to meet basic nutrition needs, or enough variety, are common problems for kids in my practice. So, supplements enter the picture – at least until a child is eating well.

Discount supplements abound. The trick is finding trustworthy ones, and leaving the not-worth-it ones behind. Many makers of supplements are not trustworthy. They use cheap fillers, don’t standardize their formulations, don’t submit their products for independent testing, don’t participate in clinical trials, and don’t stringently avoid toxins in their own manufacturing processes or in their sourcing. Would you rather: Echinacea from a pesticide-laden field somewhere in Asia, or from a craft grower using organic techniques in Wisconsin? Guess which one will work better, and cost more?

Herbal and nutrition supplements alike have been scrutinized for contaminants, toxins, purity, and potency issues. Heavy metals and pesticides have been found in some (not all) supplements – but whether these are at levels above what already contaminate conventionally raised (that is, not organic) food crops has not been studied. What that means is, while there may be traces of arsenic or cadmium in your morning multi, there may be some in your morning corn flakes or last night’s chicken too.

That doesn’t mean you should eat it. You shouldn’t, and you don’t have to.

You may have noticed that many providers sell supplements themselves. These are often brands you do not see on store shelves. The reason for this is twofold: One, these manufacturers are concerned enough about the proper use of their products that they do not want the general public to use them without guidance; and two, these products are subjected to more scrutiny than the ones you can grab off of a supermarket shelf.

Most better supplement manufacturers take pains to avoid making their products easily accessible to the public. They want you to have guidance, safety, and success with their products, so they want you to only buy it through a qualified health professional who has a license to practice. They want the providers recommending their products to be trained in their use – just like pharmaceutical companies offer training to physicians, supplement manufacturers train providers too (though far less lavishly). And, supplement makers know that most licensed providers will not put their reputations at risk for a lousy product. So, they often elect to exceed government requirements for manufacturing, testing, purity, and potency… and this makes them more expensive.

Here’s what to look for in your supplements:

1 – Third party testing: Better products will come from manufacturers that routinely submit samples for scrutiny by an independent, third party laboratory, and will make the findings available on request. For example, a Certificate of Analysis from an independent laboratory that describes a product’s purity, potency, and presence of contaminants or toxins is maintained by better manufacturers.

2 – Exceeds FDA guidelines: The government requires that supplements (and foods) meet “Good Manufacturing Practices”, and that complaints about a product are documented. Better manufacturers will document, track, and repair any complaint. Look for a more rigorous quality seal such as US Pharmacopeial Convention (UPC), which analyzes products for purity and speed of disintegration.

3 – Non-GMO ingredients: Supplements use fillers, excipients, and oils that will come from non-organic and GMO sources unless otherwise specified. Soy lecithin, vegetable oils, and fillers from wheat, corn, or rice starch are common.

4 – Gluten free: Don’t mess up efforts at a gluten free diet by giving your child something like this for a multivitamin. Many children’s chewables and other supplements contain gluten, unless otherwise specified. Check medications too.

5 – Standardized extracts and potencies – Skip products that give vague label information on how much of the active component is in the product. For example, a probiotic that says it has “500 milligrams (mg)” of  “Lactobacillus” means nothing. What it should tell you is that there is a guaranteed potency of a certain number of colony forming units of a specific strain: “15 billion CFUs Lactobacillus paracasei” is more like it. Likewise, herbal supplement labels should state a standardized amount of active component, and indicate which part of the plant the supplement contains (leaf? stem? whole plant? seed?): “300 mg andrographis extract at 10% andrographolides from stem and leaf” rather than just “500 mg andrographis”.

Handful of pills

Cheap Supplements That Are Never Worth It

In my many years in practice, I’ve seen families spend money on supplements thinking they are getting a bargain when the product is barely worth the bottle it’s in! Buying generic products off supermarket or big box store shelves is not usually worth it. These products tend to use the cheapest excipients and fillers, and have the least oversight for manufacturing. Top of the list? Cheaper fish oils! Fish are unfortunately reservoirs for many toxins in our oceans, including heavy metals. Processing techniques that are less expensive can strip the oil of its health benefits too. And, fish oil labels are notorious for giving fuzzy information about potency. If your product says “1000 mg fish oil”, skip it. It should tell you the amounts of DHA, EPA, GLA or other oils in the product, its source, and should definitely have at least a UPC quality label. Buying a low potency, dubiously sourced, and possibly dirty oil will not give your family much benefit. Many families I’ve met who tried fish oils used poor products that are not potent enough to reach clinical significance – then they give up, never realizing what benefits their children may have missed. My go-to brands are Blue Ice and Pharmax, for high potency and purity.

Next on my Never-Worth-It list are cheap probiotics. If it’s sitting on a store shelf and not in a refrigerator, skip it. Probiotics are living organisms and need gentle handling. They should be refrigerated. Potency and strains should be specifically stated, with a guarantee and expiration date. They should not be heated, microwaved, boiled, or mixed in sugary junk foods. In my own experience, probiotics under 10-15 billion CFUs per dose confer little to no benefit. Some children in my practice need probiotics at hundreds of billions of CFUs per day, to reach benefits. Don’t waste time or money tinkering with products that can’t help. Reputable brands include Klaire Labs , Custom Probiotics, and VSL. These can be very, very expensive – but if it’s the right product, it can be very worth it for a child struggling with encoporesis, constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, or painful stools. Even acne and mood concerns have responded to the right probiotic in my practice.

Number Three on the list is multivitamins like this. Low potency, poor mineral profile, too much iron for many children, weak forms of B vitamins, gluten… should I go on? You can do much better choosing a product that may really help your child’s focus and overall health.

Last but not least… Don’t give your child dozens of individual pills of separate nutrients daily. I’ve met children who come in with schedules to take over sixty pills a day, recommended by other providers. This is too much! I do not believe this is fair to a family or to the child. Use food as much as you can to build your child’s health. When a lot of supplement support is needed, I may consider food-based or glandular blends from product lines like Standard Process. I also can easily help families consolidate, prioritize, and simplify supplements so only a few may be needed daily.

Buy products with professional guidance if you’re not sure – you’ll be buying years of experience this way, rather than going it alone with a shot in the dark. Need help? Contact me here.

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