Supplements – Do You Need Them?

If you’ve ever visited a nutritionist, naturopath, chiropractor, or other alternative health practitioner, you probably left their office with an armful of bottles of pills, powders, and liquids with a declaration that they’d help you feel better. Unlike pharmaceuticals, though, the cost for those supplements is usually all out of pocket, so you also might have walked out their door wondering whether or not your hard-earned money had just gone to waste.

As much as we’d love to believe that those pretty little bottles of well-marketed vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and other nutrients will be the key to our health success, the truth is that that’s not usually the case. Sorry, guys – it’s just not that easy.

Doctors sling pharmaceuticals, and alternative health practitioners monger supplements, and they’re all for the most part selling you the tip of the iceberg. They’re up-selling you the full carbon version of your road bike, the nitrous oxide of your BMW M3. They’re giving you the extras when you already have the tools you need to get where you’re going. Often those extras don’t even win you the race.

Did I go too far with that analogy? Let me explain. For instance… they’re selling you (no sexa) Celexa or vitamin B supplements for your depression when they should be telling you that sugar and grains inhibit your ability to create happy-making neurotransmitters. They’re selling you Fosamax or ridiculous doses of calcium for your bone density when they should be telling you to eat Paleo and do load bearing exercise instead. And they’re instructing you to take insulin or chromium to help regulate your high blood sugar when they should just be teaching you to lay off the sugar, grains, and caffeine. I could go on and on… and on, but suffice it to say that a pill is a pill, no matter who it comes from.

Supplements are a money-making jackpot for a lot of practitioners, and they do it because they can. Because we want to believe that if we take an arsenal of pills and powders every day that it will make us healthy. But does it? How many times have you taken a pill for more than a month, not changed anything else about your life and actually noticed a difference in the way you feel? How long have you been taking those 2000 mg of calcium every day… and is your bone density actually increasing?

I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. I was looking for some salt yesterday in one of my cabinets and noticed that I reached past about $300 worth of supplements to get to it. Some of them were never even opened. I used to buy them on impulse if I was having some symptom or another, hoping and believing with gusto that if I took that pill diligently and daily, I would no longer have my symptom.

I’ve been taking supplements for 10 years and I can tell you that outside of a certain few instances, I haven’t noticed any difference in my health from taking them.  However, I have noticed a LOT of improvements when I’ve switched up my diet.

Having said all that from atop my soap box, I’ll tell you when I think supplementation is appropriate and perhaps even good, and what to look for in a high quality supplement.

I think that most people do well on a Paleo or Paleo-ish diet, and that after a while, many maladies will disappear if you take out grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar.  I’ve seen it happen too many times to not wholeheartedly say that.  There are complicated cases out there that need some special attention, though.

Some involve food sensitivities where people’s guts are just destroyed from years of abuse. There are also people whose levels of certain nutrients are so low after a lifetime of eating nutrient-depleted foods that they will have a very hard time getting them back up to par with just food.  They need to supplement with specific nutrients after being tested for what they’re deficient in.

And I knew you would ask about the low quality of our soil nowadays, and therefore the low nutrient density of our foods.  Don’t we all need a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral to make up for that?


Let’s start with that one. Yes, our conventional soil is depleted.  Compared with 100 years ago, the soil that is used in conventional (not organic) farming contains around 85% fewer minerals. However, organic produce contains anywhere from 15-50% more nutrients than conventional produce.  Right there, you make up for some of that loss over the last 100 years without popping any pills.

Digestive Healing

For those people (myself included) who spent most of their lives eating pasteurized dairy, refined grains and refined sugar and are paying for it now, they may need a little help healing their gut.  First, you start by taking out common food offenders, which, if you’re Paleo you’ve already done.  If that doesn’t work and you’re still having gas, heartburn, pains in your intestines, or other symptoms like headaches, acne or fatigue, you might want to look at food sensitivities.  Get tested or start experimenting.  If that fails, you’ll want to look at things like digestive enzymes, the amino acid l-glutamine, and hydrochloric acid.

Digestive Enzymes

Digestive Enzymes come in handy when you’ve done so much damage to your digestion that you are no longer producing enough, or the right kind of, enzymes to digest your food.  Get a full spectrum of enzymes, including protease (for digesting protein), amylase (for carbs), and lipase (for fats), which can all come in one pill.  Whatever brand you buy at your health food store, make sure it doesn’t have any corn (“dext-“) or other weird ingredients in it.  Just the necessaries.

Hydrochloric Acid

A lot of people look at me with surprise when I suggest they take hydrochloric acid, but it can be really helpful.  Yes, it’s acid and yes, it’s corrosive and that’s the whole point.  It’s what we use to start breaking down protein in our stomachs, and if you don’t have it you can get gas, intestinal pain, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue after meals, you name it.  It’s an integral part of our digestive process and it absolutely blows my mind that doctors are consistently handing out purple pills to make it go away. It’s usually not the overabundance of HCl that makes you have heartburn: it’s the lack of it, which can be caused by eating (and overeating) certain foods over a lifetime.  Here’s a really good article on how and why to take hydrochloric acid.

This doesn’t work for everyone, and definitely don’t do it if you’re currently taking an antacid, but it has worked for me and many of my clients.  I like taking hydrochloric acid in conjunction with digestive enzymes because it’s not a long term protocol.  If you take them for even a week, it can potentially be helpful.  Taking them reminds your body how to make HCl and digestive enzymes on its own while giving it a break for a while.  Take the enzymes with meals and take the HCl as the article describes.


Glutamine has been shown to be one of the most effective gut healers out there.  It’s an amino acid – you’d find it naturally in many protein foods – and it helps to maintain the tight junctions of the gut barrier.  That means it helps to keep the walls of your small intestine from becoming “leaky”.  Personally, I’ve used glutamine over the last couple of years, sometimes pretty intensively, and I attribute my diminished food sensitivity symptoms at least partly to it.

Glutamine is a white powder with a slightly sweet taste that dissolves in water.  You can take a total of about 12 grams per day split up between meals.  That means you’d take 2 to 4 grams between breakfast and lunch, 2 to 4 between lunch and dinner and 2 to 4 before bed.  Try to have it about 30 or 40 minutes away from eating.  This can be a long term thing – I’d say you could be on it for 6 months to a year, or more depending on your situation.  Try it for a month and see how you feel.  Stop taking it and see how you feel.  Most of the time it’s going to be subtle, though – you may not notice that you feel immediately better upon ingesting it, although some people do.  Over time, though, you may not get the same symptoms after eating certain foods that you used to, and you may feel better overall.

Individual Nutrients

After taking tests with your nutritionist, holistic MD, or naturopath that allow you to see which nutrients your specific body is low in, you will want to supplement with those.  That could be anything from vitamin B6 to magnesium to vitamin D.

Vitamin D is definitely worth mentioning here, since so many people are deficient in it (perhaps almost 90% of us!).  It’s a buzz word in the nutrition and health world right now, and for good reason.  Vitamin D has so much to do with bone health, heart health, immune function and brain vitality that if you’re low in it, a lot can go wrong.

Because we’re all wearing SPF like it’s a piece of clothing, we’re not being exposed to the sun, and thus we’re not producing much vitamin D on our own.  We’re certainly not eating much cod liver oil, mackerel or sardines, either, which are some of the main food sources of it. And by the way, vitamin D that’s added to milk is NOT the kind that is easily absorbed by us – it’s D2, not D3 – so it’s not doing us much good. It can actually even be toxic…

Taking somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 IU per day of vitamin D is recommended by many holistic practitioners.  Get your levels tested to see where you’re at before you start supplementing. You want to be over 60 mg/dL, regardless of what your conventional doc says is good. Their standards of healthy blood lab results are often lower than optimal levels.

If you do end up buying a vitamin D supplement, make sure it’s D3, and make sure it doesn’t have any weird ingredients in it.  After starting a supplement, have your levels rechecked after about 3 months to see where you’re at.

So there you have it.  Those are the supplements I most often suggest for people.  I strongly believe our diet is capable of providing very nicely for us, especially if we vary our diet, eat organic and properly raised foods, and get out in the sun as often as we can (within reason, you bronzy sun worshipers…).

Let us know your experiences with supplements.  Have you had any miraculous turn-arounds with certain products?  Any words of wisdom for your fellow readers?


  1. Thanks for this post, you just answered my questions regarding supplements. I was about to buy a new bottle but now that I am eating Paleo I’ll pass and save myself about $30.

  2. I agree with most of the things you have said in your article, but I’ll have to disagree with you on taking supplements. It depends on the brand a person purchases. We have been using Shaklee supplements for 17 years now, and have seen a remarkable turn around in all our families health. They have spent over $250 million dollars in research, and don’t put out a product unless they have tested it to make sure it works and is safe for anyone. In fact, they do over 83,000 test a year. They even test the raw ingredients before it goes into manufacturing, and if they find any little part of it that is contaiminated the whole batch is sent back C.O.D. They make sure all their products are safe and actually work. But just taking supplements alone isn’t the answer. It’s a balance of eating the right foods, exercise, getting enough sleep, and feeding your mind with good thoughts, etc. Every person is different, and need different nutrient levels. My husband found that he needed more vitamin B’s and I need more vitamin C. I’m using this website for the Paleo Plan to take the guess work out and make things easier.

  3. I’m definitely an example of needing both Digestive Enzymes, Hydrochloric Acid, and most recently L_Glutamine. Oh and probiotics.
    I was a long term vegetarian with undiagnosed Celiac Disease for years – my GI system was a mess and I was very sick with traditional doctors telling me I was just “a little stressed”.

    First thing my amazing chiropractor did was change my diet (but no pressure to add meat) – He put me on Hydrochloric Acid for a month and within two weeks I was craving meat and added it to my diet on my own. After a few months on Digestive Enzymes I was pretty all right but every few months would relapse into intestinal problems – last week he put me on L_Glutamine and I started to feel a difference within days, most painful symptoms started to fade.

    We’ve tweeked the diet along the way – starting with small changes and I’m now about 95% Paleo (although I’m working through that remaining 5%). His goal is to get me to a point where I don’t need the pills anymore and where I don’t need to come in and see him expect for rare occasions. It’s been wonderful working with someone who is willing to listen to all the details I bring him and help me find viable solutions to correcting them. He knows I dislike being on pills and searches for a way to correct a problem for a few sessions before recommending pills and then offering a few brands and locations I can get them.

    His philosophy is that he can guide me, but only I can help me. I can follow his advice (food included) or not, but if I really want to get better, I have to be the one to do something about it.

  4. Supplements are just that, to make up for what you lack in diet. Eating an organic, ideally balanced diet gets you all you need for vitamins and minerals, but who has the ability, money and time? Again, some have enough money or a stay-at-home wife to cook perfect meals, shop all the local farm stands. If they’re luck enough to live near some, or have transportation to get there, massive numbers of the unhealthy are packed in polluted cities depending on very limited public transport to get them where they go, with no hope of getting to a farm-organic place on an almost daily basis (required, since many fresh foods that are healthy don’t keep well, even refrigerated, they can’t all be pickled). Even in a good location with your own car, time makes it difficult to get to those places, do the preperation/cooking. There will undoubtedly be missing nutrients, or not enough. I’m very much against taking supplements way over the RDA in hopes of ‘more is better’.

    That misleading claim has done nothing for many but drain their pocketbooks. But there is a place for common-sense supplementation, for those who simply can’t get a truly balanced daily diet. Don’t use them to switch from healthy food to bad, thinking you’re ‘all set’. I’ve also known of a few smokers who claimed they were ‘fine’ because they took ‘anti-oxidants’ (ie. vitamin E, etc.). Thankfully the study emerged showing those didn’t help smokers at all, and some they made worse. That’s the downside and it’s sensible to educate those folks they aren’t doing it right. The switch to a society that values humans vs. products and profits would mean more stay-at-home moms, more time to do more than just work or get ready for work or drive to and from work, or study to try and find better work. More ability to focus on health. But we are going in the other direction and many ‘liberty’ minded folks mean well but are mislead into supporting this downward spiral.

  5. Niacin, vitamin B3, saved my life. Literally!! I was very depressed and when I say very, I was having a hard time finding reasons to wake up the next day and could not stop crying. My wonderful daughter did some research and found that Niacin helps depression. It’s water soluble so can be taken in high doses. Start taking smaller doses until you find what works for you. I take 1200 mg 3 times a day and I have never (even on pharmaceutical anti-depressants) felt better. I can totally tell if I’ve missed a day!

  6. Im a Naturopathic Doctor and I want to clarify between taking nutritional supplements and herbal supplementation. Depending on the status of your digestive abilities, the degree of eating processed foods for long periods of time, certain organs in your body need support beyond nutrition and herbs are one of our best allies to heal, repair and restore function. The foundation of health is diet and supplementation on a case by case basis to regain optimal function is usually much needed.

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