The great thing about natural therapies is that they present a very low health risk while offering a very high benefit.
Because supplements are unregulated and available to anyone, people often try to self-prescribe these therapies. The great thing about supplements is that, most of the time, if used incorrectly they will not pose any risk. However, people can misuse supplements in a number of ways.
Misuse #1: Not Enough
Health Canada has stringent regulations on the maximum dosage a supplement label can recommend. Thus, the dosage is often way too low to have any therapeutic effect. I often hear people saying “supplements don’t work for me.” After inquiring further, we both discover that they were using an ineffective dosage.
Misuse #2: Too Much
The other side of the spectrum when dealing with dosage is taking too much. Sometimes, people believe that because supplements are natural more must be better. This can’t be further from the truth. Anything can become harmful if used in the wrong amount, even water.
Misuse #3: Drug Interactions
Many people take supplements to either mitigate some of the damage caused by drugs, or in order to come off of drugs. This should only be done with the supervision of a trained health care practitioner, as there are many interactions between supplements and drugs.
For example, people who are on antidepressants (the SSRI class) that potentiate the action of serotonin need to proceed with caution when using 5HTP. 5HTP is a natural supplement which is a precursor to serotonin and if used along with an SSRI, can result in a dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome results from an overabundance of serotonin in the brain. Symptoms include confusion, fever, shivering, sweating, diarrhea, and muscles spasms. This can actually progress into a medical emergency.
Misuse #4: Too Long
If using supplements therapeutically to achieve a certain health goal, they should only be used for a certain period of time and then discontinued or titrated to a lower dose.
One of the ways supplements work is that they help the body build up its stores, so that the nutrient is readily available for certain biochemical reactions. For example, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and thus gets stored in the liver. If someone is taking a dose that is higher than the amount that the body is utilizing (this amount is different for everyone) then, over time, they can develop vitamin D toxicity.
Misuse #5: “Bandaiding”
The allopathic way of dealing with symptoms is usually to mask the symptoms. Have a headache? Take a pain-killer. Digestive upset? Take an antacid. Depressed? Take an antidepressant.
When it comes to natural supplements, integrative health care practitioners can also fall into the “pill-for-every-ill” trap.
I used to work at a health food store and people would come in daily asking for a supplement for their particular issues. I would often explain to them that, although they might alleviate some of the symptoms, they are not dealing with the root cause.
A perfect example of this was a gentlemen who would come in every two weeks for a bag of senna tea. Senna is a powerful laxative herb which can become habit-forming. Clearly, this person had a much more serious issue that he was not addressing. He could have been lacking sufficient fibre and/or water, while masking this nutritional shortcoming with herbal remedies.
Misuse #6: Ineffective
There are many supplements on the market that are just plain ineffective. An example, which I have discussed in a previous article is the multi-vitamin brand Centrum. The low dose of nutrients and addition of multiple fillers, additives, and colours make the supplement more harmful than beneficial.
The Bottom Line
Nutritional supplements can be extremely powerful and effective tools in restoring and maintaining health. Just because they are natural, however, doesn’t mean they are harmless.
When using any natural supplements, make sure to consult with a competent health care practitioner trained in the art of natural therapies, or research the appropriate usage from reliable books, articles, and journals.