Published on July 23, 2013
I was tempted to title this post “The Art of Not Making Expensive Urine”.
After all, you can easily spend lots and lots of your hard-earned money on nutrition supplements, and wind up peeing most of it away – or worse yet, inflicting permanent damage on your body, brain and gut.
But I'll be the first to admit that there's a problem with me answering the question of whether or not a supplement is safe or effective (a topic I tackled in the podcast episode “How To Know If A Supplement You Are Taking Is Safe”). And it is a bias problem I've been “called out” on before:
This is because I am personally affiliated with a nutrition supplements company, and in my triathlon endeavors, I am also sponsored by many other sports nutrition companies. This doesn't mean I give out bad or harmful advice, but it does of course mean that I have a bias towards specific supplements that I have personally researched and found to work very well and be safe for myself and my clients.
So I decided to turn to some unbiased experts to advise you on how to know if you're wasting your money or damaging you health with a supplement.
You may recall an article that appeared on this site several months ago entitled “Could Lance Armstrong Have Increased His Testosterone Levels Without Cheating?“. This post was contributed by Sol Orwell and Kurtis Frank, nutrition performance science geeks in their own right and co-founders of Examine.com, which is a science-based compendium on supplements and nutrition.
And Sol and Kurtis are the well-educated guys I turned to.
I asked them three important questions about how to know if a supplement you are taking is safe or effective, and here are their answers:
Q. What are the dangers of taking an unknown supplement?
A. Perhaps you have found a supplement being marketed as the ‘next best thing’ that you have never heard of before, or you went to the corner of the store that you rarely frequent and some across a variety of compounds that sound part herbal and part chemical.
Regardless of what the labelling and marketing explain about the supplement, is it considered a good idea to take something that you have never heard of before?
I mean, it is being sold over the counter; would they put something dangerous in such an accessible place?
As a general statement, you should attempt to educate yourself on anything that you decide to supplement since safety is not assured with over-the-counter products as sometimes there just isn’t enough research to fully conclude that it is safe; producers are just hoping the lack of toxicity seen so far persists.
Also, some supplements that can be perfectly safe to take under normal conditions are completely contraindicted (advised against) when taking other supplements or pharmaceuticals. These adverse interacts don’t inherently mean that either thing interacting is ‘bad’, but you could get hurt if you are not aware of the possible adverse interaction.
An easy example? 5-HTP.
Recommended by Dr. Oz, it can cause problems with people on antidepressants or antipsychotics.
Q. Wouldn't a supplement be safe if it is allowed to be sold to people?
While a company tends to look out for the safety and well being of their consumers (since killing off your consumers harms your reputation and income) the regulatory measures in place to prevent harmful supplements from reaching the market are quite poor.
This means that while the supplement you are purchasing was made by people who likely don’t want to harm you, there is no third party confirming the lack of harm.
In a sense, the safety is a bit unreliable. This is why you hear of some instances where there is heavy metal contamination in supplements, a supplement may or may not possessing illegal amphetamines in it, poor processing practises causing harmful contamination in the final product, and many instances where a product was underdosing what was said on the label or not even giving that supplement to people!
Q. How can I know if a supplement is safe or not?
All you can really do is to research the supplement as best as possible, consult people you know who may understand the topic better than you, and with a mixture of your own research and testimonies from trusted persons you then make your decision.
While it would be inadvisable to just blindly disregard studies that are funded by supplement companies, they should be looked at with a bit more skepticism than normal. Label claims can be ignored, since they tend to take the most promising sounding number and brag about that (in the supplement realm, percentages can be very misleading).
Questions, comments or feedback about how to know if a supplement you are taking is safe or effective? Leave your thoughts below.
And for finding out quickly about supplement ingredients…
…having a fast and convenient source to get an unbiased overview on any supplement…
…and figuring out if a specific supplement will work for your body and your goals…
…check out Soi and Kurtis's new book “Supplement Goals Reference Guide“, which is jam-packed with the truth about supplements. Put simply, it lets you quickly and easily find supplements that will work for the health goals you are interested in. With over 180 different health goals, you can instantly find supplements that will help you with goals such as anxiety, attention, erections, hair growth, immunity, memory, pain, stress, and more!
It will allow you to save your precious time and resources before you rush to go try the latest new supplement craze. I've personally reviewed it and I highly recommend it.