Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Reach Your Health Goals with the Fewest Supplements Possible
Nutritional supplements can be very helpful to correct and optimize your health status, but many people need far less than they think for excellent health.
When considering supplementation, it can be helpful to evaluate what you really need alongside a knowledgeable clinician who is willing to take a conservative approach with supplements (and emphasize diet and lifestyle solutions).
Most of the time, you want to at least be making progress on healthy diet and lifestyle practices before you start supplements (except in certain cases like iron-deficiency anemia, for example).
You can and should periodically reevaluate your need to take supplements by experimenting with the dose, schedule, or even stopping altogether and seeing if you notice a difference in your health.
Many people who have been told they have a complex chronic illness end up feeling like they are dependent on supplements, but it’s possible that they can achieve similar results for their health with other tools and nervous system regulation techniques.
You might have heard that “everyone should take vitamin D” or “we’re all magnesium deficient,” but not everyone always needs to supplement these key nutrients when a healthy diet and lifestyle are in place.
Plus, taking less supplements over the long run saves you time, energy, and money, which is also good for your health and wellbeing.
At the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health, we routinely see patients who enter our practice taking a laundry list of supplements that they were told were essential for their health by another well-meaning practitioner or “Dr. Google.” And yet, they either aren’t seeing the results they want from taking these supplements, they actually feel worse, or they’re just overwhelmed by keeping track of so many liquids, pills, and powders.
Dietary supplements can be important tools in restoring and maintaining your health, but most people need far less than they think to achieve their health goals. I’ve often found a good-quality probiotic can take the place of multiple lower-quality supplements with better results for a fraction of the cost.
Of course, good diet and lifestyle habits are important to achieve your health goals as well. In fact, a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene, daily movement, and practices to reduce stress are all aspects of a healthy lifestyle you should at least be working toward before you consider supplements (in most cases).
In this article, I’ll discuss how to take less supplements by implementing a healthy diet and lifestyle habits that support the foundation of your health, and then only adding supplements as needed, reevaluating your supplement usage periodically, and so on.
Can You Take Too Many Supplements?
Yes, you absolutely can take too many supplements. Unfortunately, even functional medicine providers (and well-meaning health influencers) can fall into the trap of clever marketing by supplement companies and prescribe supplements for every symptom you’re experiencing. In reality, you might only need to address a few key symptoms with supplements, and improving those key symptoms will address other issues along the way.
For example, let’s say your main issue is IBS symptoms like loose stools and bloating. But you also have disrupted sleep, low energy, and brain fog. Instead of giving you extra vitamin B12 for energy, melatonin for sleep, fish oil for brain support, and fiber for your gut, I would start with the gut as the likely root cause of all of these symptoms. Alongside diet and lifestyle recommendations, I would likely have you start probiotics, increasing the dose over time if necessary. Lo and behold, your gut health improves, and consequently, your sleep, energy, and brain fog improve too — and only one supplement was needed.
Of course, this won’t be the exact case for everyone, but you can see how it’s easier to start simple than it is to throw everything and the kitchen sink at your symptoms from the beginning. On a practical level, applying one or two supplements at a time is also a lot easier for people to remember to take daily and integrate into their routine before adding something else. Not to mention that taking fewer supplements can save you quite a chunk of change!
Taking too many supplements can also cause side effects just from the volume of supplements in the gut, and some may even cause allergic reactions. So it’s important to carefully evaluate what supplements you do or don’t need alongside a practitioner who is willing to take a conservative approach with supplementation.
Start with a Healthy Foundation
Okay, so where do you start when you want to implement healthy lifestyle habits that allow for the lowest number of supplements possible? I look to four key pillars of health: your diet, sleep, movement/exercise, and stress reduction (aka more rest, relaxation, and joy).
I always start by recommending an anti-inflammatory diet that optimizes for controlling inflammation, not feeding your gut bugs. Going straight for lots of prebiotic foods when you have gut issues can often bring more harm than good. That’s why I typically have people start with the Paleo diet, which emphasizes healthy food sources of all essential vitamins and minerals, including animal protein, veggies, healthy fats, fruits, and nuts and seeds. Paleo eliminates all grains, dairy, and soy, along with processed foods and sugar.
Following this diet for 2–3 weeks typically brings at least some improvements for patients. If not, we might try a low FODMAP diet or low histamine diet if histamine intolerance is suspected.
I know many people who are eager to change their health will often want to make many changes at once, but starting with diet is important to establish a good foundation for your gut and set you up for success with any other therapies (including supplements) that follow. Plus, modifying your diet will often correct nutrient imbalances like low iron or fiber, no supplements required.
Getting good quality sleep is so important for long-term healing and recovery from chronic health issues, no matter what they are. The best way to start improving your sleep quality is to implement a restful bedtime routinethat gets your body and your nervous system ready for 7–8 hours of excellent sleep at the same time each night.
This might look like turning down your indoor lights at night and especially avoiding overhead light as much as possible, stopping all screen use at least an hour before bedtime, and doing something relaxing before bed to wind down, such as taking a bath, practicing meditation, or reading a book. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to be consistent.
Movement and consistent exercise was a pillar of health that I didn’t always prioritize in my practice or my own life, but I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about just how essential it is. Ideally, you want an exercise routine that’s about 2:1 strength training and cardio, or maybe 1:1 depending on your health goals.
Just about everyone does very well also incorporating regular low-impact movement into their daily routine, like walking, stretching or yoga practice, or perhaps some cycling. Regular movement is also going to improve your sleep quality and digestion, so you can start to see how these pillars really work together for the overall picture of your health.
Lowering your stress levels isn’t just about decreasing sources of stress in your life, it’s also about increasing sources of rest, relaxation, and joy. Spending time in nature, such as going for a hike or swimming in the ocean, spending quality time with friends and family, listening to joyful music, and practicing hobbies that bring you happiness and fulfillment are key to reducing stress in your life.
Stress Tip: Write down a list of the things that restore your energy, make you feel good, and bring joy to your life. Make it a goal to intentionally do at least one of these things every day for a week and see how you feel. And the next time you feel particularly stressed, refer to this list and ask yourself, what is something on here that I can do even for just five minutes that would calm me down and restore a sense of groundedness to my day?
Once you begin to work on these pillars of health, you’ll likely notice at least subtle positive changes in how you feel. Then you can move on to more targeted support with supplements where necessary.
Assess Your Weak Spots
Once you have your healthy lifestyle foundations in place, now you can get a clearer picture of where you might need some extra support from supplements. Again, this is where reassessment with a clinician can be super helpful to have an outside perspective look at your symptoms and your medical history and say here’s where we need that extra support.
In our clinic, we most often go back to the gut and see what we can do there to make further improvements in your well-being. But there are other options we evaluate as well, like liver support and detoxification, thyroid support, replenishing essential vitamins and minerals, and hormone balancing where necessary.
We figure out what we want to address, and then we typically try only one or two supplements at a time to see what works for your body.
Reevaluate Your Supplements Periodically
You’ll want to continuously reevaluate whether a supplement is helping you. For example, let’s say you start probiotic therapy for IBS symptoms like bloating and irregularity. After an introduction period where you ramp up to your effective dose, you’ll want to reevaluate your IBS symptoms after 2–3 weeks of treatment.
After this period, you may find that you need to adjust your dose, change the type of probiotics, or stop altogether if you feel that the treatment is not helping you. An effective clinician can help guide you through this process so it’s not overwhelming or hard to keep track of on your own.
The same philosophy goes for any supplement you end up taking long term. Every 2–3 months or so, you may want to try scaling back on the dose, changing the schedule (taking it every other day for example), or stopping altogether for a while to see if you notice any changes in your health. You may also stop for a while, think that you’re not seeing any difference, start again, and only then notice that you feel better than you did while off the supplement.
Hopefully, you’ll find that your diet and other lifestyle changes have stabilized the foundations of your health enough that you need less external support from supplements, saving you both money and mental energy spent on remembering to take them.
What if I Feel Like I’m Dependent on Supplements?
This is unfortunately a common issue I see among people who have been told they have a severe “complex” chronic illness. They end up taking a lot of different supplements and then feel like they have to keep taking them or their health will backslide dramatically.
Certainly, there are people with serious chronic infections, mold toxicity, or autoimmune conditions that benefit from multiple supplements at a certain stage of their recovery and healing journey. But if the goal is to eventually reduce supplementation over time, it’s important to challenge your assumptions about what you need to take on a regular basis.
Besides reevaluating your dosage of certain supplements as we discussed above, you might also want to experiment with other lifestyle practices that can help you achieve similar results to supplementation. Perhaps you try regular sauna therapy for Lyme disease instead of taking multiple antimicrobial supplements, for example. Or you consistently practice EFT tapping instead of always reaching for adaptogen supplements for managing stress. Whatever your health goals are, there are ways of reducing your reliance on supplements.
Often, when a person feels like they are “stuck” taking a lot of supplements and they’re afraid to stop, there is also an element of nervous system dysregulation at play. When we can take steps to recenter the nervous system and show the body that it’s safe, supplements can take a backseat in your healing.
Are There Any Supplements Everyone Should Take?
You may have heard some practitioners or health enthusiasts say things like, “Everybody should be taking vitamin D supplements! We’re all super deficient!” or “Magnesium is totally depleted from our soils, you have to be taking magnesium supplements for your health!”
I don’t dispute the fact that many people are deficient in some of these key nutrients, and supplementing them may provide health benefits. But that doesn’t mean we all need to go out and buy a lot of different supplements to correct these supposed deficiencies right away. Often, making foundational changes in your diet and lifestyle can start to curb any nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies you might have, and working with a knowledgeable practitioner can help you identify what targeted supplements will be most beneficial for your health goals.
Save your money, and be strategic about what supplements you need for sustainable wellness.
You Can Still Be Healthy with Less Supplements
Ultimately, our focus should be to achieve our health goals with as few supplements as possible, and optimize our diet, sleep, movement, and stress management to create the foundations of health. Even if you’ve been told you need a dozen or more supplements to support your lasting health and well-being, we can help you narrow down the list at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health. Or, if you want more guidance on the pillars of a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can check out my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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