Bitter Harvest

4 Nov

herbIn general, it seems that the paleo-sphere has a love-hate relationship with supplementation. I mean, we know that our ancestors were able to get all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they needed from their diets and environment, so if we’re careful enough we should be able to do the same, right? Well, while it is true that nutrients found in foods seem to be better-absorbed and more functional than supplements taken in isolation, even us paleo-peeps are fighting a bit of an uphill struggle. We’re not spending as much time outside and getting all the sunlight and dirt that entails, we’re eating animals that often have a nutrient-poor diet to begin with, and even the high-quality, heirloom, organic vegetables we eat are, at the end of the day, products of human invention, artificially selected for decades—if not longer—for things like taste and shelf-life rather than diversity of nutrients.

So in some cases, it seems, some supplementation is merited, but an issue that often gets overlooked in the endless debate of to-supplement-or-not-to-supplement is that the quality of supplements is going to have a major impact on its overall effects and benefits. We know that a calorie is not a calorie, so it stands to reason that one type/brand of supplement might be very different from another.

This is very apparent when you start getting into the world of herbal supplements. An interesting story proving this point is making the rounds of my Facebook feed. Apparently a study came out recently showing that some herbal supplements are either laced with—or are nothing but—filler material, if not worse. At best, it’s evidence that buying the cheap drug-store generic brand of herbal supplements is probably not as good as shelling out for a higher quality name-brand. At worst—and this is the tone that I think the article implies and my Facebook discussion has taken—it’s evidence against herbal supplements being good for anything at all.

But I think this story can be taken a little deeper. Consider this: almost every major herbal supplement out there has “conflicting evidence” about whether or not it is actually effective. Their Wikipedia articles are littered with links to studies both supporting and refuting possible health benefits. Sometimes these differences can be chalked up to poor experimental design or shaky statistics. But this study makes me wonder if these experiments took into account possible differences in quality of the very supplements they were testing. One study might show that a supplement works while another one shows it doesn’t, but if one of them used an inferior quality of supplement then that would be an uncontrolled variable and the comparison would be completely invalidated. The best studies, of course, would be very careful about which supplements they choose and make sure that the concentration of active chemicals are consistent between dosages (since plants don’t follow strict laboratory protocols and concentration of active ingredients can vary widely) but I’m sure that many studies don’t have the time or resources to devote to such careful practices.

So what does that mean for us? Well, if you decide to supplement—be it vitamins, minerals, or herbal—make sure to get a good quality brand that you can trust. And this doesn’t mean just purchasing the most expensive option on the shelf. Do some research, both on the companies and on what specific types of supplement to get. Ask around for brands that people trust. If you don’t know anyone in real life who’s as into supplements as you are, I’m sure there are any number of online forums that would be happy to help out. And most importantly, observe your own body to determine whether or not a specific supplementation is working for you.

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One Response to “Bitter Harvest”

  1. Twinkle November 4, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m so glad you posted about this because I wanted to get my thoughts sorted out on the topic all day. I try to eat a balanced Paleo/Primal diet but sometimes, I have other issues that cannot be easily remedied through diet. However reluctant I am to supplement, I prefer to use herbal remedies versus certain costly prescriptions (that generally result in other unsavory side effects). I’ve definitely experienced varying levels of efficacy amongst the myriad brands littering the grocery shelves and you are absolutely correct in your assertion that price is not always the best indication of quality. This might be why I’m dragging my feet on the oft-touted Green Pastures FCLO…

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