Everything You Need To Know About Supplements, A Functional Medicine Perspective

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In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, some of the biggest questions I get are about supplements - what classifies something as a supplement, what ones should I be taking, what is the best brand, and so forth.

While all of these are great questions, a lot of the answers are going to vary for each person. So let’s cut the confusion once and for all and dive into everything you need to know about functional medicine supplements, starting with the basics.

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What is a functional supplement?

Supplements that we use in functional medicine differ from prescription medication due to the fact that they are 100% natural. In fact, unlike medication that often requires a prescription, supplements usually don’t because their ingredients are nutrients that are already found naturally in our bodies (such as vitamins and minerals) or derived from plants that have zero to minimal known side-effects.

Ultimately, supplements are designed to support and correct nutrient deficiencies and imbalances in the body that play a role in underlying dysfunctions. In functional medicine we like to utilize supplements instead of prescription medication as much as possible because they are able to address the root cause of why someone is feeling the way they do with the least amount of side effects. This also helps prevent disease, as we are correcting imbalances that can lead to further breakdown of the body. 

Ultimately, supplements are considered functional because they help correct dysfunction in the body to restore proper function.

Types of supplements

Most functional medicine supplements include a single nutrient or ingredient or can combine a few for a more targeted approach at addressing a certain health issue. Some of these include:

  • Vitamins: These include vitamins like A, D, C, and more that our bodies rely on in specific amounts to function
  • Minerals/Trace elements: These include zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and iodine to name a few that are necessary for your body to function optimally
  • Amino acids: Essential for vital bodily functions, they are the compounds that form protein
  • Herbs: These are derived from plants, seeds, berries, flowers, or roots.

Most of these nutrients can be found naturally in food. However, our modern diets are filled with processed, prepackaged foods that often lack the variety of nutrients your body needs to thrive and can increase the need for supplementation.

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Judging supplements - exactly what to look for

If you are looking to start taking supplements, chances are a Google search is your first stop. But Dr. Google is a fickle thing. On one hand, it’s a great way to get information at your fingertips but on the other hand, it’s full of conflicting information - especially when it comes to supplements. And with so many brands and types of supplements on the market, how do you know where to start and what is worth your time? 

This process is two-fold. First, you need to take into consideration what is best for you. Not everyone is going to benefit from every supplement known to man, since your individual biochemistry is unique to you. Secondly, you need to look at the brand itself and how it stacks up against others in a few key areas. This is the process I recommend my patients go about vetting supplements:

     1. Your starting point

The very first thing to consider is the status of your health before taking any supplements. For example, a person with a severe nutrient deficiency is going to require more than someone who is just slightly deficient. A functional medicine practitioner can run labs and help you determine your base levels.

     2. Dosage

This is where your starting point comes into play. If you don’t know your deficiencies you won’t know how much to take to make a difference. This leaves many people taking the right supplements at lower doses than they require so they don’t end up feeling any better. If they were taking enough they would see an improvement. This is why it’s important to work with a qualified practitioner who can determine the right dose for your particular health case so you don’t waste your time.

     3. Your personal needs

Every person’s health case is unique and will have different requirements for healing. Even if two people have the same diagnosis their bodies may respond differently to the same treatment. While I may sound like a broken record by now, this is another reason why it is so important to work with a practitioner who has experience taking underlying dysfunctions into account when recommending supplements for each individual.

     4. Absorption rate

An often overlooked factor to consider is how well your body is able to absorb the nutrients in a supplement. Chronic inflammation and underlying gut problems can inhibit cellular absorption of these much-needed nutrients. Without first addressing these underlying problems, it can make the benefits of supplementation very minimal or even non-existent. Again, a qualified practitioner can determine the best plan of action to address these before - or in conjunction - with supplements.

     5. Quality

Once you’ve narrowed down the type of supplement that is best for you, it’s time to choose what brand you should take. Make sure to examine the label to uncover any hidden inflammatory ingredients such as grains or sugar, as well as any artificial colors and fillers as a lot of these added ingredients can negate the benefits of why you are taking a supplement in the first place.

     6. Transparency

I like to approach choosing a supplement like hiring a new employee – vet your options and do a thorough background check. When you look up a brand, they should be completely transparent about the quality of their ingredients, where they source them from, their manufacturing process, and even include science-backed research supporting the benefits of their supplements.

Next Steps

At the end of the day, working with a qualified practitioner is going to be the best first step at helping you choose what supplements are right for you. However, there are a few supplements that most everyone can benefit from. That’s why I created The Collection - 9 essential supplements personally curated from the Earth’s finest ingredients. Each supplement is designed to work synergistically together to support your optimal wellness.

I wanted to cut the confusion and provide high quality supplements to everyday people without the need for endless hours researching.

If you are looking to start taking supplements, shop The Collection here.

And if you want to learn more about what supplements would work best for you, ​​as one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.