Using Supplements in Naturopathy

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As a naturopathic doctor, I design treatment plans using various tools to help patients meet their health goals. Supplements are among these tools, and I field a lot of questions from patients about the safety and efficacy of different products.

A lot of people are understandably confused about the potential risks and benefits of supplements, as well as how to incorporate them into regular health promotional practices. Here’s a brief look at how I incorporate supplements into my practice.

How Do Naturopaths Use Supplements?

Naturopaths use supplements the same way conventional providers use pharmaceuticals—for therapeutic purposes at therapeutic doses. I rarely recommend taking any supplement at a sub-therapeutic dose for maintenance, prevention, or no reason at all. The naturopathic approach to wellness is to support the body’s innate healing ability using minimal exogenous substances.

For example, if I’m working with a patient who has difficulty sleeping, my first suggestion may be a meditation practice, sleep hygiene support, or a diagnostic sleep study. Because most insomnia medications carry some risk or are habit-forming, I always employ less invasive treatments first. If my initial suggestions aren’t effective, I typically move on to the most appropriate supplement for the situation, which in this case might be melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root. However, it’s important to understand the root cause of the problem in order to select the most appropriate treatment.

When Do Naturopaths Turn to More Invasive Treatments?

Naturopathic treatment design is guided by a therapeutic order, beginning with the least invasive yet effective treatment. This usually starts with dietary and lifestyle changes. If those aren’t effective, herbal formulas or supplements may be helpful. And if these don’t accomplish the treatment goal, pharmaceuticals may be the most appropriate course of treatment.

Keep in mind that this treatment approach is a general guide. There are certain conditions that warrant pharmaceuticals or surgery immediately. In those cases, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start with diet or supplements. In addition, there are individuals and medical conditions that aren’t well suited for diet and lifestyle modifications. In these cases, employing a more invasive treatment approach, such as supplementation, may be the best place to start.

Are Supplements Safe?

Although there isn’t a great deal of research on supplements, the majority of them are safe at reasonable doses. While experimentation with supplement use isn’t always effective, it usually isn’t dangerous. However, if you are taking pharmaceuticals, consult with your provider before experimenting with supplements to avoid any harmful interactions.

What Is a Therapeutic Dose?

Therapeutic dosing is dependent on what condition you’re treating and the desired outcome. When used inappropriately, supplements are not effective; you might be better off putting that money toward a gym membership, a yoga class, or a massage.

Just like pharmaceuticals, the dose and regimen for supplements is essential for treatment efficacy. For example, when using fish oil to support mood, I usually suggest a product that supplies at least 3,000 milligrams of total omega-3s daily. This is a hefty dose, and can be expensive, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless it was medically indicated.

Naturopathic doctors use supplements like allopathic doctors use pharmaceuticals. If a doctor prescribes a blood pressure medication, it must be taken at the prescribed dose consistently. Supplements work the same way. Taking them inconsistently at sub-therapeutic amounts won’t produce the desired effect. That’s why you should work with a provider.

What If I Want to Try a Supplement?

If you’re feeling well, trust your body and your innate ability heal without supplements. If you have health goals and are interested in using supplements to attain them, consult with a naturopathic doctor so you can experiment safely, economically, and effectively.

Most importantly, when initiating a new treatment, pay special attention to how you feel. Although there are circumstances where supplements work synergistically, I advise staggering the introduction of new supplements so you can assess how each one affects your body. An awareness of your body and how it feels is the foundation for developing and attaining your personal health goals with whatever treatment plan you and your provider design.

Interested in learning more about naturopathic medicine? Check out this comprehensive introduction to naturopathy.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.