One of the questions I am often asked as a naturopath, is how long to take a supplement for. Our society is one that is used to the idea of having to take things long term. Just think of the oral contraceptive pill, blood pressure medication, cholesterol tablets and so on… Considering only those three types of medication, I have done some quick research and it seems that in Australia, approximately 32% of all adults (over the age of 25) are on some form of cholesterol medication, 32% of all adults are on high blood pressure medication, and 39% of women between the ages of 18-45 are using the oral contraceptive pill. That is a whole lot of continual drug taking. But just how safe are supplements to take long term? There are a few things to consider as we investigate this question…
The first thing most people want to take into account is the price. Pharmaceutical medication will often come under the PBS system (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme). This means if you hold a concession card, you will be able to purchase your cholesterol medication for around $6.00 for a months supply. No natural supplement will cost you $6.00 for a month (except if you possibly buy a months supply of loose psyllium husk). So understanding that natural medicine will cost you a bit of money, you don’t want to be continuously taking stuff you may not need. Prioritising what you need, and for how long, is one of the jobs of a naturopath. They will take into account your personal situation, prescribe you specific products, and advise you how long you will need to continue these items. A good naturopath will also be able to work with your budget, recommending and prioritising so that your health can improve without breaking the bank.
Ladies, if you use the same shampoo year in year out, do you sometimes notice that you are not getting the great results you saw at the beginning? I believe the same in true for natural medicine. If you take a B vitamin in a specific brand long term, you may stop noticing the benefit you felt at the beginning of your treatment. With long term supplements I always recommend an occasional rest period to allow the body a chance to go without the supplement for a time. You may find you notice a big difference not taking it, and this may show you that the supplement is still a necessary part of your treatment. Or you may find you feel very little difference, in that case, why would you continue taking something that doesn’t necessarily make you feel good?
Taking a break for 2-4 weeks can help you gauge how you feel with and without the supplement. This is something to discuss with your naturopath. In some cases the supplement may not be making you feel different, but may still be working on a biological level. This brings us to testing.
As I mentioned above, some supplements may not make you feel particularly different, but you might have been recommended them in regards to a specific treatment plan or deficiency. Vitamin D is an example. If your levels were low, after taking a supplement for a few months it is a good idea to get retested to make sure your levels have come up, and to consider if this is still a necessary part of your treatment plan. Your naturopath will be able to discuss with you when and if you require retesting.
Changes In Need
A supplement that suited you when you were stressed 3 years ago may not suit you in this stressful situation right now. It is not wise to assume that just because you were prescribed it in the past, that your naturopath will prescribe the same item for you this time around. It is best to check with your naturopath before you purchase a supplement you have taken in the past, or start taking one you have at home again.
Support Long Term
There are certain supplements that I would consider beneficial longer term. These include vitamin C, EPA/DHA and magnesium. It is my opinion that the majority of people out there would benefit from these three supplements in their daily life. That being said, I still recommend taking a break from these every few months, to give your body a rest from supplementation. I would also recommend checking in with your naturopath to make sure you are taking the best form of these supplements for you. For example, magnesium isn’t just magnesium. You can get magnesium specifically designed to help the body relax, calm down, sleep, exercise, or produce energy. Changing the form of this supplement to suit your needs will help ensure you get the most out of your supplementation.
The biochemical nature of a supplement will have a lot to do with how long you should take a supplement for. What I mean by the biochemical nature is how does it act in the body. Is it water soluble? Fat soluble? Is it stored in the tissues, bones or blood? Does it build up over time? Your naturopath will know what supplements are what, and will be able to recommend you a safe time limit. Generally, your water soluble vitamins are safe to take longer term, they don’t tend to build up in the body, they are used as needed and then flushed through.
So basically, you want to be taking supplements to address a particular issue. You don’t want to be taking these natural medications just because they might make you healthier. If you are addressing a particular issue, monitor its progress. It is supposed to improve, and once it does, you shouldn’t need to take the supplements continuously. Perhaps you will be put on a maintenance plan, or told to check in again in 6 months, but it is my opinion that supplements are not forever medications, they are used when needed, under the supervision of a qualified health care professional. Please contact us if you require a supplement review.