Thursday, September 12, 2013

Supplement Quandary

Hi all—I've been wondering if anyone has any advice/insight/actual scientific knowledge about what types of supplements are worth taking. It seems like there is a study out there supporting/refuting the benefits of every possible formulation and I'd rather not waste my money.

The ones I currently take:
—fish oil—at the request of my eye doctor
—probiotics—at the request of my GI doc
—calcium—for the bones thing (I had borderline osteoporosis at my last DEXA scan about 3 years ago, and I don't drink milk)
—multivitamin—just cuz.

i pop bottles

I did have a  B complex in my cabinet for a while and would take it intermittently, although it seemed like overkill since there's vitamin B in my multivitamin. I'm also not super consistent about the probiotics, since they are damn expensive and I am currently poorer than I have ever been in my life. Also, they seem kind of trendy and I'm not totally convinced they do much. Any thoughts about what I should add/ditch? Is the whole vitamin craze just a scam?


  1. I'm not one who can provide actual scientific data in this field (not my area of expertise), but I can offer what others with more knowledge than myself have told me. You can never go wrong with a multivitamin, and also calcium given the state of your bones. (Obviously Vitamin D needs to be included in the calcium supplement for proper absorption of the calcium). The fish oil sounds like a good one, and your eyes have been doing really well lately, knock on wood. I take vitamin B and haven't really noticed any effect, so that one is probably a wash.

    As far as probiotics, I've asked about this before. What I've been told is that as long as a person eats a wide variety of foods and includes things like yogurt, fruit, veggies, fiber from grains, etc, there's really no need for a probiotic. However, if your GI doctor specifically suggested it, it could be one of two scenarios: 1) your body really does need the extra probiotic help, or 2) he assumes people in general don't get enough variety in their day and suggests it as a fail-safe. I do think that one is trendy right now, and that makes me very skeptical of it.

    Sorry to have written a book, just thought I'd throw in my two cents from my experiences. Good luck! Can you search for the off-brands to help offset the cost?

    1. I'm with you on the skepticism re probiotics—it was a GI doc who recommended them after I had been given the ever-vague "IBS" diagnosis, which I think was probably more refeeding issues than anything else. Although I did and sometimes still do have tummy-related troubles, so who knows? (Both my dad's parents died of colon cancer so we are very very very careful about tummy troubles in my family!) Anyways yes, it is a super trendy topic at the moment; hard to parse out what's valid and what is pop science jumping the gun. I have been hearing lots about the brain-gut connection and the human microbiome and all that jazz, so it seems like it's an emerging field of research but the hard evidence just isn't quite there yet.

  2. I don't have time to look for the specific articles, but I know Science-Based Medicine ( has covered research on different kinds of supplements. IIRC, their conclusions are (roughly) that vitamin D is a good idea in northern latitudes, that multivitamins are unnecessary for most people, that it's a good idea to avoid going over 100% of the RDA for any vitamin, and that the research on probiotics is still unclear. For what it's worth, I take a seriously expensive probiotic that really seems to help my GI symptoms. I've heard the refrigerated probiotics are better than the non-, though I have no idea if that's actually true. For bones, I take vitamin D but not calcium, since I'm pretty good about getting enough dairy.

    [P.S. As someone with hormone-related dry-eye issues, I'd love to hear exactly what your eye doctor said about fish oil.]

    1. E, when I first started having dry eyes my ophthalmologist at the time suggested fish oil pills, and every doctor since then has agreed that some research/anecdotal evidence shows that they may be helpful. The idea is that your tears are made up of three layers: mucous, water, and lipid. Dry eyes (especially hormone-related) is most commonly a result of a lack of the lipid layer, which sits on top of the other two layers and keeps your tears from evaporating. The idea with fish oil is that it helps to replace this lipid layer and keep your eyes more hydrated. If you have meibomian gland dysfunction (where the glands that produce the lipids are either not making enough oils or are clogged), fish oil is supposed to sort that out and get the oils flowing into your eyes again (I know ewwwww gross sorry). Now, I've been taking fish oil pills religiously for about 2.5 years and can't say that they've made any miraculous difference, but I trust my docs enough to assume that they are probably helping some and certainly don't hurt.

      I could write a book on dry eyes, so please let me know or send me an e-mail if there's anything else I can do to help. I've been dealing with severe dry eyes for a long time but am now in a very good place thanks to a combo of meds, food, weight gain, and a fantastic doctor. There are MANY options out there!

    2. Thanks so much, K -- I may email you at some point. A while after I first got sick, I suddenly developed really awful dry eyes (couldn't wear contacts after wearing them every day for years, had to use eyedrops every 10 minutes all day long, etc.) that lasted about a year, then dramatically improved right around the time I got to a high-enough weight for my period to return. No ophthalmologist ever made the hormone connection (and neither did I for a long time, though looking back it seems super obvious). But one did suggest pinching my eyelids to try to unclog the oil glands, so I guess he thought there was dysfunction there.

      Anyway! I'm really glad you're in a good place with this stuff. My eyes are much better than they were, but I still have a bit of trouble, so maybe I should try fish oil to see if it helps. I really appreciate your thorough explanation -- thank you so much!