It's tempting to go overboard on detox supplements when you first discover their potential benefit. As you'll learn in this guide, detox requires careful research and preparation, since much can go wrong. Eating healthy, healing foods should always be your first option, with occasional support from supplements, If you need more help, make an appointment or two with a nutritionist or other knowledgeable health care practicioner to learn all you can before implementing a drug regimen.
For starters, please beware - a handful of supplements have been proven to be just plain deadly. Kelp, for instance, contains precious iodine and another helpful chemical known as sodium alginate (algin), not to mention many essential minerals. Yet like other types of seaweed, kelp can be contaminated with arsenic or other heavy metals, thanks to sea pollution. So be proactive by investigating the pros and cons of a particular product before buying it.
The use of fillers and other additives is another big concern these days. When shopping around, always check the section on the label called “Other Ingredients” or "Inert Ingredients". (Online sellers should furnish this information in product descriptions or by including a photo of the nutritional analysis on the label.) It turns out that even the most expensive, high-end brands may include magnesium stearate (or stearic acid). This so-called flow agent helps keep the assembly line going for pill packing, but it's not very healthy to ingest. The substance usually derives from cottonseed oil, and that tends to be loaded with pesticides. The magnesium stearate itself was found in one study to inhibit absorption of nutrients. Another study found that stearic acid had an immunosuppressive effect on T cells. If these claims are true, it might defeat the whole purpose of taking the supplement.
Of course, supplement manufacturers who use magnesium stearate contest the claims of its critics. Just to be on the safe side, you can try spreading out your consumption of these products, rather than taking a whole bunch of magnesium stearate in one gulp. You can also perform your own absorption test by dropping a capsule into warm vinegar (which simulates stomach acid). If the product hasn’t dissolved after a half hour, that might indicate that it’s not breaking down and getting absorbed by the small intestine.
Another unsavory ingredient you might find in oil-based vitamins like A and E is non-organic soybean oil. Most soybean products in the United States come from GMO seeds. In fact, with the vast majority of food-based supplements, you’ll rarely find the designations “non-GMO”, “Organic” or “USDA certified”. (And if it's not organic, it's also possible that the product or some of its ingredients have been irradiated.) Unlike food, supplements also don't have to state their country of origin if the location lies outside the United States. For example, most Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) comes from China. Countless other supplements start out in unknown parts of India, Taiwan, South Korea and other countries with questionable enforcement of labor and environmental protections. A product may be perfectly safe, but how do you know without some form of certification from an ethically-minded, third-party inspector?
Again, supplement makers counter these concerns by claiming that unlike food, so little material is ingested in a pill that the threat posed by non-organic and GMO substances is almost nil. However, if you’re doing the ingesting over a long period of time, you really should take into account the cumulative effect of the contamination.
In any case, always look for supplements that indicate a "natural" source for all its ingredient(s). Some products use synthetic chemicals rather than actual vegetable or mineral matter, even for the active indredient. Just as you shouldn't take aspirin whose source is a petroleum refinery, you should likewise try to avoid all non-natural supplements.
To uncover the latest news and conventional wisdom about a particular nutrient or productt, try a Google keyword search. The product reviews and Q & A section on Amazon represent another timesaving, free resource. While not all those answers and reviews can be trusted, it’s usually easy to ferret out the paid cheerleaders and competitor saboteurs from the feedback of actual customers.
Most manufacturers also post websites information about their products, along with an email address or phone number. After reading the literature that's available, don’t be bashful about asking questions that aren’t answered in the literature, such as:
If you don’t find a website for a supplement brand, or never hear back from the customer service department, that should raise a red flag. A track record of successful performance is mandatory, as supplements are so poorly regulated by consumer agencies.
Here’s a rundown of the different mediums used for packaging nutritional supplements:
Fluid Extract – Also known as a tincture, this format uses alcohol or a glycerin fluid base to preserve a dried herb in concentrated form. After several weeks or months of soaking, the plant material is filtered out and the extracted liquid bottled. Tinctures enjoy a much longer shelf life than other mediums, so their potency doesn’t fade as quickly as powders. They’re also easier to get down the hatch, since you take a half dropperful or so in water. Another advantage is that non-healthy additives are almost never used in processing. Of course, since extracts are generally restricted to herbs and a few foods, you won’t find vitamins, minerals or amino acids in this medium.
Capsules and Pills – The most common medium on the market today, this one takes the dried nutrients and pounds them into powder. When placed inside a capsule, the nutrients have a protective shell to prevent oxidation. But it’s not that much protection. The product will still oxidize over time and lose its potency. So however much money you save in buying in quantity, you may end up losing in efficacy. Before purchasing, think about how many capsules you’ll ingest over 2-3 months and only buy that much.
Powders – This is the cheapest medium out there and quite popular among economically-minded athletes and fitness enthusiasts. These folks take a lot of supplements, but loathe the high prices of capsule and pill products. With powders you’re also less likely to see unhealthy additive ingredients like magnesium stearate. Regardless, you’ll still need to read the label carefully. And if you don’t mind the extra labor, you can buy empty capsules at a health food store and pack them yourself. There are even small-scale packing machines on the market that can do the job for you.
Powders have two major downsides. One is that they oxidize much more quickly than other mediums. Thus, their shelf life is minimal. The expiration date on the package refers to the time when it may be first opened, not the length of time that you can use after the seal is broken. To mitigate against the effects of oxidation, some supplement companies now use aluminum packaging. The metal provides a better barrier against the outside world than plastic.
Ironically, the aluminum oxide surface on the inner side of the container can potentially leach into the powder and contaminate you with a metal neurotoxin . Because of the lack of toxicological studies for aluminum – the FDA considers it safe – no one really knows how much of a health risk this poses. Experts suggest that if the supplement contains an acidic or alkali substance, that the metal oxide is more likely to be broken down. Also keep in mind that in the course of transport, powder supplements may travel around for several days in metal delivery trucks that get really hot during the daytime. Aluminum is thermally conductive, so your product will be baking like a potato the whole time. And that heat might also contribute to the oxide breaking down inside the bag.
For each product you're considering, devise a checklist of must-haves before you start shopping. The list might include the following:
A few other things to consider when shopping for supplements:
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