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Detox & Prevention Guide

Using Nutritional Supplements Wisely

In a world of over-priced health-care and physicians who barely know you, nutritional supplements offer an alternative means of healing and sickness prevention. But supplements have their disadvantages, too.  Regulated loosely by the FDA, and hardly at all by the USDA, the thousands of tablet remedies, capsules, powders, fluid extracts, oils, energy bars and drinks on sale today can acutally make a health condition worse, not better. Whether you're going it alone, or want to carry on a more productive conversation with your doctor, this article will show you how to navigate through the maze of products on the market and pick the right ones. If you can afford it, make an appointment with a nutritionist, naturopath, traditional Chinese medicine provider, or a similarly trained expert. Because of their background and experience, these folks are best suited to set up and monitor your detox regimen or nutrition program .

It's tempting to go overboard on supplements when you first discover their potential benefit. Don't give into the urge. Slow is better, especially when you're just starting out and don't have to health care practitioner to guide you through the steps.

Please be beware that a handful of supplements have been proven to be just plain deadly. While kelp, for instance, contains precious iodine, magnesium and another helpful chemical known as sodium alginate (algin), it can also be packing arsenic or other heavy metals, thanks to sea pollution.  Always do your due diligence before taking any substance, whether it's talking to a physician, reading articles and studies online, checking out a library book, or simply doing a Google search with keywords like "kelp warnings".

Another big concern these days is the use of fillers and other additives in supplements.  When shopping, 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.)  Incredibly, even high-end brands may include unhealthy substances like magnesium stearate or stearic acid. These so-called flow agents may help keep the manufacturer's assembly line moving, but they're not very healthy to ingest.  They don't contain actual magnesium and instead are derived from pesticide-laden, hydrogenated oils like cottonseed. In one study, the stearate was found to inhibit absorption of nutrients.  Another study found that stearic acid had an immunosuppressive effect on T cells. If these claims are true, it defeats the whole purpose of taking the supplement in the first place.

Of course, supplement manufacturers who use magnesium stearate contest these claims. Just to be on the safe side, avoid taking a whole bunch of supplements with either magnesium stearate or stearic acid in one gulp. Spread them out through the course of the day. It's also a good idea to perform an absorption test by dropping a capsule into warm vinegar (which simulates stomach acid). If the product hasn’t dissolved within a half hour, it may not be getting absorbed by your small intestine, either.  

An 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 possible that the product or some of its ingredients have been irradiated.) Furthermore, unlike food, supplements don't have to state where the ingredients come from if it's 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 to use, but without certification from an ethically-minded, third-party inspection service, you won't know for sure.

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 genetically engineered material and substances whose chemical form, origin and/or handling is not checked before it arrives at a distribution warehouse. 

Besides third-party certification, look for supplements that indicate a "natural" source for all their ingredients. Some products use synthetic chemicals rather than actual vegetable or mineral matter (or animal), even for the active ingredient. Just as you shouldn't swallow an aspirin whose source is a petroleum refinery, you should likewise steer clear of all non-natural supplements whenever possible.

One place to look for background information, warnings, complaints and other useful tidbits is in the product review sections of seller websites. The Q & A section on Amazon can also be helpful. While not all the answers and reviews can be trusted, you'll eventually learn how to ferret out the paid cheerleaders and competitor saboteurs from genuine customer feedback. 

Most manufacturers also have websites with info about their products, along with an email address or phone number.  After reading the presentation, don’t be bashful about asking questions that aren’t answered there, such as: 

If you don’t find a website for a supplement, or never hear back from the customer service department, that should raise a red flag. Finding a track record of safe use and responsiveness by a company is mandatory, especially when the product doesn't have a third-party certification.

Categories of Supplements

Here’s a rundown of the different ways nutritional supplements are prepared and packaged: 

Fluid Extract – Also known as a tincture, this form uses an alcohol or a glycerine base to preserve a dried herb. After several weeks or months of soaking in the base, the plant material is removed and the liquid is bottled in 1-4 ounce brown bottles with droppers. Typically, 20 drops are added to a small glass of water which is shaken a few seconds before consuming. Tinctures enjoy a much longer shelf life than other delivery mediums, and alcohol-based tinctures last longer than glycerine.)   Another advantage is that non-healthy additives are not normally used in processing.  Of course, since extracts are restricted to herbs and a few foods, you won’t find vitamins, minerals or amino acids in the seller's inventory. To learn more about different herb remedies and how to prepare them yourself, read the article posted on The Mega-Disaster Planner website.  

Capsules and Pills – The most common medium for supplements, these are created by first drying the nutrients into powder. The powder is then either loaded into a capsule or cast into tablet form. These products will oxidize over time and lose their potency a lot faster than a tincture.  However much money you save in buying in quantity, you may end up losing in efficacy.  So think about how many capsules you’ll ingest over 2-3 months and only buy that much. Also be sure to check the expiration date. 

Powders – This is the cheapest supplement form and a popular choice for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.  With powders you’re also less likely to see unhealthy additive ingredients like magnesium stearate. And if you don’t mind the extra labor, you can  buy empty capsules at a health food store and pack the powder into them yourself.  There are even small-scale packing machines on the market that can do the job for you. 

But powders have two major downsides. First, they oxidize quickly, like flour.  Thus, their shelf life is minimal.  Moreover, the expiration date on the package refers to the time when the product may be first opened, not the length of time you can use the supplement once the seal is broken.  To mitigate against the effects of oxidation, many supplement companies now use resealable aluminum foil packaging.  The metal provides a better barrier against the outside world than plastic. 

Ironically, the aluminum surface on the inside of the package may potentially oxidize itself and then leach into the powder. Because of the lack of toxicological studies for aluminum – the FDA considers the metal safe to ingest  – no one really knows how much of a health risk this poses.  Experts suggest that if the product contains an acidic or alkali substance, the packaging will be more likely to break down.  Also keep in mind that in the course of transport, powder supplements travel around in metal delivery trucks that routinely get super hot in the daytime. Aluminum is thermally conductive, so your product will be baking like a potato the whole time.  And that heat may not only cause the aluminum oxide to break down, but diminish the product's potency as well.  

Things to Know Before You Buy

For any supplement, devise a checklist of must-haves before you start shopping. The list might include:

More Tips

A few more things to consider when shopping for supplements:

  • Consumer Reports has identified 12 supplement ingredients dangerous to human health and warns its readers not to use them. According to the watchdog group, “The dozen are aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.”
  • Learn as much as you can about supplement (and food) combining. Many, if not most nutrients rely on the presence of other nutrients to be absorbed into your bloodstream, or to maximize it's potency. For instance, Vitamins A, C and E should be taken at the same time, while Glutathione is best absorbed with the amino acid L-Lysine in tow. This is another reason why it's better to get your nourishment directly from food, since food is naturally balanced for proper assimilation. Most supplements are not.
  • Supplements are tough on digestive and excretory organs, sort of like synthetic drugs. (And some supplements are synthetic drugs!) Our bodies have evolved over the eons to metabolize real food – that is, unprocessed, raw or lightly heated produce, nuts, legumes, meat, fish, etc.  Digesting anything else can be a real slog, and there’s always the potential for creating imbalances, gastro-intestinal difficulty, free radical development and organ burnout (especially the liver, gallbladder and kidneys).  Use real foods to get your nutrients whenever possible and stop taking a supplement if you start feeling ill and don't know why. If necessary, ask an expert for help in diagnosing the cause before either resuming or discarding the supplement.
  • When reading books like Prescription for Nutritional Healing, keep in mind that new developments in treatment may have occurred since its publication. So be sure to crosscheck recommendations among a variety of reliable sources (i.e. not fitness magazines or even this detox guide!) 

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