Supplements: Healthy or Harmful?

How many supplements or herbs do you take?

Do you know why you are taking them?

Are they prescribed by a Naturopathic Doctor?

On a regular basis, articles pop up in the news claiming that taking herbs or nutritional supplements is harmful.  Or, the media publishes articles about the latest herb or nutrient proven to change your life!

Chinese herbsWhich is it?  Healthy or harmful?

I think by now most of us realize that these articles are over-generalized and are written to sell newspapers and magazines (and thereby sell advertising, let’s be real here) rather than provide useful, applicable information to improve our health.  If you didn’t realize that along with the rest of us, you’re here now!

The really interesting and important question that should be asked is:

“How can I ensure the supplements I take are safe, effective, and right for me?”

Supplement-related liver damage triples

I recently read a summary of a study that found that liver injury attributed to herbals and dietary supplements has nearly tripled from 2004 to 2013!

In 45 out of 130 cases, bodybuilding supplements were the cause, while 85 cases were caused by non-bodybuilding supplements. “Non-bodybuilding supplements” covers the vast majority of herbal and dietary supplements out there!

4 reasons why liver damage is increasing

1. Not all supplements are as advertised…

Old fashioned drug bottle, isolated.Late last year I read a research article examining the widespread contamination and substitution in herbal supplements in North America.

I was alarmed to learn that in this study of 44 products from 12 companies, 59% contained DNA from plant species NOT listed on the label. Many products tested also contained contaminants and/or fillers not listed on the label. Only 2 of the 12 companies studied passed the test; their products contained no substitutes, contaminants, or fillers.

To those of us in the natural health industry, this honestly doesn’t come as much of a surprise. While there is a wide range of herbal products available today, in my judgment and experience, few of them are worth using at all. I have experienced first-hand and also observed in my patients the difference between different brands of what should be the same herb in the same therapeutic range.

There are only a handful of herbal companies that really prioritize the efficacy and authenticity of their products. And these are the only herbal products that I recommend to my patients. In many cases, these products are available to patients only with a prescription from me.

To ensure safety and efficacy, only use products from reputable brands that routinely screen for purity and quality of raw ingredients

2. Are additives affecting you?

Lab testingIn addition to potentially harmful contaminants in products mentioned above, a related issue is the inclusion of additives in supplements that may also cause harm. Have you read the ingredients in everything you are taking? Often you will find colours, flavours, and other ingredients that provide no therapeutic value.

Controversy over magnesium stearate

One of the most common additives is magnesium stearate. This substance is a lubricant added to powder formulas to help them flow better through machines used to manufacture tablets and capsules.

There is much controversy surrounding this ingredient in recent years, with some claiming that magnesium stearate reduces the absorbability (and therefore the therapeutic action) of supplements. Thorne Research is one company that does not use magnesium stearate for this reason.

On the other hand, Metagenics is one company that claims that magnesium stearate is safe and useful in their video The Real Truth Behind Magnesium Stearate (since removed from YouTube).

There are some more concerning claims that magnesium stearate is itself toxic and while it is used in very small concentrations in individual formulations, when a patient takes multiple supplements for extended periods of time, the dose adds up and the risk of toxicity is increased. Joseph Mercola has published an article entitled Magnesium Stearate: Does Your Supplement Contain This Potentially Hazardous Ingredient?

However, there is not much reliable research in this area at this time, as noted in an article entitled Harmful or Harmless: Magnesium Stearate by Chris Kresser.

The snowball effect

While the jury is still out regarding many additives, with people taking more and more supplements, many of questionable content and quality, the role of additives in potentially causing liver damage and other adverse effects is an important consideration.

Only use high quality supplements that contain minimal amounts of additives.

3. The importance of personalized medicine

Another reason supplements may be causing more harm than good is that many people take the wrong supplements, in the wrong dose, or for the wrong period of time.

newsweek_oprahI once saw a hilarious sign from a doctor’s office with a picture of Oprah and the message “This woman is not your doctor!” While it seems obvious that Oprah, Dr. Oz, your neighbour, your mother, your co-workers, your local health food store, and your friends are all NOT your doctor, people continue to take medical advice from these sources, especially when it comes to supplements.

However, these people do NOT know your health history, your specific health concerns, what medications you’re taking, nor your specific risk factors and therefore CANNOT effectively recommend any supplement to you!

Example 1:

Many women (and some men) take iron supplements to correct iron-deficiency anemia. However, iron is a nutrient that is best absorbed and assimilated from food sources, so supplementation should be used for a limited time only to achieve sufficiency.

If you have chronic iron-deficiency anemia, despite an adequate intake of iron, you must look for the true cause of the issue, which is either excessive iron loss (through bleeding) or inadequate absorption of iron via digestion due to leaky gut, dysbiosis, gluten sensitivity, or other factors.

Iron in excessive amounts for prolonged periods is toxic to your liver, hard on digestion, and is a pro-oxidant in your body, meaning that it accelerates tissue damage and aging!

Example 2:

Did you know that if you have autoimmune hypothyroid (Hashimoto’s), which accounts for the vast majority of hypothyroid cases, taking over-the-counter thyroid supplements are likely to worsen your condition and cause increased damage to your thyroid gland?

Ingredients typically  used in these formulas (including iodine) can actually increase the autoimmune activity in your body!

Seek the best advice

Too often I see patients taking combinations of medication and supplements that can prove toxic over time. Only a licensed naturopathic doctor can prescribe the appropriate supplements for your specific needs and goals. It is also key to continue to monitor your health and supplements over time to ensure you do not encounter toxicity or long-term adverse effects.

Make sure you are being treated as an individual and only use supplements recommended by a licensed Naturopathic Doctor

4. The foundations of health are cracked

NutritionFinally, there are many diet and lifestyle factors in modern society that can increase liver damage over time.

Supplements are just the “icing on the cake” as I like to say.  If your foundations of health are in poor condition, supplements will do little to improve your health and are likely a complete waste of money.

Physical and psychological stress:

High stress for extended periods of time places an increased burden on all your vital organs. When you experience chronic stress, your body prioritizes only urgently needed functions and denies other system bloodflow, nourishment, and restoration. This is particularly true for the liver, as it performs so many function which are key to long-term health.


Your body requires a wide variety of nutrients as raw ingredients to do its job. Diets high in processed foods, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and trans fats lead to liver injury over time.

I am alarmed at how many young adults I see in practice who already have fatty liver infilitration, which used to be present only in chronic alcoholics and patients with Hepatitis C!

This trend is a wake-up call to adopt a nutritionally dense diet emphasizing whole foods and minimizing fast food, processed and packaged foods, alcohol, and caffeine.


Sleep is an unavoidably necessary ingredient in maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health. Many people try to skimp on sleep or mistakenly believe that because they can’t sleep, they don’t need to sleep.

The reality is that lack of sleep contributes to every chronic disease and increasing sleep, even by just 10-15 minutes per night can start to help your body heal.

Focus on creating a strong foundation of health promoting behaviours to prevent disease


  1. How will you die? - Kate Whimster, Toronto Naturopath - January 21, 2015

    […] Supplements: Healthy or harmful? […]

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