I am inspired to share my thoughts after reading a discussion on the FitEyes email list about people who feel overwhelmed by picking the right dietary supplements, taking them regularly, and affording them. For example, one comment was:
I take every single supplement on your list, plus a bunch of stuff for mitochondrial health and skin health. It's expensive, time-consuming and overwhelming. A few weeks ago, I got fed up with being a slave to it - when there is no way to even know whether it's helpful or harmful - and just stopped everything.
I'm not replying specifically to one comment. (I'm not even limiting my thoughts to dietary supplements, as you will see by the end.). Also, what I am posting now is a rough first draft. But I want to offer my two cents, so here it is.
In regard to stopping some or all of your dietary supplements, I can't say what will happen to any one of you, but I can describe my experience, based on a lifetime of experimenting. You will not probably notice any detrimental effect from discontinuing your supplements in the first few weeks. But if you continue without them for some time (months or, say, a year), you will likely discover that those supplements were helping in numerous ways and you may wish you had never stopped them.
This assumes you are taking a good supplement program. If you were taking crappy supplements, maybe they were not helping at all, as some people in the email thread suggested.
I shared my thoughts regarding what makes a good supplement program in a blog post here: A Comprehensive Program of Glaucoma Dietary Supplements | FitEyes.com. That's a long read and you don't need to read it now, as the point I want to emphasize here is much more general.
Some of the supplements I take provide a clear enough positive effect that I notice the loss of those health benefits within a day or a few days of stopping the supplements. Others do take months before I notice the loss of benefits. Then there are some supplements that show benefits only via lab testing -- and often not the routine lab tests. Finally, I am convinced there are supplements that provide benefits that we do not yet have lab tests capable of revealing.
I try to do a lot of specialized lab testing to help identify imbalances before they turn into serious health problems. My homocysteine tends to run high, for example. I don't subjectively feel this in any way, but it does show up on lab tests. I may not feel any effect of not taking my homocysteine-lowering supplements -- ever. And I may not get any ill effects for many years. But scientists know enough now to expect that I will eventually pay the price for not taking these supplements. (This example is now becoming more frequently tested, but I monitor a lot of things like this that are less well-known.)
I have been taking supplements -- lots of them -- for most of my life. I have also been eating as well as I know how. None of it is simple. There are challenges and frustrations at every step. I could write a list of "gotchas" so long it would give all of us a headache.
We have probably all followed some dietary advice only to find out later that it was not ideal. I have also taken some supplements at times that, in hindsight, I wish I had not taken. Maintaining good health is an ongoing lifelong challenge and it becomes more challenging every year. We can expect that not everything we do on this path will be exactly the right thing. This is true even when it comes to the top glaucoma specialists recommending things (e.g., eye drops) from within their area of expertise. It is even more true when it comes to nutrition or dietary supplements. But if we don't try certain eye drops or we avoid all supplements because we fear making a mistake, we will likely be making an even bigger mistake.
Health (including medicine and nutrition) is a very complex topic. There are no easy answers. I would say nobody on this planet -- not even the most expert professional -- understands everything about health. Heck, few even understand how to eat in an optimal way. And few experts understand their own narrow specialty as well as they would like. It's complex!
If sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the challenge of maintaining our health were a viable solution, I think we might all want to take that option -- as if we could just forget it and it would go away.
In my experience, it is not easy to take care of one's health. But it is also possibly the most rewarding activity we can invest our time and resources into. Without good health, we are much less capable of serving others, being there for our loved ones or reaching any personal goals we have. Health has to come first. It's like the emergency oxygen mask in an airplane. You need that before you can assist anybody else or accomplish anything useful.
There is no absolute dividing line between any aspect of health, such as diet, supplements, exercise, medical care, spirituality, lifestyle, etc.
If, for example, we say, "I choose not to take any supplements, but I choose to use prescription medications" -- what determines whether a substance is a dietary supplement or a prescription medications? How do you make that distinction?
In the US, melatonin is a dietary supplement. In other countries it is a prescription medication. In the US, we have fish oils that are prescription medications and fish oils that are dietary supplements. The distinction is driven by business goals, vested interests, politics and other factors. In reality, there is a gradient between food, spices, herbs, supplements and prescription medications. In my opinion,we need to do our best to optimize our use of all of those.
I know there are some people here who say they will never take any prescription medications. Others say they will never take any dietary supplements. As I said, the distinction between those categories is often arbitrary. Furthermore, it is not conducive to maintaining health to cut off entire categories of treatment options.
I could keep rambling on. This topic has been a lifelong interest for me. But I will try to shift gears and offer this advice: reframe it.
If we feel like this:
It's expensive, time-consuming and overwhelming. There is no way to know the ultimate outcome of the efforts we make.
That attitude could apply to anything, especially any aspect of health. When you feel that way, it is time to reframe it, to change your perspective.
One of the first things I did after being diagnosed with glaucoma was to reframe it. Instead of thinking of myself as a (possibly victimized) person with a disease, I turned glaucoma into an adventure. Mostly it has been a fun adventure. Self-tonometry helped make it an exciting process of discovery. Honestly, the most important thing is not whether the long range result is any different. The important thing is that glaucoma has been a positive experience for me. I hear so many people talk about glaucoma as "this dreadful disease that is stealing my sight." That perspective leads to suffering every day and, in my experience, it leads to a worse health outcome.
You can read a few of my actual experiences of glaucoma in my blog posts here:
Here's one specific post as an example:
I did the same reframing with nutrition and supplements many years ago. When mainstream medicine could not offer me any help, I looked to nutrition and supplements. I could have viewed that as an exhausting and expensive burden of ultimately unknown outcome. But I (eventually) framed it as an adventure and I embraced the challenge. I felt great motivation to learn what I needed to know because health is priceless.
If you blame the topic -- whether nutrition, medicine, exercise, or any other aspect of healthcare -- you will ultimately fail to enjoy some health benefits you could have otherwise attained.
Notice that I did not say any aspect of meeting that challenge will necessarily be easy. I view dietary supplements as continuous with diet (nutrition). No aspect of that topic has ever been easy, cheap or non-overwhelming. I studied biochemistry in graduate school and I was a top student. I could say that biochemistry (in school, at least) was pretty easy for me. But optimizing my diet and my supplements has never ever been simple, cheap or easy.
Thinking of all the efforts I have put into eating healthy meals over the course of my life, including navigating family holidays, business travel, business meals, larger grocery bills, and a very long list of other challenges, I could truthfully state (if I wished) the same sentiment shared in opening quote above about supplements -- but directed at foods. I could say it about glaucoma eye drops. I could say it about exercise programs and, I think, every single topic in the field of healthcare. But I was fortunate to discover that I could reframe it and immediately find a much more satisfying and rewarding way to move forward.
I have the unique perspective of someone who has been dealing with health challenges my entire life. In contrast I know a person who was never seriously sick a day in his life well into his 80's. Unfortunately, when health problems hit him, they were severe. I believe that if that person had adopted some of my healthy habits much earlier in life, he may have lived to be 120 and still never been seriously ill (until the very end). A life filled with health challenges can be viewed from many different perspectives. I suggest that we frame it in a way that allows us to feel inspired to do all the things we believe we could do to maintain optimal health --- and enjoy the process.