Supplements are everywhere these days, even on the counters of convenience stores and gas stations. Feeling tired? Take a supplement. Brain a little fuzzy? Take a supplement. But do supplements really work? And if they do, how do you choose a quality supplement?

First, what supplements are not. They are not a substitute for a complete, healthy diet. The best way to get nutrition is from a balanced diet of whole foods that includes grains, proteins, healthy fats and oils, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Doctors all agree that food eaten closest to its natural state holds the most potent source of vitamins and minerals. Food grown within 150 miles of where it is consumed confers other benefits, too, like increased immunity to certain allergens. Plus, there is the added benefit of supporting local agriculture and not contributing to a large carbon footprint by shipping food across the country or globe. Doctors and nutritionists also agree that eating in season is the best way to support your body’s natural dietary needs.

But there are times in which supplementation is necessary and beneficial.

In some cases, trying a supplement before a prescription drug can be helpful. People who suffer from sleep issues may want to try melatonin before calling their doctors. Aaron Michelfelder, MD, family and integrative medicine physician at Loyola University Health System agrees:

“Sleep medications can be habit-forming and

[may] leave people impaired the next day. I would much prefer my patients to try melatonin or just better sleep hygiene, such as limiting screen time and increasing exercise.”

In other cases, supplements are important for healthy development, as in the case of prenatal vitamins. Prenatal vitamins contain increased amounts of folic acid, a crucial vitamin necessary for fetal brain development. Folic acid can be found in many foods, but for women who experience severe nausea in the first trimester a supplement may be their only option.

When diet is inadequate to provide the range of vitamins and nutrients needed, supplements can fill the gaps. Doctors will often recommend that vegetarians supplement their diets with B12, and vegans look to a calcium supplement. This does not mean that vegetarian or vegan diets are dangerous or unhealthy. They just need a little help to be rounded out.

Supplementation seems harmless enough, but there are times when it can be dangerous. Certain supplements can interact with prescription drugs, causing negative effects or causing the prescription drug to be ineffective. Taking too much of a supplement can also cause problems. Vitamin C is often recommended to prevent colds, but taking more than 2,000 mg a day can impair kidney function and eventually lead to kidney damage. It is important to consult with a qualified physician before taking any supplements, especially if you are taking prescription medication or suffer from a chronic illness.

If you get the all-clear and want to start taking a supplement, how do you choose the right one? With so many different manufacturers on the shelves and online, how do you know which supplement is really worth the money? Be prepared to pay more for high-quality supplements, and follow these tips.

Choose a company with a good reputation

Store-brand supplements cost less, but most generic brands do not run as many quality-control tests as reputable supplement companies do. Reputable companies test for contaminants that include mold, bacteria, pesticides, and other foreign matter. These companies also test to make sure their supplements contain the amount of vitamins and minerals listed. Too low and you get no benefit. Too high and you run the risk of toxicity or interaction with other medications.

Look for supplements with no fillers

Supplements that use fillers may trigger allergies or make it harder for the body to absorb the vitamins they contain. If a company uses fillers, they use them sparingly and make sure that the filler they choose is hypoallergenic. If you suffer from wheat or soy allergies, read the label carefully.

Find the batch number, the lot number, and the expiration date

Expired supplements lose their potency quickly and are a waste of money. In case of a recall of a particular supplement, you need to be able to identify if your supplement is the one being recalled.

Ask questions about bioavailability

Bioavailability is the amount of vitamin or mineral that is actually able to be used by the person taking the supplement. This is a very important part of choosing a supplement. If the vitamins in a supplement are not readily available for the body to use, then the supplement is not useful. The supplement you choose needs to break apart and dissolve quickly. All supplements, including powders enclosed in gel capsules, need some form of binder to keep them together or help them mix, but only certain types of binders allow the supplement to dissolve rapidly enough to be helpful. Look for those fillers only listed under “other ingredients” on supplement labels.

In the end, it is always wise to talk with your doctor before taking supplements or before giving them to your children, even just a multivitamin. Michelfelder notes:

“Today more than ever it’s important for patients to work with their physician or nutritionist when considering supplements. Some are beneficial but others can be dangerous, especially when it comes to interacting with other supplements or medications. In general there is no benefit from taking a supplement just for the sake of supplementing. So, talk to your doctor about what would be beneficial for you.”

Do you take supplements? How did you choose your supplement and supplement brand?

Image by John Liu via Flickr