As a functional medicine trained dietitian, I am often asked by my patients what the best supplements are to take on a regular basis. The world of supplements is not regulated by the FDA, making it tricky to know which brands to trust and which ads to believe as companies suggest their supplements can be used to support better mental clarity, offer cardiovascular support, provide sleep enhancement, or help create a healthy gut environment.
Although these claims may indeed be backed by research and quality-controlled products, too often patients come to see me confused as to what they really need in supplement form and which nutrients they can simply get from diet alone. Additionally, some patients have been prescribed supplements over time and find themselves taking 10 or more products daily, many of which they have been on for years and do not recall exactly what they are for anymore.
Paring down supplements to what I refer to as the Top Four Core, targets the most essential products to use on a regular basis to promote optimal health. This essential bundle also reduces ‘pill fatigue’, leading to improved compliance and creating space for a whole foods diet to cover the remaining nutritional needs of the individual.
Top Four Core Bundle of Essential Supplements
Read on to discover my top four supplement suggestions I find many people can benefit from taking due to poor availability in our food supply, crops grown in nutrient-depleted soil, and/or increased individual nutritional needs that are hard to meet from food alone.
1. Vitamin D
The most bioavailable form of Vitamin D is D3 vs D2, which is a synthetic version not found in nature. Humans can make Vitamin D when skin is exposed to direct sunlight, lending it the name the ‘sunshine’ vitamin and its dual action as a hormone. This fat-soluble vitamin is essential for bone, mental, and immune health among many other cellular activities including cancer prevention and reducing overall inflammation levels.
Most people are not exposed to unprotected sunlight long enough on a regular basis to make enough Vitamin D. Additionally, as we age, our production of Vitamin D naturally declines. From a dietary perspective, few people eat enough Vitamin D rich foods such as fatty fish (herring and mackerel) or consume cod liver oil, to provide adequate amounts on a regular basis.
How Much to Take: Vitamin D dosing in supplement form is best determined after you have had a blood test from your doctor. Ideal ranges are between 40 and 60 ng/ml. If you are already in a healthy range, a maintenance dose of 1000 to 2000 IU may be fine. However, if lab values are low, some people may need between 5,000 and 10,000 IU for a period of time to restore healthy levels until the next blood draw to evaluate intake.
How to Optimize Intake: Most vitamins work best in synchronicity with other nutrients, either from food or other supplements. Vitamin D is no exception and works best when consumed in supplement form with Vitamin K2, which is also a fat-soluble nutrient. Bioavailability can be further enhanced by taking these fat-soluble vitamins with foods containing fat, like avocados, olive oil, raw nuts/seeds/nut butters or fatty fish like salmon.
Magnesium is a mineral that is necessary in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. Adequate levels support regular bowel movements, strong bones, mental wellbeing, healthy blood sugar levels, good sleep, reduced cramping/body aches and cardiovascular health.
Around 80% of the population is deficient in this nutrient due to poor dietary intake, inadequate absorption, interference from prescription medications or increased need.
Various forms of magnesium are available in supplement form, and this can make selecting your source confusing. Magnesium oxide is regularly used in drug store brands but is not as well absorbed as magnesium glycinate (calming), citrate (can help with constipation) or threonate (neurological support/can cross the blood-brain barrier). The form an individual selects is based on need, which can change over time
How Much to Take: The amount varies based on need. In general, men can benefit from 400 mg per day and women 300 mg daily.
How to Optimize Intake: Typically, I suggest taking magnesium with dinner or before bedtime as it can help regulate blood sugar, relax muscles, and improve quality of sleep.
Probiotics are beneficial strains of bacteria that contribute to the entire ecosystem of our bodies. From our mouth microbiome to our gut microbiome, these bacteria number in the trillions and have more DNA in our bodies than we do as humans!
These ‘bugs’ send signals to regulate mood, inflammation, weight, hormones, and digestive function. When out of balance, potentially pathogenic bacteria can dominate the microbiome environment. This may lead to competition for essential nutrients as well as cause a breach in the intestinal barrier, leading to intestinal permeability and a possible immune response against our own cells.
How Much to Take: Dosing varies based on individual need and state of health. In general, a probiotic supplement with 10 billion colony forming units (CFU) is a good place to start, along with increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods and drinks (think fermented kraut, kefir, and beet kvass). Look for products that contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium as well as soil-based probiotics (especially if new to taking them and unsure of your current state of gut health). Many companies are now offering shelf-stable options, which can improve compliance and thus benefits of regular consumption.
How to Optimize Intake: Probiotics can be transient guests in the garden of our microbiomes. To encourage them to ‘take seed’ and thrive they need prebiotic rich foods. Plant-centric meals provide this beneficial fiber, especially when meals contain onions, garlic, asparagus, leafy greens, oat, apples, ground flaxseeds and artichokes on a regular basis. Some may find benefit to adding a prebiotic in supplement form for a short time is also beneficial. Please note, if your gut is not in a healthy place, probiotics and especially prebiotics may make you feel worse initially and could be an indication that seeking help from a functionally trained dietitian is warranted.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fats play an essential role in overall health, but especially shine in the areas of cardiovascular, neurological, and musculoskeletal benefits.
Omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat, provide anti-inflammatory benefits throughout the body. They play an essential role in membrane fluidity for optimal cellular signaling, exchange of nutrients and cellular waste disposal and contribute to the overall function of proteins in the membranes themselves.
This is an essential fat, meaning our bodies cannot make it independent of intake. We can use both plant and animal-based versions of omega 3 in the diet, although the conversion and absorption from animal sources is significantly better. Plant sources include chia seeds, ground flaxseeds and walnuts. The best animal sources are from cold water fatty fish: salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna. Other sources include anchovies and cod liver oil.
How Much to Take: 2250 mg EPA and 750 mg DHA per day provides a foundational balance of the two forms of omega 3 fatty acids.
How to Optimize Intake: Keep in the refrigerator or a cool cabinet (not over the stove). Take with a meal to enhance absorption. Also, aim for a pound of fatty fish a week in divided servings. Reduce your intake of foods rich in omega 6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory and increase the need for omega 3 fats. Omega 6 rich foods include industrial seed oils (corn, safflower, grapeseed, soy, peanut, and canola) used in restaurants and many ultra-processed foods.
Bonus Supplement for Immunity: Turmeric
Well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, can help down regulate inflammatory pathways. By acting systemically in our bodies there can be reduced inflammation in joints, improved cardiovascular outcomes, weight loss, immune support and a boost in memory, mood, and overall brain health.
How Much to Take: The dose depends on need. Individuals addressing chronic inflammation may find intake of up to 10 grams daily to be needed to see improvements in symptoms and lab markers for inflammation to decrease. In general, a maintenance dose of 2,000 to 4,000 mg every other day is sufficient for most people.
How to Optimize Intake: turmeric is best utilized by the body when consumed with fat and black pepper, or piperine. On its own, turmeric has poor bioavailability, and these components increase absorption and utilization. Additionally, there is added benefit to taking a liposomal form of turmeric. The liposome, or cell membrane surrounding the turmeric also improves absorption and thus utilization.
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Supplements can offer an opportunity to improve our nutritional status when taken in tandem with a nutritionally dense diet full of colorful foods, fiber, quality proteins, healthy fats, and whole-food carbohydrate sources. Everyone has unique nutritional needs that change over time and assessing them regularly can ensure we stay in optimal health.
“Nutritional repletion is always optimally done through the healthy foods we choose to eat," shared Dr. Walsh (Pozun). "However, life happens and stress, gut dysbiosis, genetics, co-existing medical conditions amongst others can affect gut health, gut permeability and impair adequate nutritional status. High quality, medical-grade supplements as suggested by our dietitian and your medical provider are very useful adjuncts to maximize nutritional support. This is a key factor to assist our cellular health, gut health, immune heath, along with critical detoxification, enzymatic and methylation pathways. Consider as well asking your provider to have a Spectracell intracellular micronutrient test done every six to twelve months to evaluate your own personal nutritional and supplement repletion needs."
If you would like to learn more about what nutritional plan is right for you, reach out to LifeScape’s Functional Dietitian, Dana Bosselmann, MA, RDN, IFNCP for a personalized consultation by calling the front desk at 480.860.5500 or email her directly, email@example.com.