How to Tell If a Supplement Is Worth Trying

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There are thousands of nutritional supplements on the market these days, many of which claim to exert amazing positive effects on the human body. Others might be more modest in their claims, but could be capable of addressing a particular deficiency in your natural diet.


You’re probably aware that some of these supplements may deliver tremendous positive benefits, but others could be marketing gimmicks — and they might even be harmful to your body. So how can you tell if a supplement is worth trying?

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

First, you have to ask yourself: What problem am I trying to solve? It’s certainly possible to take a supplement for general health purposes, as a way to improve your overall well-being.

But it’s usually better to think about supplement options in terms of correcting a specific issue or providing a particular benefit. For example, many people take a multivitamin as a way to hedge their bets with regard to vitamin and mineral intake: They aren’t confident about meeting all their nutritional needs via their food diet, so they select a supplement to cover any possible deficiency.

What Do You Already Know About This Supplement?

When looking at a supplement, take the time to consider what you already know about it — and more importantly, what you don’t. This can be a fairly tricky proposition.

For example, do you know what this supplement is made of? Have you heard anything about the supplement in the recent news? Do you know anyone who’s tried it already? What are your first impressions?

How Is This Supplement Made?

Next, figure out how this supplement is made. Some are designed as composites; they rely on a broad array of ingredients and sources to arrive at a supposedly powerful final product. Some are derived from a specific source; for example, bee pollen supplements are usually made from bee pollen and/or royal jelly, plus a handful of other ingredients.

The less you know about the ingredients, the more cautious you should be about something new. If you see a strange chemical compound you’ve never heard of in the list, and you don’t know where it comes from or how it works, it’s best to be wary. Make sure that your supplements have no fillers, binders, and/or artificial ingredients that will not bring any benefit to your body.

What Does It Claim to Do?

You shouldn’t have a difficult time figuring out what the supplement claims to do. It’s usually all over the website and other marketing materials. Your goal is to figure out whether the claimed benefits are reasonable.

The best heuristic you have here is: “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” If a supplement claims to help a person lose 20 pounds in 10 days, while also tripling your IQ, you can probably assume it isn’t going to work.

If it claims to boost your immune health to a moderate extent, or support your digestive efficiency, that’s a more reasonable promise.

What Evidence Exists for This Supplement?

Of course, just because a claim is reasonable doesn’t mean there’s any evidence to support it. If you’re interested in a supplement, you should research further into how it has performed in previous studies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed database is a fantastic resource for this purpose. You can search for almost any kind of supplement or medicine to see how much supporting evidence is out there on it. Generally speaking, the newer a supplement is, the less evidence will be available—simply due to its limited lifespan.

Are There Any Downsides?

When evaluating the evidence that supports a supplement’s effectiveness, you’ll also want to know whether there are any identifiable downsides. Among people who have taken this supplement, have there been reports of any physical symptoms?

Do afflictions tend to get worse? Are there negative reviews online to indicate a specific problem or drawback associated with this supplement?

Keep in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There might be no reports of negative side effects, but negative side effects may still occur.

What Medications Are You Taking?

Speaking of side effects, review the medications you’re currently taking, because many nutritional supplements can interact with other medicines in complex and hard-to-predict ways. Certain medications, like blood thinners, are especially prone to interaction.

What Does Your Doctor Think?

Before taking any nutritional supplement, arrange a conversation with your doctor. Explain what problem you’re currently experiencing, and what you hope to get out from this supplement.

Your doctor may be able to recommend the supplement with confidence, or she or he may urge an alternative. If your physician doesn’t explicitly warn against taking it, then it’s up to you whether to give it a try.

But how can you tell which of these are backed by evidence and are worth trying? This article will explain how to review evidence, and note the value of giving new supplements a “trial run” to see if they work for you personally.