I recently had the pleasure to connect with a most interesting woman in Hong Kong who has an amazing background and experience in helping people become the best version of themselves. Jo Herbert-Doyle is an integrative naturopath, reiki master, wellbeing coach and mentor; a clinical therapist, everyday yogini, writer and endlessly curious seeker. I love meeting people like Jo!
I met up with Jo to ask her some of my burning questions about supplementing nutritionals and herbs. Jo helped me clear the confusion on what works and what doesn’t as well as help me as a health coach help my clients.
What You May Not Know About Using Supplements
Self-Prescribing Your Supplements
Zora: Is it necessary to see a naturopath to get advice on supplementation or is it ok to self prescribe?
J: Yes and no. The challenge with self-prescribing is there is so much conflicting and confusing information out there that it’s hard to weed through it and know what is best without a good level of knowledge. That said, I think it’s ok sometimes to self-prescribe nutrients short-term, for example you have experienced a cold or flu twice already this year and want to take some vitamin C because you read it’s good for immune health. This is relatively harmless provided you take the recommended dose (high levels of vitamin C can cause gastrointestinal disturbance). It’s also a not unreasonable place to start given that vitamin C does support immune health; however this may not be the optimal holistic strategy for your specific situation therefore you may be limited in your success.
This is where more specialised knowledge can make a difference, particularly when it comes to herbal medicine as that’s one area I don’t recommend you self-prescribe unless perhaps it’s a simple tea. Herbs are potent medicine that requires comprehensive training to use well in my opinion.
Choosing a supplement brand
Zora: There are so many brands of supplements out there – how do we choose the best?
Jo: Supplement marketing to consumers and practitioners alike is fierce – but it also comes with commercial bias and so, once more, I feel you need a lot of knowledge to assess the quality of a product, making this question hard to answer easily. That said, you often get what you pay for so if something is really cheap – ask yourself how it is that the manufacturer keeps the price so low
compared to other brands. When buying a supplement you want it to be bioavailable – meaning your body can absorb it easily – for example I often look for the glycinate or citrate forms of many minerals…but they are more expensive to include as ingredients so some companies keep prices lower by using cheaper and, to be honest, less desirable mineral forms such as magnesium sulphate or magnesium oxide – neither is very bioavailable when taken orally.
No single brand does everything well so I suggest read every label and do your research on the ingredients first from credible sources; and to be honest – get a professional opinion where possible from a well qualified practitioner and not just Dr Google! That’s where I see my role – to be a fresh set of eyes on a problem, and to share what I know with my clients to ideally educate them how to best help themselves.
Danger Of Supplementing
Zora: Can it be dangerous to supplement?
Jo: Yes it can. Whilst the risk may be quite small in many cases, there are opportunities to get it wrong too. For example, iron supplements should not be taken without carrying out an iron studies test first to see where your serum (blood) and your ferritin (iron storage) levels are at. That gives you a baseline following which your practitioner can recommend a suitable gut-friendly type of iron such as iron bisglycinate and a period of time within which to take it. After this you should retest to check your iron levels have increased to healthy levels.
But it’s not just about supplementing; you also need to work on why you were low in iron in the first place; was it your diet that was lacking, or does your digestion need some help so you can absorb the iron, or is there something else going on that’s making you lose your iron faster than you can replenish it? Never self-prescribe iron as the symptoms for low iron can in some cases be similar to iron excess, and excess iron is very harmful and requires medical intervention to correct. Another tip I can offer here is to be aware what a safe dose is for each ingredient in a supplement and not to overdo it. For example you may have three supplement formulas but all have selenium or zinc in them. Check you are within a safe limit when you add them all up. Look for the term ‘equivalent to’, or ‘elemental’ to get the actual available amount.
Supplement Side Effects
Zora: Are there other negative side effects to supplement use?
Jo: There can be if used incorrectly (e.g. too high a dose, or without checking if it’s safe with any medication you are taking). Also, undesirable effects can occur with cheap forms of magnesium leading to gastrointestinal distress – this is most likely to occur when the body cannot absorb it. As mentioned, two forms of magnesium shown to be more highly bioavailable when taken orally are magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate. Others may remain within the gut – and what happens in this scenario is that water is also drawn into the gut and can lead to diarrhea.
Another common problem is feeling nauseous if you take zinc on an empty stomach. The solution, if this happens to you, is to take zinc following a meal. We’ve already explored the potential danger of self-prescribing iron, which is really important for people to know. As with all things, there is also always a possibility of an unexpected allergic reaction. As a guideline, think through everything you feel drawn to ‘try out’ and if in doubt discuss what your health aims are with a qualified practitioner first for some guidance.
When To See The Benefits of Supplementing
Zora: I come across many people who start a supplement, but give up because they don’t see any
benefit. What’s going wrong?
Jo: There could be a number of issues here. For example, the dose may not be a therapeutic one. What’s on the label may not be specific enough for each persons needs. Another question I’d ask is ‘what was the intended outcome?’ A supplement should be taken for a specific reason – this is where self-prescribing and ‘dabbling’ in supplements may be a waste of time and money. I think it’s important that you are clear about why you are taking every supplement, and how you will measure the outcome. For example, taking a high potency pure fish oil for skin health could take 4 – 6 weeks to see effect, as it takes the skin approximately 30 days to begin to show changes. In comparison, if you have fatigue and your blood test shows low iron, then taking a good quality iron supplement is likely to help you feel better much more quickly. Always know how long you need to take a supplement, as not all of them are appropriate for ongoing use.
The One Supplement You May Love
Zora: What is the one supplement that you see the greatest benefit or change in your clients?
Jo: Unfortunately there is no single panacea for all! However the one prescription that will benefit everyone is a dietary and lifestyle one: following an unrefined, unprocessed whole food diet, move and stretch daily, focus on good quality sleep, and make time for daily relaxation. These are the foundations of health for everyone. That said, nearly everyone has at some time an increased need for particular nutrients. One of the best examples I can give here is the benefit an active person can get from taking supplemental magnesium – energy generation and muscle recovery time can really be improved. My husband now swears by his magnesium when mountain biking, for example – he really sees the difference in delayed muscle soreness when he does or doesn’t take it.
The Magic Bullet
Zora: Are supplements really a ‘magic bullet’ or do they need support from other areas in our life to have
an optimal effect?
Jo: One of the things I tell my clients is that you cannot supplement your way out of a bad lifestyle, so everyone has to invest in themselves and get the foundations of health right for long-term wellbeing and healthy ageing. However, strategic supplementation for a purpose and period of time can definitely get a person back on track when they are really out of balance, but these will never be as effective without also making the changes needed to optimise everyday wellness – all the things we
hear all the time such as: limiting alcohol consumption, drinking sufficient water (aim for a minimum of 30ml per kg bodyweight every day of pure water), getting sufficient restful sleep – all the things already mentioned, and the things I see missing day in and day out in my practice.
As a practitioner, what I aim to do is support each person while they make the changes they need to, and if it’s needed then yes, I also recommend additional supplemental nutritional and/or a herbal formula to help offset whatever challenge they may be experiencing – after all I am a realist, and sometimes a person cannot change some aspect of their life (for example really long working hours), and in these instances, although I still don’t think there is a magic bullet, there may be an ongoing need to supplement while their situation continues.
Zora: I am interested in slowing aging, so what supplement would you recommend I take as well as
others who are approaching their 50s?
Jo: I am 48 so this is a topic of interest to me also! Everyone has different needs but I’m happy to share my approach. For starters, I take turmeric and resveratrol for their antioxidant qualities. Both support healthy cellular function, which is good for ageing! Be cautious of turmeric if you take blood-thinning medications though; check with your healthcare provider first as this could be unsafe.
I also monitor my vitamin D levels annually and keep them around 75 nmol/L (which is much more optimal for health than many laboratory ‘normal’ ranges).
Perhaps the one thing I am most passionate about regarding anti-ageing is proactively managing any stress that may come my way by taking steps to build resilience. I do this with regular Reiki sessions, practicing mindfulness meditation, yoga, lots of incidental movement, and gentle hiking – all things I either offer my clients or recommend they also schedule time to do. Stress of any kind, even a busy life or frequent travel, can be very ageing – and it’s hard to avoid it; but what you can do is be proactive and schedule time to relax and restore.
One thing I’d like to note here is we all have times when our stress levels increase and become uncomfortable – that’s the time to go and see a naturopath for a personalised strategy for you, for example an herbal formula, so you can regain a calm, centred feeling again. Lastly, I also stay hydrated to keep my energy levels high, and aim for a diverse, colourful whole food diet with adequate protein, fibre and healthy fats. This is what I call ‘food and lifestyle as medicine’ as I too want to continue to live a full, active life.
Jo Herbert-Doyle is an integrative naturopath, reiki master, wellbeing coach and mentor; a clinical therapist, everyday yogini, writer and endlessly curious seeker.