The 5 Supplements You Should Stop Taking. Now.
At Woodstock Vitamins we often talk of the Vital 5, those 5 nutrients I believe almost everyone could benefit from. This is part of a more strategic approach to using supplements; they shouldn't be added to our regimen without a darn good reason. Supplements should fit into an established health or wellness plan, be backed by science, and be the best version - in quality, form, and dose - of that supplement.
In general, we consumers of natural products have a general focus on all the things we SHOULD take for all the different reasons the blogs and "experts" suggest.
I propose we take the opposite look as well. There are supplements that SHOULD NOT be a part of our regimens. And it’s way more than 5, but I’m trying to keep it simple here.
The supplements on my list are beyond the normal "contraindications," reasons why YOU shouldn't use a particular supplement - be it an interaction with other drugs, a condition you may have, or an allergy.
This list is kind of the anti-Vital 5 - the five supplements almost no one should take regularly. Sort of like Bizarro Superman. The struggle, then, is to define criteria for how something becomes anti-Vital 5. Here's what I propose:
The Anti-Vital 5 Criteria
- Non-essential nutrient with no real risk of deficiency, even in the poorest diet.
- Poor data to support its use, or data showing harm when supplemented.
- A majority of the products available to consumers have some failing or direct risk.
- Use is, at best, a tremendous waste of money.
The Asterisk On The Discussion
Again, 5 is way too few. I try to be a “centrist” on the health and wellness spectrum, calling out both extremes on their silliness. I will be accepting of many products, leaning more into the more “liberal” supplement turf. There are many supplement products more “conservative” professionals would poo-poo, but I’m open to them, based usually on some shared pharmacologic activity found in most of these compounds and reasonably good data or historic use with a few caveats.
I say this because I know what’s coming... "But this supplement worked for me!" shouts the outraged reader. Great! I’m cool with that. I want you to live your best life, but I also don’t want you getting ripped off on quackery.
The items on this list are what cross the line for me based on my experience, professional training, reading of the literature, and behind-the-scenes knowledge of the industry.
Medicine is funky, statistics (especially bio-statistics) are perplexing, and generally, weird stuff happens because there are so many of us. A surprising 25% of women have 0 menopause symptoms. The placebo effect for many antidepressants is as high as 40%. Spontaneous remission of cancer is a real thing. Not everyone would see a benefit from a well-made probiotic. The point is, sometimes we get lucky, and if you want to try or continue with something because you're an adult, please do. It’s not black and white, especially this list.
One more thing: this list is a work in progress. It took me most of my career to hone in on the Vital 5. It will take some time to refine this list down.
Here is my Anti-Vital 5: The 5(ish) Supplements You Should Stop. Now.
1. Bacillus-based Probiotics
I covered this in a recent article, Dirty Talk - The Truth about Soil Probiotics.
Soil bacteria are specific strains found in a new trend in the probiotic supplement space. These bacillus strains MAY have some benefit in some specific instances - but only when done correctly. The problem is that most of the products are NOT done correctly. The specific strains with any clinical validity are NOT used, the bottles are NOT labeled correctly, along with a host of other quality problems.
The long and the short of it: bacillus strains are resistant to moisture, temperature, and heat because 'they nasty.' It makes it easy to make a product that lasts forever, and since the ingredient is so cheap, the markup is huge.
On top of that, it allows Dr. Internet-face a niche in a VERY saturated market. “How do I differentiate MY probiotic from YOUR probiotic, if we have similar strains and consumers aren't all microbiologists who study the microbiome?” Simple, we get something not found in most probiotics and tell people it's great for you.
For all the reasons we cover in-depth in the article, don't put the dirt (supplements) in your mouth, just like your mom told you.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
This is another hot topic that we went into great depth about in our article Apple Cider Vinegar: A Pharmacist’s Perspective.
I don't just believe Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is a bad choice for a supplement, I know it to be true.
As I cited in our discussion, there's no physical way that Apple Cider Vinegar can have any effects advocates believe it has, like its effects on diabetes or heart health.
Vinegar is an acid, yet for some reason, people with acid reflux feel a little better by using it. Great! Whatever’s clever when it comes to reducing your symptoms... Just follow my advice from Reflux Redux, and keep an open dialog with a specialist about your GI symptoms, just in case there is something more serious than reflux going on.
ACV, for me, highlights how intensely the media has solidified the natural vs pharma debate in our minds. ACV illustrates how they’ve taught us to downplay the side effects or risks of natural products while overdramatizing the side effects of medicines.
Despite anecdotal benefit to reflux symptoms for some, many practicing GI docs will tell you that ACV will increase damage to the esophagus and increase reflux in people. Any practicing dentist has seen the damage done to the enamel with regular ACV users.
It's not difficult to make vinegar correctly, but most ACV supplements don't contain the 'mother', which is just the bit of naturally occurring bacteria that ferments the sugars ACV proponents believe to be responsible for its benefits.
Apple Cider Vinegar has no physical ability to be anything besides an acid, and as a result, can damage the esophagus and tooth enamel. We can’t ignore these very big risks, and we can’t overstate benefits that can’t and don’t exist (per lacking clinical evidence). While it works for some and people are closely connected to its use, I believe it is something we should stop using.
3. Grapefruit Seed Extract
A quick review: grapes are little purple or green things and grapefruits are the big nasty fruit that is a pain to peel and for some reason, everyone on medication want to start ingesting like crazy. (That’s a pharmacist joke - grapefruit can cause drug interactions.)
People use grapefruit seed extract (GFSE) for it's reported "antimicrobial" effects, as an antioxidant, and of course, it will prevent all sorts of diseases including heart disease. Geez, if only ONE cardiologist knew this, he could maybe tell his friends...
I'm here to tell you that most of the antimicrobial effect of grapefruit seed extract is coming from contamination by industrial chemicals such as the very gross triclosan.
In 2012, the American Botanical Council posted a report discussing quality issues with grapefruit seed extract products. They said, "a significant majority of... grapefruit seed extract is adulterated, and any observed antimicrobial activity is due to synthetic additives, not the grapefruit seed extract itself.”
We'll dig into this in a future article, but, to say the least, it's bad.
GFSE products have been found to contain triclosan, parabens, benzalkonium chloride, and more. It is believed that this is not from accidental contamination, but intentional manipulation of the pretty-much-inert raw material to make it SEEM like it’s doing something.
In the report, the author noted that when GFSE is made correctly, almost no antioxidant or antimicrobial activity exists.
For these reasons, we don't even carry a GFSE product. We don't recommend people use it, because there is a good chance you are getting an adulterated product.
4. Krill Oil
Krill are little tiny creatures swimming in the ocean, minding their business, getting eaten by whales and living their #bestlives. Then, one day in America, fish oil and Omega-3 supplements blow up, and now they're harvested as a "superior" source of Omega-3.
Omega-3 intake needs to be near 3000mg of the active components EPA and DHA to show any benefit, especially based on our poor American diets. Most krill oil supplements, including the one we keep in store for those who ask for it, are no more than 100mg per soft gel. To get the proper dose of Omega-3 from krill, you'd need 30 softgels daily. This would cost you just shy of $550 a month to do so.
Oils go rancid, and krill oil are the rule, not the exception. Krill degrades quite fast, so many tested krill oil products have rancidity factors higher than a clean traditional fish oil.
On top of this, they're exposed to the same grossness from the oceans we've treated so poorly, so heavy metals, PCBs, and dioxins have to be all processed out. I doubt they are.
Some internet charlatans will tout krill’s naturally occurring astaxanthin, a potentially important antioxidant. Here's the thing, we need something like 12mg of astaxanthin daily to have any measurable effect. Most products have less than 1/5th of a milligram, which any math nerd will tell you is like a billion times less than what you need. Products that have higher amounts (that are still less than the 12mg suggested dose) are synthetic isolates added into the supplement to give it the appearance of sophistication.
Considering some leading krill oil products are over $30 per month, I have to shout on this one: STOP BUYING KRILL OIL! This is the ULTIMATE supplement rip off.
The truth is, krill oil supplements are another way for the supplement industry to try to create a niche product on the backs of a successful market, using misinformation to persuade non-expert consumers into spending big bucks. For all the complaints against Big Pharma, the natural products industry is REALLY good at copying their methods.
The benefits of Omega-3 are best from fatty fish, properly made fish oil products and even algae-based Omega-3 supplements.
Lithium is a naturally occurring mineral found in our drinking water, and to a small degree, in us.
At high doses, people use lithium as a mood stabilizer, typically in bipolar disorder. It's dosed at 150-450mg up to three times daily. Most commonly it is the lithium carbonate form.
A supplement is readily available at anywhere from 0.5 to 20mg of lithium orotate. If you google “lithium supplement,” you’ll find phrases such as “The Benefits of Lithium” or “The Magic Mineral.” One jerk/blogger even had the nerve to say, “Concerns about side effects and toxicity are nonexistent when lithium is used as a nutritional, low-dose supplement.”
Lithium is a great drug, but it falls into the category of "needs to be respected." It's in my "Dirty Dozen," my list of drugs where the benefit and risks are closer than the very comfy humongous gap most meds have. I love lists. Lithium requires respect and caution, not avoidance.
The supplement industry has not demonstrated that respect in anything they do. Bottling up lithium at any dose, and using this compound without medical supervision isn’t showing a potentially dangerous compound respect.
The truth is, toxicity HAS been reported in multiple cases with people on the supplements.
People who advise its use aren’t testing patients for a “lithium deficiency” nor are they monitoring levels to ensure they’re not overdosing someone. Lithium requires ongoing monitoring.
They certainly aren’t informing people that if you were to get dehydrated, for example, with lithium, that your risk for toxicity is extremely high, even if you're using the “low and natural” lithium.
Supplement manufacturers are NOT to be trusted that the labeled amount is what's in the bottle. Just because it is a supplement doesn’t make it less dangerous.
We don’t sell lithium supplements. We recommend you tell your primary you’re on one, if this applies, then discontinue. Until larger studies are done, including adverse events, it’s a non-starter for me.
5ish - Pumpkin Spice Flavored Supplements
I’m half-serious here. I’m throwing this in the for the lulz, but as we monitor competitors like any good business, we’ve noticed that they’ve released the Kraken on their pumpkin spice flavored supplement marketing campaigns.
And u want it 'cause u basic, yo.
Here are some funny pumpkin spice products in meme-land right now - and yes, one of these is real!
BONUS: The Standards
“All this great content, and we get a bonus? You’re too kind, Neal!” I know. I know.
Let’s not forget there are two types of supplements that EVERYONE should stop right now, as well:
Any supplement you take and have no idea why.
If ever there was a good reason to stop taking something, it’s because you don’t know what it’s for or if it’s helping. Maybe, before we were supplement savvy, we added things because someone told us to or we heard it would be good to take. Set it and forget it doesn’t work for supplements (except maybe the Vital 5, and we need to critically evaluate why we use everything.
Say it with me now: If we don’t know, that means it can go.
I get bored if I don’t have 100% of my day planned out. Help me fill it with time spent helping you with a wellness plan instead of wasting it on Reddit.
Any supplement that isn’t in the proper form or taken at the proper dose.
In 2019, I’ve been drilling this concept down hard. The best analogy: if 500mg of Tylenol stops your headaches, how would you feel if I sold you a 2mg Tylenol tablet? It DOES have Tylenol in it, right! I’m not TECHNICALLY lying, right?
We have to look beyond the front of the bottle, which is primarily marketing, and look at the supplement facts panels to determine what we are REALLY getting. What form of the nutrient? Can I even absorb it? Is it dosed correctly?
SECOND BONUS: Honorable Mentions
Let’s do a quick lightning round for many things I wanted to add:
- Chinese Herbs: We want nothing to do with drugs or products made in China, but we LOVE us some Chinese herbal products. “But they’ve been doing it for 1000s of years!” Yes, but they also haven’t been dumping toxic stuff into the air, water, and soil. We’ve tried to get identity statements, proof of no adulteration, and other quality markers from numerous Chinese herbal brands, but they’ve all come up VERY short. Use BIG TIME caution!
- Kratom: This is a product banned by the FDA that is pretty much an opioid. More on this if needed, but follow the link for all you want and more.
- MLM Supplements: These are pyramid schemes, plain and simple. We ranted about it in the past but rarely do these MLMs posses unique formulas. It’s impossible for them to use high-quality nutrients while providing the margin for everyone on the different steps of the pyramid to make their profit. At best, these supplements fit into my “McDonald’s cheeseburger” category in the 3 Types of Dietary Supplements. Not particularly harmful, probably will get the job done, but shouldn’t cost more than a few bucks for the ingredients.
- Mega-dosed B-Vitamins: Even most conservative neurologists will recommend a good b complex, just in case, but we need to stop with the absolute madness of mega doses. New charlatans are coming up with new methods to sell you old vitamins at a premium cost. As discussed in our article The Truth About MTHFR Tests And B Vitamin Supplements there is no justification for using mega-doses of B vitamins for this real illness that really doesn’t affect many people at all. I hope to soon have a geneticist on the podcast to discuss this in-depth, but for now, check out the article!
- Vitamin A, C, and E: Another topic we’ve covered in-depth - antioxidants and Vitamin C. High dose, synthetic and isolated micronutrients (HD-SIMs as I’m soon to start calling them!), often have no benefit. In the case of A, C, and E, they can actually do harm. Eat carrots, peppers, citrus, seeds, and wheat germ to get all the A, C, and E you need.
- Melatonin: I’ve teased this a bit, but the full article isn’t done quite yet. I’ve met the foremost expert on melatonin, and she’s teaching me that melatonin is used almost entirely improperly, and as a result, is causing more harm than good. If you need help sleeping check out our podcast How To Sleep Well and hold off on melatonin until further notice!.
Get Vitally Selective
Our world is filled with pressure to consume more and more supplements. Peer pressure. “Experts” telling us every 10 seconds about some misunderstood natural thing that you’re not taking. Quacks telling you all your problems are a result of missing a few vitamins. These forces are VERY convincing, for sure.
The strongest force is an internal compulsion with good intentions.
You see, many of us want to do everything we can to be as healthy as we can be. We’ve been very efficiently trained to look to supplements as the prime source of those answers. If we fill our medicine cabinets and our bellies with exotic supplements, we’ll be better off, we reason.
I fear that fear is what is motivating us. Fear and its partner, control. “If I take this action/buy this supplement/do this thing, then I will be healthier and won’t have to worry about Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, or death.”
I’m here to show you what’s possible with a REAL holistic plan that’s smarter, simpler, and more strategic than the chaos and overwhelming nature of the advice that’s out there.
You CAN be healthier. You CAN make great decisions that WILL help lower your risk. You CAN exert control.
But we cannot blindly take supplements, especially because the industry is lying to us and providing potentially dangerous products at every turn.
Look to Vital 5 nutrients and other supplements as part of your plan, but only if they are right for YOU.
Climb the Wellness Pyramid. Make a plan. Be more selective. Take pause when you hear about the latest and greatest, because you have all you need already to make the biggest difference in your health.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth