Synthetic Supplements vs. Natural: What is Safe and Most Effective for You

From popping vitamin C tablets before a plane ride, to biohacking with ashwagandha, to taking a multivitamin with their morning cup of mushroom coffee, the rush to solve our health problems is growing rapidly. Nearly 70 percent of all American adults utilize supplements—so if you’ve been avoiding them, you might be feeling like you’re part of a lonely minority.

Just because people who avoid supplements is now more uncommon than people who consume them, that doesn’t mean the supplement industry has it all figured out. In fact, one of the bigger questions focusing on the sourcing of your products: should be you be using “natural” ingredients instead of synthetic?

The conversation of synthetic supplements vs. natural has become much more important in recent years. Far from being hippy-dippy hoo-ha, herbal remedies have been utilized by people around the world for thousands of years. From ancient Egypt and Greece to China and India, herbal remedies were the medicine du jour from before 3,000 BCE through the early 19th century. Herbal medicine is simply the use of a plant (whether in the form of bark, berries, flowers, leaves, roots, seeds, and so on) for medicinal purposes. In spite of the name, herbal remedies aren’t limited to herbs—they can include everything from aloe vera juice to powdered ginger or turmeric, tea tree oil, and adaptogenic mushrooms.

It was only when scientists began extracting and altering plant ingredients that herbal medicine began to fade into the background. Soon chemists were creating artificial ingredients that mimic plant compounds in the lab, which led to the rise of pharmaceutical drugs. Still, plants continue to play an important role in mainstream medicine—in spite of getting none of the credit.

Synthetic Supplements vs. Natural: What is Safe and Most Effective for You

Almost a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanical ingredients, and more than 40 percent of pharmaceuticals are derived from mushrooms. Meanwhile, approximately 80 percent of people around the globe (including nearly one-third of Americans) utilize herbal medicines in their health care routines. This helps explain why researchers have received millions of dollars in funding to study medicinal plants and the herbal medicine market rakes in around $83 billion each year.

If you’re still hesitant about herbal remedies, it may be because they’re often lumped into the general “supplement” umbrella. But far from yielding the same issues as synthetic supplements, the question of synthetic supplements vs. natural isn’t about potent vs. weak; herbal remedies can actually help you evade these downsides while providing you with substantiated benefits. Let’s take a look at why you might want to avoid synthetic supplements—and why it’s worth embracing herbal remedies.

The Troubles with Synthetic Supplements
The term “synthetic supplements” refers to supplements that contain synthetic ingredients, or those that are produced artificially in a lab. The alternative to synthetic ingredients is natural ingredients, which are obtained from whole foods. Synthetic supplements aren’t universally “bad”—in some contexts, they can serve a valuable purpose—but they do come with several caveats. Here are some of the scientifically-backed reasons people may be reluctant to buy into the synthetic supplement craze.

The body may not be able to absorb synthetic nutrients.
Human bodies have digested whole foods for centuries, but it’s only in recent times that we’ve been exposed to synthetic supplements—and the two things are far from identical. For example, when one little carrot hits the inside of our bodies, it brings along approximately 200 nutrients and phytonutrients including vitamins, co-vitamins, enzymes, coenzymes, minerals, and so on. This complex of nutrients has a synergistic relationship that enables our bodies to absorb as many of the carrot’s vitamins and minerals as possible.

Synthetic ingredients, on the other hand, don’t enter our bodies along with absorption-enabling compounds. Instead, they’re typically packed into supplements in isolation. It’s the difference between consuming “vitamin A” and consuming “a whole bunch of A vitamins, enzymes, and minerals that have formed a synergistic relationship throughout the course of thousands of years of evolution.” As you might expect, this alters the way your body processes that ingredient. And that generally means we’re getting significantly less nutrition from synthetic supplements than we do from natural remedies derived from whole foods.

Many synthetic supplements involve megadosing.
Further complicating the absorption of synthetic ingredients is the fact that they tend to show up in unnatural quantities. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the more vitamins and minerals we eat, the better. But in fact Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) don’t exist just to tell us if we’re eating too little of a given nutrient—they’re also meant to discourage us from eating too much of certain vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, many synthetic supplements contain “megadoses” of vitamins and minerals that are significantly higher than the RDA for these nutrients.

Why does this matter? Because our bodies can actually overdose on vitamins, which can lead to a variety of negative effects. Take just a few examples:

When it comes to vitamins and minerals, more isn’t necessarily better—and in some cases, consuming unnaturally high levels of a given nutrient may do more harm than good.  

Many synthetic supplements contain additives.
In many cases, synthetic supplements are like the processed food of the supplement world: Not only are they not derived from whole foods, but they also contain additives that may have negative health effects. These include artificial food colorings, partially hydrogenated oils (otherwise known as trans fats), magnesium stearate (a controversial ingredient that may suppress immunity), and titanium dioxide (a colorant that has been linked to lung, kidney, and DNA damage and is a possible carcinogen). If you’re consuming a supplement for a health boost, downing these additives seems pretty counterintuitive.

Synthetic supplements may not actually improve your health.
Perhaps because of the issues outlined above, a significant body of research has found that synthetic supplements may not be all they’re cracked up to be. There’s some evidence that synthetic multivitamins, antioxidants, and a range of specific vitamin and mineral supplements (such as vitamin E and calcium) may not actually protect against the health issues they claim to prevent. In some cases, synthetic supplements have been shown to be downright harmful.

When you look at the evidence against synthetic supplements, it’s easy to understand why some people might write off dietary supplementation entirely. But the reality is that supplementation can be a great way to give your mind and body a boost—provided you turn to the right sources. And that’s where herbal remedies come into play.  

What Makes Herbal Remedies Effective
As concerns about synthetic supplementation spread and people become increasingly aware of the benefits of herbal remedies, herbal medicine is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Of course, just because something is derived from a plant doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe. But using herbal remedies from reputable sources can provide a number of benefits that may not be accessible with synthetic supplementation. Here’s why.

They’re more easily absorbed by the body.
Remember that little carrot we discussed earlier? The one with a synergistic complex of 200 nutrients and phytonutrients? Well, when it comes to how nutrients enter and are absorbed by your body, herbal remedies fall to the “carrot” side of the scale as opposed to the “isolated, artificially manufactured ingredient” side. Just like the humble carrot, medicinal plants and fungi contain a large complex of chemical compounds, which helps explain why our bodies respond to them differently than they do synthetic ingredients.

In fact, those who practice herbal medicine believe the synergistic relationship between these different compounds is key to plants’ and fungi’s functional properties. For example, the plant meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is also isolated for use in aspirin. This ingredient is partly responsible for the fact that aspirin can provoke bleeding in the stomach lining. But when it’s consumed along with all the other compounds in meadowsweet, there’s no risk of this effect, because meadowsweet contains other compounds that reduce irritation from the salicylic acid. Pretty incredible, right?

This perfectly exemplifies why practitioners of herbal medicine believe it’s critical to source medicine from whole plants and fungi. When you start isolating certain ingredients, your body misses out on these ingredients working together with their naturally occurring counterparts.  

They don’t come with a risk of megadosing.
If you make a habit of studying food labels, this probably won’t come as a surprise. Plants and fungi are simply never going to contain the megadoses that show up in many synthetic supplements. For example, shiitake mushrooms contain up to nine percent of the RDA for copper and eight percent of the RDA for pantothenic acid. Those percentages are certainly nothing to sneeze at, but they’re not going to overwhelm your body.

They don’t contain additives.
There’s a big caveat here: This is true of herbal remedies sourced from reputable companies. It may not be true in all cases. For example, some herbal remedies from Asia have been shown to be tainted with lead, mercury, and other decidedly not-good-for-you contaminants. But if you invest in herbal remedies that are truly sourced from whole foods and nothing else, then you don’t risk exposing your body to potentially harmful additives. At Four Sigmatic, we’re so obsessive about good manufacturing practices that we wrote a whole web page about it.

They provide proven benefits.
While the verdict is still out on whether synthetic supplements are all they’re cracked up to be, evidence in favor of herbal remedies is piling up. Research into a variety of medicinal plants and fungi is robust enough that qualified sources agree they can be helpful in addressing a wide range of conditions, from the common cold to asthma, depression, diabetes, menopause, and even cancer. There’s also evidence that a variety of herbal remedies can boost cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, muscular, skeletal, metabolic, neurological, behavioral, immune, renal, and respiratory functions.

One of the reasons certain herbal remedies are thought to be so effective goes back to the “whole foods” concept discussed above. Because they contain potentially hundreds of helpful compounds, herbal remedies can help to address a range of health issues in tandem, thereby restoring better balance to the body.

To better understand this concept, let’s take a look at the example of adaptogenic mushrooms. There’s a huge body of scientific research backing up the idea that these mushrooms provide a host of benefits, from enhancing brain, heart, and gut health to supporting immune functions and lowering occasional stress. These benefits are the result of a number of synergistic substances that naturally occur in mushrooms, including:

  • Adaptogens. These are nontoxic substances that protect the body from stress by stabilizing and optimizing its physiological functions. Rather than serving a single targeted purpose, adaptogens will adapt their healing properties to whatever your body specifically needs at a given time in order to restore you to peak functionality, whether that’s minimizing fatigue, supporting immune functions, balancing mood, or any of a number of other benefits.
  • Immunomodulators. These work similarly to adaptogens but relate specifically to your immune system. They play a critical role in keeping your immune system stable and consistent.
  • Polysaccharides. These are water-soluble chemical compounds made up of chains of complex carbohydrates. These compounds act as immunomodulators, with each different mushroom strain having specific positive effects on health and wellness.
  • Beta-glucans. A type of polysaccharide, scientists have classified beta-glucans as “biological response modifiers” and have praised them because they are perhaps the only identified substance that boosts immunity without ever pushing the immune system to overreact. The body does not produce beta-glucans on its own, so they must be consumed in the foods we eat.
  • Terpenoids. Also known as terpenes, terpenoids are fat-soluble chemical compounds with proven antiviral and antibacterial properties. Terpenoids work as anti-infectious agents by stimulating the destruction of bacteria and viruses that invade the body and by preventing the immune system from overreacting.

Those are just a few of the beneficial compounds contained in adaptogenic mushrooms, and mushrooms are only one of thousands of herbal remedies. That means there are thousands upon thousands of functional benefits contained in plants, herbs, and fungi around the world.

With benefits like these, you can understand the potential powers of herbal remedies, particularly adaptogenic mushrooms. Herbal remedies can provide a wide range of benefits without the downsides that come along with synthetic supplementation. Thousands of years of human history and co-evolution with plants and fungi was onto something good.
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