The problems with most dietary supplements
Many of the dietary supplements on the market today may not be as helpful as they claim—and in some cases, they may actually do more harm than good. Synthetic supplements, in particular, are known for potentially harmful additives, “megadosing,” and improper absorption by your body.
How you know whether or not it’s a synthetic dietary supplement
For those not familiar, a synthetic ingredient is one that’s produced artificially in a lab. This is in contrast to natural nutrients, which are derived from whole food sources (either plant or animal).
Many supplements made with synthetic ingredients are unlikely to live up to their health claims. Unfortunately, most of the supplements lining grocery and vitamin store shelves are the synthetic variety.
A quick way to determine whether a certain product contains natural or synthetic ingredients is to look at the label. Natural ingredients will show up as recognizable food sources such as “beet root” or “garlic”. In contrast, synthetic ingredients will be listed as individual vitamins or chemical names (e.g. “vitamin E” or “ascorbic acid”).
Here’s a quick look at some of the ways synthetic supplements can go wrong.
Synthetic supplements often contain megadoses
Americans tend to have a “more is better” mindset, and this holds true for our dietary supplements. Many supplements on the market today contain what’s referred to as “megadoses” of vitamins and minerals well beyond the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).
Since most of us are consuming some vitamins and minerals through our diets, taking vitamin and mineral supplements can lead to getting much more of a nutrient than we need.
In spite of the persistent idea that our bodies will simply excrete what they don’t need, the reality is we can overdose on vitamins. This won’t be as dramatic as a drug or alcohol overdose, but it can still lead to negative effects on the body.
For example, when pregnant women consume excessive amounts of vitamin A, their babies may be at a higher risk for birth defects.[*]
For the general population, consuming too much vitamin E is correlated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.[*]
Both standard and megadoses of some vitamins may interfere with prescription medications.[*] For example, vitamin K can reduce the efficacy of the blood thinner Coumadin. Ironically, taking megadoses of vitamins and minerals may even disrupt our body’s ability to absorb nutrients.[*]
Bottom line? Consuming huge doses of synthetic nutrients may not provide us with the health boost we’re going for—and there’s a chance it may harm us instead.
Synthetic supplements aren’t always absorbed by your body
While supplement manufacturers will claim that synthetic ingredients are nearly chemically identical to the ingredients in whole foods, that doesn’t mean our bodies will respond to them in the same way.
That’s because whole foods contain many different nutrients that work in together. In contrast, synthetic ingredients are often added to supplements in isolation.
Take vitamin C as an example. The vitamin C found in whole foods is actually made up of a variety of C vitamins. In contrast, the “ascorbic acid” that shows up in some dietary supplements is simply one isolated C vitamin as opposed to the full vitamin C complex. Thus, when you consume ascorbic acid, you’re not actually consuming vitamin C in its whole form. And as a result, you’re missing out on key nutrients.[*]
Synthetic supplements may not be helpful
The verdict is still out on whether synthetic supplements do more harm than good, but a growing body of evidence suggests these products may not always be as beneficial as they claim. For example, a decades-long Harvard Physicians study found that multivitamin supplementation had no impact on the risk of heart attack, stroke, or mortality.[*]
It’s looking bleak for synthetic supplements. But if synthetic dietary supplements fail to live up to the hype, where can people turn for a supplement that can help them counteract the physical and emotional stressors that are par for the course in their daily lives?
Let me introduce you to Adaptogens.
Adaptogens: The ideal wellness supplement
The good news is there are other, older ways to cope with the physical and/or emotional stress that arises from nutritional deficiencies, demanding schedules, ornery bosses, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life—all thanks to a variety of plants and fungi known as “adaptogens”.
Adapt-a-what? The definition of adaptogens
If your first response to the word adaptogen is “adapto-what?,” you’re not alone. These naturally occurring substances are just making their way into the popular health scene in the West.
But the truth is they’ve been utilized for thousands of years. Both Eastern and Western medicine corroborate that adaptogens may assist with stress relief, immune system support, and energy balance—all without the use of potentially harmful or un-absorbable ingredients.
Adaptogens are naturally occurring, non-toxic substances that can help protect your body from stress by stabilizing and optimizing a host of physiological functions. [*]
Rather than serving a single targeted purpose, an adaptogen will (ahem) adapt its healing properties to whatever your body specifically needs at a given time.
In order to formally qualify as an adaptogen, these natural substances must meet the following criteria:
Think of adaptogens this way: You know that good friend who comes over to your house to vent after she’s had a bad day, but then she sees that you’re over-the-moon about some terrific news and promptly adjusts her demeanor to celebrate your happiness with you? That’s what an adaptogen does in the human body. It senses what the body needs and alters its behavior in whatever way necessary to foster peak wellbeing.
Because they are so (ahem again) adaptable, adaptogens can have a number of positive effects on your body without any of the negative side effects seen with some other dietary supplements. [*]
Among other benefits, adaptogens have been shown to:
The traditional use of adaptogens
Adaptogens have been used to great effect in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine for thousands of years.
Adaptogens first emerged on the Western scene when Russian researchers began studying them in the 1940s. (A Russian pharmacologist named N.V. Lazarey was responsible for giving them the name we use today.)
It took a few more decades for U.S. researchers to take notice—the FDA accepted the term in 1988. Since then, Western research has continued to play catch up when it comes to understanding and utilizing adaptogens’ benefits.
While they’re still sorting out the details, researchers believe one of the ways adaptogens work is by increasing a certain protein in the body (Hsp70) that is responsible for defending against physical and emotional stressors and simultaneously increasing stress tolerance.[*]
Adaptogens are found in a variety of herbs, other plants, and mushrooms. Many of these adaptogenic herbs, plants and fungi are particularly well suited to help protect against stress because they themselves are adapted to survive in stressful conditions, from high altitude to extreme temperatures or moisture conditions.
Some of the most potent sources of adaptogens include (but are definitely not limited to):
Known as one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic healing, Ashwagandha has been used since ancient times for a wide variety of conditions, including supporting occasional stress and addressing symptoms of fatigue. As another fun fact, "Ashwagandha" is Sanskrit for "smell of the horse," which refers to both its unique smell and ability to support strength.
Astragalus has a very long history as a powerful adaptogen known for its immune system supporting properties.
Asian ginseng root (Panax ginseng)
Used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine, Asian ginseng is known to help promote and sustain natural energy levels and supports occasional stress.[*] As a fun fact, the English word "ginseng" derives from the Chinese term renshen. Ren means "person" and shen means "plant root", which makes sense as the root looks a little bit like the legs of a person.
Eleuthero is an adaptogenic root native to Northeastern Asia. Used in traditional Chinese medicine and Russian and Korean folk medicine for hundreds of years, Eleuthero could support stamina, endurance, and overall wellbeing.[*]
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum or Lingzhi)
The Queen of Mushrooms, Reishi is known to help support sleep cycles and occasional stress. Don’t worry, Reishi won’t make you drowsy. Instead it will help you relax into your evening.
So now you know that there’s good evidence that using adaptogens may provide a safe and effective alternative to synthetic supplements for anyone who is looking to improve their overall wellness. To learn more about all types of adaptogens, be sure to check out our FREE Mushroom Academy, a self-paced e-learning course.
Author: Tero Isokauppila
Tero Isokauppila is the founder of Four Sigmatic. Tero’s roots (or mycelium, if you will) are in Finland, where he grew up growing and foraging natural foods on his 13th generation family's farm. He later earned a degree in Chemistry, Business, and a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition at Cornell University. An expert in all things related to nutrition, health, and wellness. Tero is the author of two best-selling books: Healing Mushrooms, an educational cookbook from Avery Publishing, and Santa Sold Shrooms, a children's book for adults about the magical origins of Santa Claus.