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Ready to start the new year with your health as a top priority? Are supplements part of your health and beauty quest? Read on for expert tips on the right way to take supplements.

Woman Reading Label of Vitamin Bottle

Supplements aren't miracle pills

According to the National Women's Health Resource Center, about 60 percent of US women take at least one vitamin or mineral supplement — even though they aren't advised to do so by their healthcare provider. Many of these women take supplements in hopes of compensating for their lack of self-care, particularly their poor diets and lack of exercise. Despite the growth of the billion dollar supplement industry, supplements aren't a cure-all nor are they miracle pills that make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. They can, however, augment a healthy lifestyle as well as treat certain ailments in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle.

See supplements as "supplemental"

Holistic living expert Dr Michael Finkelstein, former chief of integrative medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York, warns that there is a danger of turning to supplements without first taking care of yourself. "I am often asked to recommend supplements to treat certain conditions or ailments, or to help boost the immune system, or to address the conditions associated with aging, says Dr Finkelstein, who is also the founder and director of SunRaven, a Westchester holistic healing and living center. "My initial response is to first explain the principles of skillful living, and to approach the issue of supplements in the context of how one takes care of herself more holistically." Dr Finkelstein explains that relying on supplements instead of self-care is a form of unhealthy self-delusion. "We are seduced into the thought that remedies (supplements) should be simple and act quickly. Ultimately, we drift into a mindset that allows us to ignore the origins of our health condition and the opportunities to learn and grow through them." However, that being stated, Dr Finkelstein says there is a role for supplements, but fundamentally they need to be viewed as "supplements" and not treatments. He adds, "While supplements can help alleviate symptoms and improve balance, by themselves they are rarely useful." That means achieving optimum health requires a commitment from you to live a healthy lifestyle.

Supplements can prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies

Even the most health-conscious people can fall short when it comes to getting their daily quota of vitamins and minerals. In addition to maintaining good daily health habits, such as proper nutrition, physical activity and adequate rest, Dr Finkelstein says most people can benefit from taking a good multivitamin/multimineral complex. He advises, "Supplements that are derived from whole foods are the best for this purpose — as opposed to those that are mostly synthesized ‘nutrients'." Contact your local pharmacist or healthcare provider for supplement recommendations.

Supplements for women's issues

Though a multi can help ensure that you don't suffer from basic vitamin and mineral deficiencies, how can supplements address some common women's issues?

Women's issue #1: PMS

If you dread the week before your period — every month — Dr Finkelstein recommends that you start with a multivitamin/multimineral complex and add some additional magnesium, which might also be beneficial. He adds, "Here, however, diet is key: lessening the amount of animal products (meat, fish, poultry, dairy and egg) is important, as is reducing the amount of caffeine, alcohol and simple refined carbohydrates, such as bread, juices, sodas and most prepared desserts." (You can also try this natural remedy for PMS.)

Women's issue #2: Insomnia

Sleep deprivation is one condition that Dr Finkelstein doesn't readily suggest supplements. He says, "There is no substitute for a review of one's day to deal with how one sleeps. In other words, the evening period should be a time for winding down. While some supplements may be helpful, if we are pushing ourselves beyond our limits, at best, they will only have short-term benefits. Before reaching for ‘the bottle', I'd turn off the TV." (Insomniac? Read Why women have trouble sleeping and strategies to sleep better.)

Women's issue #3: Stress

Regardless of the stress-reducing claims of many supplements, Dr Finkelstein says supplements may provide only temporary support and that addressing the root of the stress is a better solution. He explains, "Some supplements, such as St. John's Wort or valerian are purported to have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties. While this may be the case, taking these instead of addressing the underlying cause of our stress and how we handle it will likely be more harmful in the long run." (Expert tips to stress less.)

Women's issue #4: Illness

Though not unique to women — men get sick, too — women may be more likely to reach for a supplement to feel better. Dr Finkelstein believes in alleviating acute symptoms to provide comfort but warns that you need to also see illness as a message that you need to take better care of yourself in the future. He recommends taking supplements to relieve immediate symptoms but not to keep supplements on hand as an excuse to make poor health choices later.

Supplements can be dangerous

Even though supplements are readily sold on supermarket, drug store and even convenience store shelves, they aren't risk-free. According to Dr Finkelstein, there are three ways long-term use of supplements can be detrimental: cost, dependence, and habit of covering up health issues. Cost: Over time, the expense of supplements can be a financial drain — especially if you jump to buy every "next best supplement." In addition, Dr Finkelstein says you need to consider other "costs," such as long-term side-effects which do occur with many supplements. Dependence: The dependence on supplements instead of an approach that is more holistic can result in you losing touch with more reliable ways of caring of yourself. Dr Finkelstein warns that dependence leads people down a path of greater reliance on outside forces to keep their lives in balance, rather than taking control of their own health and having it be a long-term state of being. Habit of covering up health conditions: When you rely on supplements, you lose the opportunity to learn and grow, opting to cover up your symptoms with a quick fix. Dr Finkelstein says, "By so quickly reaching for pills we miss the chance to consider the better strategy and more holistic way of thinking about what makes us truly healthy and happy."

Bottom Line

Continue your quest for better health but don't delude yourself into thinking that supplements are going to make it effortless. Instead, start with improving your lifestyle and prioritize taking care of yourself. Lifestyle choices to eat better, exercise more and get adequate sleep are safer and far less controversial than a long-term dependence on pills. "While these require more effort, they are more effective in the long run and lead people to greater health overall. It is just a smarter approach," says Dr Finkelstein. "And I encourage people to think this through very carefully, and when necessary seek the guidance of someone who can help direct their efforts so that they are most effective and efficient."

More on supplements


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How much calcium do women need?
Fish oil: What every women should know about the hype
Alternative choices for calcium supplementation
Are you at risk for a vitamin D deficiency?
Pregnant? Reasons to take your vitamins
Do you really need to drink your vitamins?

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