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Getting Started With Herbal Supplements

Interview with Bluebird’s Johnnie Heider-Kuhn

Let’s imagine the following scenario. You shop frequently at a natural foods grocery store. You’ve heard of all types of vitamins, minerals, and herbs that can help with x, y, or z. One day, you decide you’re ready to start adding supplements to your diet. You head to your local natural retail shop, saunter over to their supplement aisle and…wow. Where do you even start?

Herbal supplements are used to promote physical, mental, and emotional health. But getting started with the right product can be just as overwhelming as getting started with CBD.  

As part of 2019 Mental Health Awareness Week, we sat down with Bluebird’s account executive and resident herbalist Johnnie Heider-Kuhn to address some questions one might have when getting started with supplements – and hopefully give you a clearer picture of how to get started. 

Are there any “superstar” supplements that everyone should be taking? 

One of the best places to start when getting into supplements is with some basic nutrient adjustments. Of course, the best place to get vitamins is from a healthy, balanced diet rich in colorful fruits and veggies. However, I typically recommend that people start by adding a multivitamin, B-complex, and magnesium supplement to their diet as these tend to fill the largest nutrient gaps. Then, they can start building on top of that with an omega 3 and some multi-minerals. When selecting an omega 3 supplement, look for one with added vitamin D. Whether you decide on a fish oil or algae-based option, correcting one’s omega 3:6 ratio is an important element of overall wellness.

What are some trustworthy resources that I can use for research and education?

The American Botanical Council is a fantastic and reputable resource for current information on specifically herb-based supplements. They also offer a variety of additional educational resources for novices and practitioners alike, including an herbal library with detailed information about some of the most common herbs. Also, don’t forget about your local supplements personnel! Many natural grocery or supplement stores, including Sprouts Farmers Market, Lucky’s Market, and Whole Foods Market, hire staff members who are knowledgeable and passionate about herbal supplements, and they can help walk you through the beginning stages. 

Here are some of my other favorite go-to resources:

Should I start with capsules, tablets, or powders? Is one type of product better than another?

All types of supplement delivery methods can be useful depending on who you are and what you’re taking. In fact, it’s great to strive for a variety of methods if you’re taking more than one supplement.

Capsules are one of the most common delivery methods because they’re usually flavorless and easy to swallow. However, large numbers of capsules can be difficult for the digestive system to process, as gelatin capsules tend to gum together in the stomach. If you’re taking several capsule supplements, I recommend spacing them out evenly throughout the day to ease the digestive process.

Tablets are similar to capsules – they’re essentially composed of pressed plant material but they do dissolve better than capsules. Likewise, you could consider liquids and powders as well. Both are easier to digest and also often easier to take – they’re great for blending into beverages like smoothies or your morning coffee. 

How do I select the right brand when shopping for supplements?

Coincidentally, the process for selecting the right supplement brand is very similar to the process for selecting the right CBD brand. Like Bluebird Botanicals, many herbal supplement companies conduct third-party lab testing and provide Certificates of Analysis (CoAs) so that customers can verify the safety of their product. Gaia Herbs and WishGarden Herbs are two of my favorite companies because of this reason – they go above and beyond to provide detailed information on what’s inside their products.

Something really important to note is that you get what you pay for. It can be tempting to spring for the cheapest product on the shelf, but you could be sacrificing a lot of quality if you do that. It’s also really key to look at the price per serving when selecting your product. Some products may be cheaper than others but contain fewer servings, making the end result actually pricier. It’s also a good idea to check with your vitamin supplier for sales and promos when shopping for budget-friendly supplements. I personally use Vitacost.com to order a lot of my supplements – they’re trustworthy, affordable, and almost always running promos.

Another helpful tool is the company’s own website. Check out their site for indications of transparency, including lab-testing, certifications, and clinical studies to back up any claims they’re making about their products. Remember to check out consumer reviews – good quality brands tend to get better engagement and traffic online because their products actually work for their customers!

For a quick-reference guide, here are a few of my favorite brands:

Any red flags or potential pitfalls to be aware of?

Red Flag

Look out for extraneous filler ingredients. In a best-case scenario, they do nothing for you. In a worst-case scenario, they can even be potentially harmful to your health. Caramel color is a common ingredient in many capsules, but some research indicates it could be a possible carcinogen. 

Keep an eye out for imported ingredients, too. Many companies use ingredients imported from China that are largely unregulated and untested for dangerous contaminants like lead and arsenic. Try to stick to companies that source the highest-quality, organic, and local ingredients.

Now, here’s the most important thing to remember – before starting any new supplement, talk to your doctor. Some supplements can interfere with certain prescription medications and cause them not to work as effectively, or trigger additional health problems. St. John’s Wort, for example, can interact with and decrease the effectiveness of hormonal birth control and many common medications for depression and anxiety. Even if you’re not taking prescription medications, it’s still important to consult a medical professional to make sure you’re making the right decision for your body and that you can monitor your health changes effectively.

On that note – how do I have an educated conversation with my doctor about this? 

When you go to your doctor, bring in a list of supplements that you are currently taking or would like to take. Ask your doctor for any additional information they have, particularly about the recommended daily intake and any known side effects. It would also be a good idea to make a plan for how you will monitor your progress. Likewise, check in with your insurance provider because some plans may cover certain prescribable supplements, especially more expensive ones like CoQ10.

Not every physician is going to be incredibly knowledgeable about supplements. If you’re in the market for a new doctor, you can use websites like healthgrades.com to look for doctors with training in supplements or nutrition. If you already have a doctor that does not have this kind of background, you might also consider working with a complementary dietician or nutritionist. Either way, keep your physician updated on anything new you add to your diet. 

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