How to take supplements

A cup of coffee gives me a pleasant lift in the afternoon, but if my husband drinks it after 1 p.m., he can’t sleep at night. While he can enjoy a couple of beers with no trouble, if I have more than one, I’m looking for the nearest flat surface for a nap.

One of my co-workers at the 200-bed hospital I worked for some years ago avoided taking the anti-inflammatory ibuprofen (Motrin-IB®, Advil®) because it made her too groggy to drive a car safely. Her best friend always chose naproxen (Aleve®) over ibuprofen for headaches because the ibuprofen did absolutely nothing but naproxen always helped her. 

We are amazingly unique individuals when it comes to medicines and supplements, too. A single dose that gives relief to one person can totally fail to help someone else.

At one hospital I worked at, the pharmacy staff was responsible for storing and delivering special pumps that delivered intravenous pain medicine directly by just pressing a button attached to the machine. Patients liked them because it beat waiting in agony until a busy nurse got around to giving them a shot. 

Some patients wouldn’t get much benefit from the pain medicine in their pump, despite getting multiple doses from both the machine and their nurse. It seemed that that particular medication just didn’t help them. When they were switched to a different pain medicine, they got relief after just one dose. 

No medicine works the same in everyone. Medicines and supplements that work just fine for some people may not work at all for others. 

When a doctor prescribes a medicine, they expect it to help you, and most of the time, that’s what happens. But if you take a new medicine and nothing happens, something needs to change. If a blood pressure medicine doesn’t lower your blood pressure, your doctor will either increase your dose or change you to a different medicine.

Many of us are looking for ways to improve our health or increase our energy. I find that when I ask people who are taking supplements why they take them, they aren’t always sure. And when I ask them if their supplement is helping them, they shrug their shoulders.

Since no medicine or supplement works for everyone, how can you tell if your supplement is actually helping you? One of the easiest ways is to start a symptom diary before you start on any new supplement. 

Memory is a funny thing. If you wait until after you’ve been on a supplement to recall how you were feeling or doing before you started it, your description will not be very accurate. That’s because our ability to recall exactly what happened before a particular event is not nearly as complete or accurate as we think it is.

In the world of human research, this difference between how a study participant remembers things before and after an event is called “Recall Bias”.  Most studies are carefully designed to avoid recall bias because the difference between what is remembered later by a study participant is often startlingly different from what really happened.

With a symptom diary, you can compare your “before” description of your symptoms or energy level to how you are doing “after” you start taking that new herbal product or supplement, helping to eliminate the discrepancies that can creep in when you try to remember how you felt before you started it.

Since not everyone responds to every medicine or supplement, why continue to waste your time and spend money on something that isn’t helping you?

Here Are 3 Tips on How to Use a Symptom Diary:

1.  Decide what you expect/hope the supplement will do for you.

Do you hope it will help you sleep? Reduce your knee pain or stiffness? If it worked, how would life improve for you?

2.Score yourself on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 before starting your new supplement.

Score yourself on the intensity of each symptom or just describe the symptoms that bother you the most, at least a couple of days before you start your new product. The key here is to physically record your symptoms or what you hope will change BEFORE you take your first dose.

3. Compare your “before” scores to your “after” scores.

In the words of a Chinese proverb, “The palest ink is better than the best memory.”

This approach can help you decide whether you really are doing better now that you’re taking it, and whether your supplement is worth purchasing again.

Dr. Louise Achey, Doctor of Pharmacy, is a 43-year veteran of pharmacology and author of Why Dogs Can’t Eat Chocolate: How Medicines Work and How YOU Can Take Them Safely. Get clear answers to your medication questions at her website and blog  ©2022 Louise Achey


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