Skip to main content

Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid - How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects

Dr. Alison Chen
21 August 2017

Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid
How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects
by: Alison Chen, ND

Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects


Wander the aisles of any health-food store, and you might find yourself overwhelmed with row upon row of different vitamins, minerals, protein powders, fibre, and herbs, wondering what products are best, what do you need, and what don’t you need?

While many people decide on a supplement based on price, attractive packaging, or on a friend’s recommendation, very few people know exactly what is best for them, how much to take, or for how long.

Prescribing supplements is a science and art, often best left to the professionals: naturopathic doctors. With an accredited doctorate degree, including a year of primary internship as well as licensing national board examinations, they are the best resource when it comes to knowing when, what, and what supplement not to take to treat the root cause of your individual concerns.

While seeing a naturopathic doctor to help you make sense of your health is always ideal, if you choose to self-prescribe for basic concerns, I’ve got some insider information for you to keep in mind when trying to decide on what you need among an ever-expanding array of choices. Read on to learn my eight tips to be supplement-savvy!

1–Choosing Products Based on Price Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects

More expensive doesn’t mean better. It’s true, most professional brands do cost more, but that shouldn’t be the basis of your choices.

Professional brands generally cost more because they are reliable; higher in quality, potency, and purity; and perform third-party testing and research.

But just because a company holds high standards, doesn’t mean that a professional supplement is appropriate or effective for you. Naturopathic doctors take the time to look at the source of your concerns, so that you are prescribed treatments that support the root and not just your superficial symptoms.

Also be cautious of products on “sale.” Most often, these are overstocked supplements close to expiry. Even though many supplements are still safe to consume up to six months after their expiry date, the efficacy of the active ingredients may not be a wise trade-off.

2–Asking Health-Store Workers for Recommendations Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects

This is not a jab at health-store employees—I was one. My time in this role was both educational and beneficial. Not only did I receive training about different products, but I also became familiar with the kinds of questions and concerns customers had.

Despite the training I received, however, this education was not complete, as all of it was given by supplement companies, who gave biased and generally unscientific information. There are no minimum education levels for health-store workers, so don’t expect to get the same quality of information as a licensed naturopathic doctor, nutritionist, dietician, or medical doctor.

3–Using Media to Self-Prescribe

While working at the health-food store, I can’t tell you how many times someone came in saying: “I heard on Dr. Oz that XX was good for losing weight.”

Every week, the XX supplement would be replaced with the next best thing: green coffee bean, raspberry ketones, CLA, super greens, Garcinia cambogia, chlorophyll, etc. And they would also be the first things needed to be restocked.

I have nothing against Dr. Oz and think he has done a great job bringing preventative medicine into the spotlight, despite some questionable affiliations. However, as with media marketed to the masses, his recommendations tend to be general and often not backed up with research. It’s always best to know what your specific needs are!

4–Using the Directions on the Bottle for Recommended Dosages

Using the directions on the bottle and not the prescriptions of a naturopathic doctor can be a waste of money, as the recommended dose is not the same as therapeutic dose.

Supplements need to have a dose range within Health Canada (or the FDA in the USA) safety guidelines. However, if you are not taking a high-enough dose for a specific duration while tracking your symptoms, you may not get the effect you’d be hoping for. Naturopathic doctors utilize current research and clinical experience to make appropriate recommendations to achieve a therapeutic dose.

For example, most research done on vitamin C uses 2 g per day as the therapeutic dose to support the immune system and decrease inflammation. However most multivitamins and even vitamin C supplements contain less than 100 mg, which is nowhere near levels to support therapeutic effects.

5–Not Reading Labels

Labels can be deceiving and confusing. Not only should you be aware of the active ingredients in a supplement, but also the nonmedicinal ingredients.

Nonmedicinal ingredients to be aware of include:

  • potential allergens: dairy, gluten, soy;
  • gelatin if you are a vegetarian or vegan;
  • hydrogenated oils;
  • magnesium stearate;
  • artificial colouring; and
  • titanium dioxide.

  • 6–Thinking “Natural Remedies” Are All Safe

    Natural does not mean safe. There are many conditions and drugs that are contraindicated or not allowed to be taken together with certain supplements, for example:

  • Fish oils are contraindicated with warfarin;[3]
  • Licorice (Glycrrhiza glabra) is contraindicated with hypertension;[2][4]
  • Even grapefruit can interact with many different medications.[1]
  • If you are taking any medications, it is crucial that you have your naturopathic or medical doctor cross-reference the pharmaceuticals with supplements, especially botanical herbs, to look for any drug interactions.

    Bringing a treatment reference sheet to every medical appointment is helpful to allow practitioners to work together and maintain your safety.

    7–Not Tracking Your Progress or Having a Reevaluation Date

    Tracking your symptoms can ensure you are getting the appropriate benefit from supplementation and not wasting your money—or worse yet: having negative side effects.

    Generally, I like to reevaluate every three months. Many supplements are most effective when taken for a short period of time at the therapeutic dose. Some supplements can actually be detrimental to your health, such as vitamin B6 and zinc, when taken long-term without appropriate testing or follow-up exams.[5][6]

    8–Relying on Supplements Instead of Food Top 8 Self-Prescribing Mistakes You Must Avoid How to Avoid Supplemental Side Effects

    Supplements are just that: supplementary to what you’re already doing. Don’t think that just because you are taking a one-a-day multivitamin that you don’t need to eat a well-balanced diet.

    As we get busier, our diets can become less varied, and we start to eat the same 10–15 foods daily. It is possible to become nutrient-deficient even if you are eating healthy meals. Supplementing with a fortified shake or bar can be very beneficial to your health, but remember to always eat your veggies!

    Supplements can be a great way to maximize your health, but if you’re not clear on the capsules, powders, and tinctures you’ve been taking each morning, it’s time to look a little more closely before they’re down the hatch. Naturopathic doctors are great resources when it comes to treating the root of your health concerns, and can help make sense of the myriad of supplements at your local pharmacy or health-food store. And remember, health doesn’t come in a bottle or capsules, but is rather achieved by making healthy choices when it comes to your wellbeing, and this definitely never goes out of stock!