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The Dirt on Supplements

By Gary Piscopo, ND, LAc; Alpine Valley Wellness Center, PC

An intriguing gardening article recently suggested that the supposedly "unhealthy" soil many of us have around our houses may just be an urban myth. In fact, amending the soil to "improve" it may damage root systems and leave lawns inches below the grade of existing surfaces. What, you may ask, does this discussion about dirt have to do with supplements?

Naturopathic medicine often uses the metaphor of "soil" to talk about the conditions in our bodies that contribute to our health. Healthy "soil" is the result of appropriate diet, movement, sleep, intimacy, and a range of other healthy activities and behaviors. Many of our patients, however, have this feeling that somehow their "soil" is unhealthy and needs to be amended by either having intensive detoxification experiences or by taking large numbers of supplements. I have had patients come to me with literally a shopping bag filled with supplements. When I ask them why they are taking this or that, they often say that they read something in a magazine, heard something on TV, or bought a supplement on the advice of a friend or family member.

Compared to eating food, taking a supplement is a less natural act. They do not grow on trees or sprout out of the ground. Rather, even the most organic and minimally processed supplement still requires manufacturing. It is certainly true that, compared to centuries ago, we are now living in very different reality that may require the use of certain supplements. For example, I would put a quality multivitamin in this category, despite the objections of some of the more conservative elements of conventional medicine. But handfuls of supplement are rarely needed.

In the article mentioned above, the author notes that one of the problems people run into when amending their soil is the addition of “organic matter” like compost. One predicament is that soil can actually have too much organic matter. The figure quoted in the article is that native topsoil contains 5 percent organic matter by weight, which is considered ideal. The author recommends that you not amend your soil without first testing it to avoid problems. Sounds reasonable.

It is the same with some supplements. If you are going to be using natural agents like estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, and others that affect major parameters of the body, you should do a test first to see if you need it. Unfortunately, people either do not want to pay for the testing or they feel that because these substances are "natural" they are free to experiment with them in any way they wish. This is very unfortunate and can result in poor results.

A second problem is that the organic matter eventually decomposes, leaving the owner right back with the original soil, only now more compacted and sunken below the level of their foundation or hardscape. In natural medicine, we call this the "magic bullet" problem. People call naturopathic physicians asking about this or that approach that will magically make their health problems disappear. This is often a big reason people take supplements – using the latest "magic bullet" to lose weight, combat aging, get a good night’s sleep, while continue with their unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. Without an integrated plan that addresses all aspects of their lifestyle, however, many of these people eventually end up right back where they started – with their "original soil," only now a couple of pounds heavier or a couple of notches less vital.

Many of our patients are delighted to discover that a significant part of the naturopathic approach is appreciating you for what you are doing right in your life. After all, you are the expert on your personal life history and we respect that. Maybe only minor adjustments to your lifestyle or diet need to be made.

If supplements are indicated, they are integrated into a medical plan that makes sense and requires the fewest number of items. Most importantly, supplements are not slapped on you in place of a thorough examination and search for the cause of your problems. We work with you to find ways to help you move, nourish, play, rest, and enjoy yourself in a fashion that is optimal for you.

Tired of seeing your life as a gravel pit? Let naturopathic medicine help you turn it into a garden. 

Find a naturopathic doctor in your area now.