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If your 2021 New Year's resolutions include anything related to health or fitness, you've probably looked into vitamins and supplements to see what products out there can help you on your journey. While supplements can help in certain cases (such as if you have a nutrient deficiency), be a cautious consumer.
A new wave of supplements is rising, though. Companies like Care/of, Baze, Persona Nutrition and others offering personalized supplement packs, which can help consumers avoid one-size-fits-all supplements that may not even work. These health-focused startups create customized vitamins and supplements based on your answers to health and lifestyle questions; some also use blood tests and ancestry data to inform your supplement regimen.
This new wellness niche doesn't come as a surprise -- it's more astonishing that personalized vitamins didn't get popular before personalized protein powders and customized shampoo. In any case, it's a topic worth exploring, so I picked the brain of some top health practitioners to find out if personalized vitamins are really worth the money, and if they work any better than store-bought vitamins.
It's become clear to wellness aficionados that mass-market vitamins and supplements don't always cut it. By attempting to cater to everyone, most of the vitamins you find in supermarkets and grocery stores don't cater to anyone -- chances are, you don't need half of what's in your generic brand multivitamin (and what you do need might not be in there).
Some research shows that multivitamins don't reduce the risk for disease (although research is conflicting), and some vitamins in those multivitamin formulas are harmful in high doses. Supplementing your diet with fruits and veggies based on your individual needs is a smarter route that reduces your risk for vitamin toxicity, and saves you from spending money on a supplement you don't need.
Millions of vitamin and supplement packages, especially ones marketed for weight loss, athletic improvement and sexual performance, can contain harmful additives and chemicals because they're classified as food rather than drugs. This means the supplement didn't undergo the strict regulation, clinical trials and vetting process that medications do.
A personalized supplement subscription -- particularly one from a company with great transparency and dietitians, doctors and pharmacists on staff -- is likely safer and more effective than tossing any old multivitamin in your shopping cart.
One huge benefit that personalized supplement companies have over traditional multivitamins is potency. "Combination supplements usually contain doses too low to work -- they cram 30 ingredients at trace amounts into a capsule at doses that will never work," says Dr. Stephanie Redmond, pharmacist and co-founder of DiabetesDoctor. "Generally, with a pack, you get the actual full vitamin and dose since usually a therapeutic dose fills up almost a whole capsule."
Vitamin packs like those from companies such as Baze, Persona, Nurish by NatureMade and Formula also help eliminate ingredients that you likely don't need, while giving you higher doses of the ones that you should be taking, Redmond says.
Most personalized supplement services use vitamin packs, but not all. For example, all of the aforementioned send packs, but Vous Vitamin creates customized single-pill multivitamins (you take two per day), and Rootine encapsulates all of its supplements into microbeads, which are delivered to you in single-serving sticks.
Other benefits of vitamin packs, according to Redmond, include:
There's a lower risk of interactions or duplications of ingredients because you're getting everything from the same place.
If you develop a sensitivity to an ingredient, you don't have to stop the whole pack -- just stop taking that one pill.
The companies have done the research for you and usually pair an ingredient with absorption enhancers, such as vitamin C with iron.
Are vitamin subscriptions actually better than store-bought vitamins?
Most health experts will tell you that a personalized vitamin is better than a generic vitamin, even if the product formula is based on a simple lifestyle questionnaire. The more data that goes into the formula, the better -- but the more data needed, the more expensive that product will be for you.
Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional medicine physician and author, says that certain data points can help customize a formula, but they aren't always necessary.
"I've been using both blood, urine and hair laboratory testing to access nutrient levels over the last 30 years and clearly they have a role, however, many questionnaires can be effective in identifying deficiencies," Hyman says. "Simply by asking targeted questions and some basic physical exam findings, you can identify common nutrition deficiencies including omega 3s, zinc, vitamin D, magnesium, folate and others."
The science might not be perfect yet, but Hyman believes the industry is moving in the right direction. The goal is "targeted precision nutrition and medicine," he says, "which is what we should all be moving toward."
"I think we're still in the infancy stage in this, but it will come," he continues.
Redmond says that even if personalized vitamins aren't perfect, "they're a good starting point."
"Regardless of what any lab test shows, there are some subjective, self-reported symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety and sleep disturbances that have clear benefits from natural ingredients documented in the literature," she explains. "Even if lab work comes back 'within normal range,' it doesn't mean you may not get some added benefits from boosting levels a little more."
For example, vitamin B12 can help with energy levels even if your bloodwork is normal, Redmond says.
That said, she continues, "There is obviously value in knowing if you are deficient in a certain vitamin or iron, as the dose required to fix a true deficiency is often higher than a dose to maintain healthy levels and give a 'boost.'"
Personalized vitamins can help a little in that regard, because based on factors like age, diet type, sex, health conditions and medications you take, algorithms can pretty well estimate which nutrients you might be deficient in.
Beyond the questions of ingredient quality, manufacturing processes and avoiding vitamin toxicity, how do you know if your vitamin is truly customized for you? Can it be that an algorithm really knows exactly what nutrients you need, how much of them, and when?
That's what I marvel at when I take one of these lifestyle questionnaires and the website opens up to an incredibly detailed report that shows me which nutrients I might be missing and which I get enough of, all based on my answers to seemingly simple questions, like, "How often do you work out every week?"
Gillian Ehrlich, a family nurse practitioner certified in functional medicine and ayurveda, says that although we can make some generalized statements about our vitamin needs, "Optimizing health requires personalized nutrition (types, preparation, quantity, timing and mindfulness of food) and proper digestion, absorption and usage of what's been eaten."
This all "depends on much more than the raw materials tossed into one's mouth," Ehrlich says.
Our nutrient requirements vary widely by age, level of activity and life situation, she explains. "Our bodies needed to be equipped to focus on very different physical challenges. The years I sat at a desk studying in graduate school required a lot of brain support but not much muscular support," she says as an example.
"Women with heavier periods need more iron. People with occupational exposure to heavy metals require more detoxification micronutrients," she says. Everyone has different nutritional needs, and even if you can figure out your perfect diet at this particular moment, this moment soon changes and your needs change, too.
In that sense, it's impossible for any supplement regimen -- even a personalized one -- to be your forever regimen. (It's also why companies like Jetson, a seasonal probiotics program, are popping up in addition to personalized vitamin companies.)
Companies that offer blood testing or DNA analyses in addition to a questionnaire theoretically do a better job at customizing your vitamin and supplement packs. Even if that's the route you go, though, Ehrlich says the most important thing is to try and stay in tune with your body.
"Mindfulness … is so important to nutrient intake and uptake. Being able to hear accurate requests from our body (More greens! Less food! Less sugar! Ever hear these things from your body?) is elemental to health," Ehrlich says.
Plus, "the saying goes that genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger," Ehrlich says, and this can ring true for health or disease patterns. "None of us are destined for any illness, dysfunction or disease."
That said, vitamins and supplements can help you fill the gaps between what you need and what you get from your diet -- even people who eat mostly healthy foods can have nutrient gaps.
Once you find a high-quality company, Ehrlich says, the next goal is to match your unique needs to the bottle's ingredients, knowing that only so much can fit into a capsule. Because adding too many ingredients to one pill can sacrifice the dosage, you might need to take up to six to eight capsules daily -- which is where vitamin packs come in.
At the end of the day, it seems like personalized supplement regimens could work better than generic ones. I like that the risk of toxicity and duplication is lower, and ingredient quality could be better. It's nice to have the peace of mind that, at the very least, a super-smart algorithm recommended those nutrients based on your unique collection of responses.
Everyone's best bet, however, remains the same old unsexy advice: Eat more vegetables.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.