Updated: Sep 14
You may already be familiar with my thoughts on the reputation of functional medicine. When you practice true functional medicine (looking for the root cause of someone's health concern and addressing it) you shouldn't need to be recommending a bunch of long term supplements. We can often use targeted supplements short term to help address an issue, but ideally we shift to a food first approach, optimize lifestyle, and are able to eliminate the need for supplements by getting to the root of the problem. Plus, our patients' money is better spent on organic food, self care, a vacation, or whatever promotes wellness and happiness for them! So the question lingers, are there any supplements I think are beneficial long term?!
As a functional medicine nurse practitioner, my approach to healthcare emphasizes the importance of individualized care and empowering patients to take charge of their own well-being. While a balanced diet and lifestyle are paramount for overall health, there are times when long term supplements can play a crucial role in achieving and maintaining optimal wellness. In my education, research, and practice, I have found there to be three particular supplements that I feel have the greatest long term benefits.
Beyond this, patients can partner with an informed functional medicine practitioner to determine if they might benefit from other supplements based on their unique health history, because there are certainly circumstances where someone might benefit from additional supplementation. A perfect example of this is a patient who has had a gastric bypass surgery in the past. They may require additional nutrient support long term that would otherwise be very challenging to obtain from their diet. But, that is the great thing about functional medicine- we seek to know our patient's health story in depth enough to identify their unique health needs.
So what are the three supplements I most often see an indication for long term?......
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are vital for optimal health. The two primary types of omega-3s found in supplements are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), commonly sourced from fish oil. Vegetarian alternatives, such as algae-based supplements, are also available for those who follow a plant-based diet. It is estimated that omega 3 fatty acids can be achieved from diet alone in those consuming three servings of foods rich in omega 3s weekly. This includes salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and some fortified foods. Omega 3 fatty acids have been studied and proven to benefit numerous aspects of our health, but some that are commonly discussed include:
Heart Health: Omega-3s support cardiovascular health by reducing inflammation, lowering triglyceride levels, and helping maintain healthy blood pressure.
Brain Function: DHA is a critical component of brain cell membranes, supporting cognitive function, memory, and mood stability.
Joint Health: Omega-3s may help alleviate joint pain and stiffness, benefiting individuals with conditions like arthritis.
Skin Health: These fats help keep the skin hydrated and may provide protection against UV damage, promoting a youthful appearance.
Often referred to as the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D is synthesized in the skin when exposed to sunlight. However, many people have suboptimal levels due to limited sun exposure or inadequate dietary intake, making supplementation necessary. For many of us, our modern lifestyle is preventing us from achieving optimal vitamin D levels. I live in the Pacific Northwest where sunlight is in short supply over the winter months, and I absolutely see a deficiency in vitamin D in most of my clients. But you might be surprised to learn that even populations in sunny locations like California and Florida have issues with low vitamin D levels due to avoiding harsh sun and working indoors. One important aspect to note with supplementing vitamin D is that dosing is critical and personal. There is a such thing as too much vitamin D supplementation, so its important to work with a practitioner to identify your target range and dose of vitamin D. Three well researched benefits of vitamin D supplementation includes:
Bone Health: Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption, promoting strong and healthy bones, and reducing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
Immune Support: It plays a role in modulating the immune system and may help in preventing respiratory infections and autoimmune conditions.
Mood and Mental Health: Some studies have suggested a link between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of mood disorders like depression.
Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. Despite its importance, many individuals have inadequate magnesium intake from their diet alone. Before learning functional medicine, I had encountered enough research studies to feel confident that magnesium supplementation can be an effective treatment for SO MANY health concerns. What I didn't understand was how important it is to select the correct formulation of magnesium depending on the health concern! I was typically recommending magnesium oxide because it was cheap, and I was often able to send it as a prescription to my patients' pharmacies. Little did I know how much goes into personalizing the formulation and dosage of magnesium. These days, magnesium is something I talk about every day, and I have seen targeted supplementation improve or resolve so many health concerns for my clients, students, friends, and family. It is a remarkable mineral with so many health benefits! Here are just a few:
Muscle and Nerve Function: Magnesium helps relax muscles and plays a vital role in transmitting nerve signals throughout the body.
Energy Production: It is involved in converting food into energy, making it essential for optimal metabolism.
Sleep Quality: Magnesium can promote relaxation and support a good night's sleep, making it beneficial for individuals with sleep disturbances.
Stress Management: This mineral has a calming effect on the nervous system and may help reduce stress and anxiety.
I know I said three supplements, but I wanted to mention my thoughts on probiotics. When I talk about the benefits of long term supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and magnesium, I am almost always asked about probiotics. For good reason! Probiotic supplementation has plenty of research emerging every day proving many, many health benefits. That being said, my goal is to always use food first with clients. A health microbiome can absolutely be developed and maintained long term by focusing on prebiotic and probiotic food sources. Therefore, probiotics have many benefits, but don't make my long term supplement list. But, lets look at the benefits of probiotics.
The gut microbiome plays a vital role in various aspects of our health, including digestion, immune function, and even mental well-being. Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that can be taken as supplements to support a healthy balance of gut flora. You have probably encountered some research promoting the use of probiotics to target and improve any number of health concerns in recent years. Its a hot topic for a reason! Targeted strains of probiotics are proving to not only improve health outcomes, but also there are many correlations being discovered between certain strains of probiotics and chronic health concerns. I could definitely write an entire post or book even on the many benefits of various probiotic strains, but here are some of the top benefits of targeted supplementation:
Digestive Health: Probiotics can aid in digestion and help manage conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diarrhea.
Immune System Support: A significant portion of the immune system is influenced by the gut, and probiotics can strengthen the body's defense against infections and harmful pathogens.
Mood and Mental Health: Emerging research suggests a link between gut health and mental health, with probiotics potentially having a positive impact on anxiety and depression symptoms.
It Comes Down to the Details
As with every part of practicing functional medicine, it comes down to the details- helping my clients make the best choices for their unique body. Now that you know my top three long term supplement choices and thoughts on probiotics, I think its important to mention that sourcing is just as important as the actual supplement itself. Taking a poor quality supplement is a waste of money, and may even contain fillers that can contribute to a health concern. We need to be certain we are using supplements that are quality tested, from a reputable source, and bioavailable! Although some of the brands I recommend for my clients are available locally, I find using my online Fullscript dispensary is easiest for me to offer quality options.
I also want to reinforce the importance of choosing supplements, dosages, and tracking progress with an informed practitioner. While supplements can be beneficial for promoting long-term optimal wellness, they should complement a healthy diet and lifestyle, not replace them. Always remember to consult with a qualified healthcare provider, like a functional medicine nurse or nurse practitioner, before adding any new supplements to your regimen, as individual health needs can vary significantly. Embrace a holistic approach to well-being, focusing on nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress, and getting adequate sleep for a balanced and vibrant life. The combination of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and magnesium can pave the way towards achieving and maintaining your best possible state of wellness.