When I talk to patients about using supplements, they usually assume I am talking about vitamins or other pills that supply nutrients. While I do use vitamins, they are not the only type of supplements. Others are designed to support the body’s functions, like improving digestion, hormone balance or blood pressure.
For example, one of the most common supplements I use is for the adrenal glands. Our adrenals make hormones that help the body handle stress, regulate blood pressure and control the sleep/wake cycles. It is one of the first glands to be affected by chronic stress.
For some people, when these glands are affected, they suffer from chronic fatigue. Others are overstimulated, and many are both, describing themselves as “tired and wired.” One sign of adrenal fatigue is relying on caffeine (an adrenal stimulant) to get through the day. Another is a difficult menopause; the adrenals are supposed to help “take up the slack” when the ovaries slow down, to ease the transition into menopause, but they cannot do the job if they are not working well.
This adrenal supplement has a single ingredient: ground-up cow adrenal glands, with the hormones taken out. Yet they produce powerful changes in some patients. I have seen them lower blood pressure, stop “hot flashes” and help chronic fatigue, poor sleep, chronic muscular pain and other conditions. But what I find most interesting is that for the fatigued patient, it may give them energy, but the “hyper” patient finds that it helps calm them down. This means the supplement does not push the body in any one direction; rather, it works to restore balance and function to the gland.
Another example of a natural supplement I use quite often is one that supports the stomach. This supplement contains hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. As we age, our stomach’s acid and enzyme production drops, leading to incomplete digestion. Stress, and many medications, reduce stomach function even more. This causes all kinds of problems, including irritation of the stomach from poorly digested foods (heartburn) and weakening of the valve at the top of the stomach. If the valve allows stomach contents to splash back up, there will be inflammation of the lower esophagus (called GERD). The goal of the supplement is to support the stomach’s natural function of digestion with additional acid and enzymes, rather than interfere with it by giving a drug that stops acid production.
This is a key difference between a drug and a natural treatment. It has been said that drugs force a change in the body, while natural treatments facilitate a change. For example, I have treated patients on medications for high blood pressure who, after a few weeks of treatment, notice they feel “wiped out.” A quick check of their blood pressure shows that now it is too low.
What happened here? In these cases, the supplement helped the body to return the blood pressure to normal, but the drug continued to lower it, to the point where it is below normal. A natural supplement, by itself, can normalize blood pressure, but will never cause it to go beyond normal.
As a society, we would benefit from using more natural, alternative treatments for our health needs. We don’t need to rush to the more aggressive, drug-based treatments first. Safer, more natural treatments work fine for most conditions.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.