11 things to know before buying vitamins and supplements for autoimmune disease to make sure your supplements are actually working for you, and not wasting your time or money.
Years ago, when I spent the majority of my days in the land of brain fog (due to my Hashimoto’s disease), I noticed there was this one type of green tea with ginseng in it that made me feel about 1% better.
Back in those days, 1% was better than the 0% improvement everything else was offering me. So, I was pretty excited about this small victory.
Come to find out, it wasn’t the green tea because normal green tea didn’t give me the same results. It had to be the ginseng, and I thought I finally discovered the ONE thing that was going to give me my health back.
Thus started my quest to find everything ginseng. I suppose you could say that was my first “supplement”.
Well, maybe you can predict where this is going, but it turns out ginseng wasn’t the magic bullet. It didn’t make me better and even that 1% improvement was short-lived.
(In reality, it was probably the insane amount of sugar in that green tea, or maybe it was because this wasn’t the supplement my body actually needed, or wasn’t high-quality and poorly absorbed… hint-hint: all things we will cover in more detail in this post. 😉)
Because of my failed journey of ginseng supplements (and my limited college budget), I gave up on all supplements until I met with a doctor who actually DID think my solution was a bunch of supplements.
I was excited to finally have direction from a doctor, and left her office with a goody bag of things like curcumin, vitamin D, magnesium, and more.
Did I get better? Nope. In fact, my treatment under her went south so quickly that my thyroid antibodies skyrocketed to over 2000, the highest they’ve ever been.
So now you’re like…
“So, basically you’re telling me that supplements for autoimmune disease do nothing?”
What’s ironic is that doctor was on the right track, and today, I am taking almost all the supplements she initially recommended (I share ALL the supplements I take in more detail in this post), and I AM substantially better. My Hashimoto’s isn’t even a thing anymore.
The reason they failed initially was because my supplements were poorly chosen for all the reasons we will discuss in this post. I also didn’t address my diet and lifestyle/habits, and you know what they say…
You can’t “out-supplement” a crappy diet (or lifestyle, habits, etc.).
However, with the right diet and lifestyle, carefully selected & targeted (key-words) supplementation can make a world of difference for those of us battling autoimmunity. Frank and I both depend on supplements daily to keep us feeling well.
So, let’s start with the basics…
What exactly are supplements? And how can they help autoimmune disease?
The dictionary defines a supplement as:
Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole.
I find this very applicable to supplements for autoimmune disease. In this post, we are talking about dietary supplements that are made up of vitamins, minerals, herbs, extracts, amino acids, enzymes, or other synthetic and/or natural components.
In the case of autoimmune disease, supplements can be used to balance nutritional deficiencies, reduce inflammation to ease symptoms (especially helpful during a flare), address root causes of autoimmunity like infections, help the body adapt to stress, and more. As a result, much like the definition, supplements can all work together to strengthen the body as a whole and encourage immune modulation.
That all sounds really great, but obviously, as I stated in my story at the beginning of this post, all those supplements my doctor gave me didn’t make a dent in how I felt.
So, let’s talk about everything you need to know BEFORE buying a bunch of supplements for autoimmune disease to ensure you aren’t wasting your time and money chasing supplements that may never work for you.
11 Things You Need to Know Before Buying Vitamins & Supplements for Autoimmune Disease
1. Quality matters.
The supplement industry is booming and continues to grow. In 2020, the global dietary supplements market was worth about 140.3 BILLION dollars. And any time a market gets that big, there is ample opportunity for some products to be really great, and others to really suck.
On top of it, the supplement market is unregulated. I remember when I was in college studying chemistry, my professor analyzed a few different supplements and found that none of them actually contained what they said they did.
Therefore, the quality of the supplements you decide to put into your body matters. You want to be sure (to the best of your knowledge) that the supplements you take actually contain what they say they contain and are effectively absorbed /used by the body. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So what makes a quality supplement? There are multiple factors, which I will discuss in more of the points below…
2. There are 2 parts to cost-effectiveness.
So now you might be thinking “Okay, but I’ve seen the price tag of some of these so-called ‘quality’ supplements and they are outrageously expensive.”
Yes, it is likely that a high-quality supplement costs significantly more money than the no-name brands of supplements you can find at your local drug-store.
But there are two parts to think about when considering cost-effectiveness. The first part is the cost, obviously, but the second part is effectiveness – is a cheap supplement that does nothing for your body (and possibly harms it) really all that cost-effective in the long-run?
Or would you rather have a few, strategically picked high-quality supplements that actually do something for your body?
If the goal here is to heal from autoimmunity, then it’s vital to only include the things that are working for you, even if that means you are limited on what supplements you can use due to budget or other factors.
3. Delivery method/form (such as liquid vs. tablet vs. capsule, etc.) matters.
I didn’t know this until I read Dr. Ben Lynch’s Dirty Genes book and realized it explained so much of why supplements I took in the past made me feel ill or just didn’t seem to work at all. He states the following:
“When I talk about form of a supplement, I’m referring not to the nutrient it contains, but the means by which the nutrient is delivered.
The easiest form of supplement to absorb is liposomal (delivered via microscopic fat balls in liquid). The hardest is tablet. Here’s the order from easiest to hardest to absorb:
Liposomal (liquid) > lozenge > powder > chewable > capsule > tablet”
Keep in mind this is generally speaking. There may be a specific reason for something to be in tablet form, such as it is intended to be slow-release.
In addition, if you are interested in fine tuning your supplement protocol down to a very specific dose, it is much easier to divide up and measure a liquid than a tablet or capsule – something to also consider when adding a new supplement to your routine.
4. Type/form of nutrient matters.
We have the form of delivery method as mentioned above, but for this, I’m referring to the type/form of the nutrient itself.
For example, if you need to supplement with iron to battle anemia, then take a look at the plethora of iron supplements available – some will contain iron bisglycinate, others will be ferrous sulfate, or you might see carbonyl iron.
All are absorbed differently in the body, and some may work better for your body than others. It’s worth researching and reading reviews of supplements to see how they are making people feel, as well as following your doctor’s recommendations on which types of nutrients to look for in a supplement.
5. Fillers and “other ingredients” matter.
Given that many of the diets for autoimmune disease are highly restrictive and aim to avoid specific foods and additives, even in the smallest amount, this is something to be aware of when considering both new supplements, as well as OTC and prescription drugs.
So many supplements today contain “fillers” and “other ingredients” which you should be able to see a list of on the label. They serve a variety of purposes for manufacturing and stabilization of the supplement, and usually don’t contribute to the nutritional value or intended purpose of the supplement.
Some of these ingredients (corn starch, lactose, artificial colors, flavors, etc.) may not be in compliance with an autoimmune diet or lifestyle, so it’s important to educate yourself on all the ingredients in your supplements before you put them into your body. (This article from Autoimmune Wellness is also helpful.)
Be sure to always read the ingredients, even on new bottles of the same supplements you’ve been taking for years because some brands will reformulate without telling you.
(If you are on prescription medication, or often use an OTC medication, you may have difficulty avoiding specific fillers. If that is the case, a compounding pharmacy may be able to custom-make the medications with a different filler.)
6. Supplements, just like drugs, can cause side-effects and may interact with certain pharmaceuticals or other supplements.
And, as we make advancements in both research and the development of supplements, newer methods are continuing to make them even more effective, more absorbable, and more powerful.
This is all great but also serves as a warning that supplements do carry their own risks, and can interact with medications.
Of course, this is where we tell you to speak with your doctor, but unfortunately, it is really, really difficult for doctors or pharmacists to know how all these hundreds of supplements could potentially interact with other medications/supplements, so tackling that question will likely take some teamwork.
You can find a lot of information using search engines, but here are some other resources that may help:
Drug-Nutrient Interaction Checker (this tool is intended for clinician use only, but is something you could bring to your clinician’s attention if you are trying to figure out your supplement/medication plan)
7. Where and how you buy them matters.
First, the “where”. Due to the sheer volume of supplements on the market today, you’ll likely come across some counterfeit supplements – ones that may look like the brand you are buying but actually aren’t. I know firsthand of people this has happened to, so it’s something to be aware of.
A few tips:
- Buying direct from the supplement’s brand website is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting the real product.
- If you are buying from Amazon, be cautious. Take a look at the seller – is it shipped from a random third party? This is where you might find some funny business. A good tip is to e-mail or search the specific brand of supplement you are interested in to see if they have any authorized sellers on Amazon.
- Check local health food stores as well as the following reputable online distributors:
Second, the “how”. One of my favorite things to do is take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales to buy a year’s worth of supplements. This works really well for specific supplements that do not have to be used within a certain time-frame after being opened or have long expiration dates.
However, some supplements are better off just buying fresh on an as-needed basis. Fish oil comes to mind as it easily oxidizes over time.
So before buying bulk, familiarize yourself with how long you can have that supplement on hand before it expires, and also pay attention to how the supplement needs to be stored (some should be in the refrigerator).
8. Suggested use is just that: suggested.
The “suggested use” on the label of a supplement can be very helpful, especially when it gives you vital information, like whether or not to take it on an empty stomach for best absorption, or whether or not to take it with other supplements/medications (or close in time).
However, especially when it comes to dosage, supplementation is extremely individualized, that the suggested use takes a back seat to how your body feels or what your doctor recommends. Sometimes, a lower or higher dose is necessary, and it will ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in your life, your budget, etc.
For example, I take CBD oil on a daily basis. During a particularly stressful time of life, I will take 10-15mg per day. But when things are going smoothly, I back it down to 5mg to save money.
9. Know WHY you are taking it and what you expect it to do.
One of the mistakes I’ve made over the years is just taking a supplement without actually knowing why I’m taking it. This is a really easy (and expensive) trap to fall into, especially if the supplement recommendations are coming from a doctor with no explanation, or an article on the internet, or even a friend who had great results.
So, before you start a new supplement, understand WHY you are taking that supplement and what types of results (physical or through bloodwork) you may see if it’s working.
10. When trying new supplements, start one at a time.
As exciting as it is to buy a bunch of a supplements, or leave your doctor’s office with a bag full of them, it’s vital to start SLOW.
Start with one at a time and give yourself a few days (or longer) to see how your body responds before adding a new one to your routine. If you go too quickly, you could end up in a situation where you have new symptoms and you’re not able to pinpoint where they are coming from.
OR you could be in the opposite situation and take a hodgepodge of supplements and start to feel really good, only to find yourself in this sea of endless and expensive supplements and you’re afraid of dropping one in fear that you’ll start to feel crappy again (talking from experience here…).
11. Supplements are most effective when you are consistent in your supplemental protocol.
Over time, you will get to know if you need to take a supplement every day, or every other day, or only during stressful times, or during flare-ups, etc.
But one thing is for sure – taking a supplement just once or twice every once in a while probably isn’t going to give you consistent results.
As simple as it sounds, sticking to a consistent supplement schedule can actually be pretty tricky when you have to take some on an empty stomach in the morning, or can’t take some before bed, or have to take certain ones before bed, or can’t take two specific ones at the same time, or have to take some with food… you get my point.
So, when buy supplements for autoimmune disease, consider things like the convenience of taking that supplement. Sometimes you might be able to find one that contains many of the things you are looking for in one pill, rather than 5 pills.
Or maybe one needs to be stored in the refrigerator, but you are pretty busy and not always around a refrigerator. These are all things to consider so you can actually stick to your plan.
Okay, so now, given all this info… you might be asking:
What are the best brands of vitamins and supplements for autoimmune disease?
Over the years, I’ve paid attention to both what our local and “online” functional medicine practitioners/doctors recommend, as well as what brands seem to work best for our family on a continuous basis.
They are (not listed in any particular order):
- Pure Encapsulations
- Designs for Health
- Just Thrive
- Microbiome Labs
- Integrative Therapeutics
- Klaire Labs
- Ortho-Molecular Products
Some doctor-owned brands we’ve had amazing results using:
This is not a comprehensive list. There are plenty of others, but I tried to pick only the ones that we’ve personally used with great results that also overlap with all the recommendations we’ve gathered over the years from doctors.
And now, the final question…
How do you know which vitamins and supplements to take for autoimmune disease?
This answer is unique to you, so we do not make recommendations, but we can give some tips on how to figure out the best vitamins and supplements for your autoimmune disease and body.
The first is to divide supplements into two categories: maintenance and therapeutic.
Supplements you use for maintenance are those you will likely take for the long-term to address nutritional deficiencies that you cannot address through diet alone, or others you take to keep inflammation at bay.
Some personal examples of my own maintenance and nutritional supplements are:
*I share more details about all of our own personal supplements (Frank included) in this post: Our Favorite Supplements and Vitamins for Autoimmune Disease: What We Take and Why
Supplements you use for therapeutic benefits are usually for short-term use (not intended to be taken forever) and targeted towards a specific problem or root cause like an infection or to tame the immune system during a flare.
My personal examples of these are:
- Biocidin, or other forms of herbal anti-microbials to address gut infections
- Binders such as activated charcoal to clear out toxins
- Higher doses of some of my maintenance supplements if I need a stronger dose to battle a flare
Using these two categories, you can start to build your supplement protocol. Consider things like:
- Common deficiencies found in people with autoimmune disease
- Diet: are you on a restrictive diet like the AIP diet? Or a vegan diet? Familiarize yourself with the common nutritional pitfalls of these diets so you can supplement if needed.
- Bloodwork and other testing for vitamin/mineral to pinpoint your unique deficiencies
- Your unique root causes – such as candida, stress, gut infections, etc. These will help pick more targeted supplements.
Here are some helpful articles to help you with your research:
We also have a list of books and other resources that give more detailed explanations of supplement recommendations in our Autoimmune Starter Pack. You can click the button below and we’ll send it over to you for free.
Supplements are a very helpful tool for healing autoimmune disease.
But don’t forget the significance of using other tools like diet and lifestyle habits to heal.
If you are located in an area where supplements for autoimmune disease are difficult to obtain, or you have financial or other restrictions, never underestimate the power of simple strategies like diet, sleep optimization, stress reduction, connecting with nature, etc. Those can possibly make an even bigger difference than all the supplements in the world.
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!