Feeling worse when taking nutritional supplements is a very common problem among many of my clients, and it’s a frequent comment in correspondence I receive from my Ask Cynthia page. So lets’ take a look at some of the factors that may be at play here and some possible steps that can be taken to improve the situation.
Unfortunately, there is not an easy solution to this problem, because there are many possibilities that may be at the root of the issue that are difficult to address, and to complicate things further, what is true for one person may not be true for another.
However, by far, the most common underlying cause for feeling worse when taking nutritional supplements is due to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the stress response system, is often in overdrive when one is dealing with a chronic health condition. When that is the case, the body can become hypersensitive to everything, including foods, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, sounds, interactions, and nutrients.
The more severe the sympathetic stress, the more hypersensitive they will become. The body starts perceiving everything as a threat, including nutritional supplements. So, essentially, your brain thinks the nutritional supplements are harmful, which sets off an alarm, which produces a variety of negative physical and psychological symptoms; which can range anywhere from anxiety and depression, to heart palpitations, dizziness, and nausea, to insomnia, trembling, headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and so on and so forth. The list of symptoms that one may experience is endless.
The solution in this situation is to put a lot of focus on trying to restore the body to the parasympathetic mode. This can done by eating the right diet, which means consuming adequate animal protein and fat, eliminating the sugar, caffeine, grains and other starches, eliminating environmental toxins from your living space, deep breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness and meditation, smiling more often, rewiring the brain and a variety of other steps.
You can learn more about soothing the autonomic nervous system by visiting this page. The sicker you are, the more likely it is that your sympathetic nervous is in overdrive and the more severe it is likely to be. It can take a long time to restore balance, so it may be awhile before you can take supplements successfully. You should also be aware that when the body is in sympathetic stress mode, it does not absorb nutrients very effectively, so they will not benefit you much anyhow if you do not work on this area.
Sometimes an overactive sympathetic nervous system will accept nutrients if you take just a little bit, then wait a day or so to let symptoms subside, and then take a little bit more and wait for a few days again for symptoms subside and just continue on like this until it settles down.
Another common underlying cause of feeling worse on nutritional supplements is that there are too many problems occurring within many different organs and systems, and when you try to jump-start one organ or systems with a nutrient, but are missing nutrients that are needed for other organs and systems, then it backfires in your face. For example, you take a supplement that makes your body start to detox, but you’re deficient in a variety of other nutrients that are needed to effectively eliminate the toxins you have mobilized. Before mobilizing toxins, you must be capable of moving them out.
Additionally, all organs and systems are interconnected; if one starts working better from a nutrient you are taking, but others that are downstream are still impaired, then you can run into a road block and symptoms occur.
To address these two issues, one must replenish all depleted nutrients and try to get all organs and systems on board. However, this too takes time and can be quite tricky to achieve in complex conditions.
However, some people are simply too toxic from environmental toxins and/or internal toxins from bacteria, Candida, or parasites, and supplements just overwhelm the body even more, so they must go very slow with replenishing nutrients. Some supplements may actually feed the unfriendly organisms, which results in more proliferation and more toxins and ultimately more severe symptoms. For example, many B vitamins will feed Candida yeast depending on the species involved, many protozoa eat probiotics, most microbes need iron for survival as well as magnesium, and calcium.
Sometimes, if you can identify and address one of your “core” problems first this will enable you to take supplements for other issues. For example, I used to have a great deal of problems taking nutritional supplements myself, but after I took high doses of pantethine and vitamin C to support my adrenal glands, I then became tolerant of a lot more supplements. Additionally, using some brain rewiring techniques that turn off the sympathetic nervous system also enabled me to take more supplements
The third most common cause for an exacerbation of symptoms when taking nutritional supplements is that you’re taking too many, too fast. If you are quite sick and/or you have a very overactive sympathetic nervous system, it is usually best to go very slow with your nutritional supplements. Start out with one and give your body time to adjust before adding another. Observe how your body reacts and if all is okay, then proceed with another one, and so on and so on. Again, the sicker you are, the more important this is and the slower you need to go.
Sometimes it is the dosage that is the problem. People who are really sick, or very nutrient deficient, often do best with very small dosages of supplements, rather than large doses. Then you can work your way up to larger doses.
Alternatively, Dr. Amy Yasko has demonstrated it may be about taking the right nutrient in the right sequence. It may be necessary to introduce a particular supplement after another type of supplement has been taken to correct another issue first. If you or your practitioner don’t know what that sequence is, then you can get into trouble. Unfortunately, very few practitioners have the level of expertise needed to address these complex issues.
There are a wide variety of genetic polymorphisms that one may have that can have a profound impact on how one responds to a particular nutrient. For example, you may have a mutation in a gene that causes one condition to get worse when you take B6, cysteine, or taurine to help another condition. The same can be said for many nutrients. One nutrient can produce dramatic improvements in one person and cause significant impairment in another person due to genetic mutations. In this case, another nutrient is needed to support the genetic mutation before taking other types of nutrients that may make the mutation worse.
Everyone should read Dr. Amy Yasko’s book, Autism: Pathways for Recovery to understand this issue further, even if you don’t have autism. The information in this book applies to most other chronic health conditions besides Autism. A test called Nutrigenomics can help you identify your genetic mutations that affect nutrients, as well as your overall nutrient status and an abundance of other information like methylation and neurotransmitters. This book will open your eyes to exactly how complex it can be for using nutritional supplements and the depth of these conditions.
Taking a nutrient that you don’t really need can also produce negative side-effects. Too much of a nutrient can be just as bad as not having enough.
On the other side of this coin is when one takes only one nutrient, but there are three or four others that are needed to address a particular problem. For example, many people take tryptophan to increase their serotonin. However, tryptophan cannot be converted into serotonin unless there are sufficient levels of B6, B3, iron, and folic acid. So if you are deficient in any of these nutrients the tryptophan is not going to be able to do the job.
If you are mineral deficient, this can also cause reactions to other supplements. Minerals are like the spark plugs in the body. They are needed for all other nutrients to do their jobs. So if you supplement with a vitamin, but are missing its mineral co-factors, then you may feel worse. So, spending a few months replenishing minerals before taking anything else sometimes enables one to tolerate other nutrients.
Minerals will also help drive out any heavy metals that may be present in the body, which can also be at the root of many symptoms. Heavy metals destroy friendly bacteria in the gut, interfere in absorption, and may have an effect on the way the body processes the nutrients. They also interfere in neurotransmitter production and function, disrupt the endocrine system and overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system. Minerals are also a good place to start for someone who is very toxic.
The quality or brand of your supplement may also contribute to problems with nutritional supplements. Be sure to take a high quality brand. Some of my favorites are Thorne and Douglas Labs. Before giving up and assuming that your symptoms are from the nutrient itself, try several different brands. There may be something in the additives or processing that is the problem and not the supplement itself.
Another issue that comes up with some people, especially those with a sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, is the presence of something in the supplement that increases norepinephrine, glutamate or histamine. Each of these are excitatory neurotransmitters, that can cause a variety of neurological symptoms like anxiety, fear, irritability, restlessness and insomnia when they are in excess. There may be other substances in the supplement that are too stimulating as well. Some nutrients may also increase cortisol, acetylcholine, or estrogen too much, which would produce a variety of negative symptoms.
For example, glutamine is used for a variety of purposes like healing a leaky gut or replenishing depleted GABA levels, however, it can also increase glutamate levels. 5-HTP is used to replenish serotonin, but it can increase cortisol. Flax seed increases estrogen and choline or lecithin increases acetylcholine. Tyrosine is used to replenish depleted dopamine levels or thyroid hormones, but it also increases norepinephrine levels, and if one is not able to methylate their norepinpehrine into epinephrine, then it may build up in excess. Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter that sets off the sympathetic nervous system. If it remains in excess, one remains in sympathetic stress continuously. Methylation needs adequate levels of B12, folic acid, magnesium, copper and SAMe, and there can be a genetic polymorphism as well. Methylation problems are abundant in the population. Some probiotics contain species that can increase histamine and d-lactate. Many people have no problem with these supplements at all, but the highly sensitive often do.
Another common problem is that some nutritional supplements feed microbes, which can be problematic for people with Candida, SIBO or bacterial overgrowth in the colon. FOS feeds Candida and SIBO, biotin and many of the B vitamins feed Candida, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium can feed microbes and contribute to biofilm development,
Some people simply do not respond well to certain supplements. For example, I cannot take any supplements that manipulate my neurotransmitters or hormones. My brain and body will just not have it. This is true for many people I work with.
Now, the explanation you hear most often from other health practitioners to explain negative responses to nutritional supplements, is that they believe you are having a “healing crises.” Although this may be true to some degree, some of the time, in my experience this is not the case the majority of the time. Since many practitioners really don’t know why you are having a negative response, this becomes the “go to” response for this issue.
With that being said, it does take the body a while to “reorganize” itself when depleted nutrients are presented or when biochemistry is being corrected. This reorganization can result in making you feel worse before you feel better. However, healing crises occur most often with supplementation that is killing off some kind of unfriendly organism, like a parasite, yeast or bacteria.
As many people know, it is often difficult to know if one is truly having a “healing crises” or if one of the other issues I have discussed on this page may be at play. It’s important to note, that if a healing crises is so severe that it impairs your ability to function, this is counterproductive. It will only perpetuate the problem if you overwhelm the detoxification system or the autonomic nervous system. One can cut down on the dosage and go at a slower pace.
Another option that one can try is a different form of the supplement. For example, a liquid, a spray, an inhaler, transdermal, and IV nutrients. Sometimes if you can bypass the gut, then you can eliminate the negative symptoms.
Many practitioners will blame or shame their client when they are not able to take the prescribed supplements. They often claim that nobody else has these problems and act like you are unique. That is not true. Don’t let them put this on you. Intolerance of nutritional supplements is very common. Almost everyone I work with has problems to one extent or another taking nutritional supplements. Don’t beat yourself up for it or feel like you are an oddball.
You should also keep in mind that there is a difference between nutritional supplements and herbs. Nutrients like vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids are essential components for the body. We need them to function. Herbs are basically natural drugs and the body does not need them. Although herbs can be helpful for a variety of other health conditions, I am not in favor of using herbs for things like addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues because they do not correct the underlying issue. In some cases, they perpetuate the problem. Many herbs, like St. John’s Wort and Valerian, work like addictive drugs; they provide artificial stimulation, which results in tolerance and addiction.
A common misconception in our society that leads to trouble is the notion that nutritional supplements don’t produce any side-effects because they are natural. It’s vital to be aware that natural therapies can be just as powerful as a prescription drug and should be taken seriously. This is especially true when we are referring to supplements that affect neurotransmitters and hormones, and these are typically the supplements that people have the most trouble with. It really is best to work with a knowledgeable health care provider, rather than supplementing yourself.
It’s also important to note, nutritional supplements are not the be all and end all. Yes, indeed, they play an important role in most holistic health care plans and replenishing depleted nutrients is vital for many ailments, but for some people, less is more.
As the word, “supplement” implies, nutritional supplements are designed to “supplement” the diet, not replace. Many people put way too much focus on supplements and fail to address other more important issues like their diet and managing stress. No matter how you look at it, we are a pill popping society. In traditional medicine it is pharmaceuticals and in the natural health industry it’s supplements and herbs.
The first step in addressing depleted nutrients is to fix your diet, by eating organic, consuming adequate animal protein and fat and low-starch vegetables, eliminating sugars, grains and legumes, avoiding caffeine, alcohol and refined foods. You should be trying to get most of your nutrients from the food that you eat. Not only that, if you do not change your diet, you are not likely to see any significant or long-term results with nutritional supplements, no matter how many you take.
If you can’t tolerate any nutritional supplements, then try to eat the foods that are richest in the nutrients you are trying to replenish, but stay within Paleo guidelines of course. A simple Google search for any food you can think of will provide you with its nutrient content. Put more focus on the things that you can do, like eating healthy, getting proper exercise, communing with nature, getting adequate sunshine and sufficient sleep, deep breathing exercises, meditation and positive thinking.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that the most profound improvements in health are typically made by eating the right foods and living a healthier lifestyle and don’t underestimate their power to do so.