Snake Oil?

Patients often ask me if the supplement they are taking works or if it’s “Snake Oil”.

The following is a list (courtesy of my close friend, Gary) of what some of the research has to say.

Keep in mind that this is a growing field and what may be shown to be ineffective today, may be the cure of tomorrow.

Evidence- Strong/Good/Promising

Folic acid- To prevent certain birth defects

Fish Oil (omega 3)- Heart disease

Garlic- Blood pressure (and vampires)

Melatonin- Insomnia

Niacin- Heart disease (elevated cholesterol)

Vitamin D- General health and all causes of mortality, bone health- check your levels and take it (especially during the cold and flu season)

Zinc- Colds

Dark chocolate- Blood pressure

Green tea- Cholesterol and some cancers

Calcium and D- Breast cancer

Anti-oxidants- Infertility in men

Devil’s Claw- Arthritis

Olive leaf extract- Blood pressure and cholesterol

Hawthorn- Blood pressure

COQ10- Blood pressure

Peppermint oil- Irritable bowel syndrome

Tyrosine- Alertness, memory, wakefulness

Rhodiola Rosea- Fatigue

Vitamin K2– Bone health


Evidence- Conflicting but good empirical support

Echinacea- Colds (take at the early signs)

Ginger- Nausea

Honey- Coughs (I’ve seen this work well)

Krill Oil- PMS  (I find Omega 6- EPO and GLA work well)

L-Lysine- Herpes

Magnesium- Hypertension and constipation (I recommend this all the time for my patients)

Magnesium and B6- ADHD

Probiotic- IBS, diarrhea, GI and respiratory infections (another one of my go-to supplements)

Red yeast rice- Cholesterol (I’ve seen good results if from a reputable company)

Valerian- Insomnia

Coconut oil- Obesity and cholesterol

Cinnamon- Type II diabetes

Milk Thistle- Hepatitis

Vitamin C- Colds and cancer

DHEA- Aging

Glucosamine- Joint health

St. Johns’s Wort- Depression


As for Snake Oil- it may have some merit:


Other considerations when choosing a supplement

Would your naturopath recommend it?      

Good naturopaths constantly seek out the most current and effective approaches to helping patients achieve optimal health, choosing products with cutting-edge research and developments in clinical nutrition and functional medicine.

Formulas should be the highest quality in the industry and contain effective levels of ingredients  that are pharmaceutical grade.

This means that the product has been manufactured under GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) conditions and is safe, pure, and effective. Under GMP guidelines, every step of the manufacturing process is documented by using established SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).

These include training, equipment, raw materials, facilities, and final-release criteria.

Every product’s development should be able to be traced back to the date, time, person, lot number, and piece.

The practice of “window-dressing” a label—listing a whole bunch of ingredients in miniscule amounts—leads consumers to believe they are getting a great deal when, in fact, the amounts of many nutrients are so low as to be meaningless.

Having the right dose and type of nutrient matters deeply.

Remember: supplements are just that. A “supplement” to:

1. A good diet

2. Regular exercise

3. Stress management

4. Good sleep hygiene

Some guidelines to consider when buying a supplement:

1. Educate yourself on the use of supplements. In addition to the effects, benefits, dosing recommendations and possible drug interactions of the specific natural supplements you plan on taking, you should also know some general information before buying supplements:

  • The fact that a supplement is “natural” does not mean it is not a potent substance, capable of inducing considerable drug-like effects.
  • Herbal supplements can be toxic, if taken in the wrong dosage.
  • Supplement manufacturers are not required to run tests to prove the efficacy or safety of their products.

2. Discuss your plans to take a supplement with your naturopathic physician. Your doctor can evaluate the condition of your health, as well as your diet, risk factors and current drug schedule to determine if buying supplements is a safe decision for your particular circumstances. There are a number of drug-nutrient interactions that can occur when taking a drug and a supplement together.

3. Familiarize yourself with supplement forms. When buying natural supplements, it is important that you understand the difference between pills, capsules, powders, teas and the variety of other forms supplements may come in. The form of a supplement affects its absorption, so you must take your specific circumstances into account when deciding what’s right for you.

4Read the labels- Many products have artificial colors, additives and preservatives, which over time can adversely affect your health.

5. You get what you pay for- Vitamins, minerals and herbs come in different forms. Vitamins and minerals need to be bound to transport carriers. These carriers will affect the absorption. Herbs can be wildcrafted (processed as a whole, without regard for the active part of the plant) or standardized to contain a precise amount of the therapeutic constituents, thereby making dosing more precise. Cheaper supplements are often poorly absorbed and less therapeutic.

Please don’t hesitate to consult with me if you have questions about a supplement you are taking or want to take.

About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin