The Role Of Supplements In Personalized Medicine

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

As a physician, one of the greatest tools I have is the use of high quality, natural compounds. When used correctly, supplements given to patients can have a powerful effect, changing the way cells are functioning, communicating and working together. The key is finding the right compounds for the right condition as it manifests in each unique individual. No two patients are exactly alike and what works for one may have little to no effect for another. A personalized approach to medicine stresses the importance of biochemical individuality. Without that, it's like throwing darts at the wall and hoping something will stick.

To supplement or not to supplement?

When deciding to use supplements and herbs there are many things to consider. Its not as simple as picking up a bottle at the local health food store and following the label for dosing. The quality of the supplement, amount taken, need for the substance and interactions with other nutrients affect the usefulness and outcomes.

First, to use natural compounds correctly, one must understand the biochemistry they are affecting. A true understanding of the interconnected pathways and the effects different molecules have ensures that choices are targeted, meaningful and tailored to the individual. When used appropriately, these natural substances have the ability to correct glitches in metabolism literally breathing life back into weakened and dysfunctional systems. As the exchange of information and cellular expression improves, cells may even look different taking on vitality unknown in the deficient state.

Next, it is imperative to consider the individual when assessing use of supplements. By zeroing in on a specific person's needs and choosing the correct nutrients for the job, we will see benefits. Too often, supplements are used generically, without appropriate testing to assess the unique biochemical conditions. This is commonly illustrated in studies done on large groups of people finding a supplement doesn't work or has little benefit. From my perspective this is not a surprise as it fails to address the particular landscape of the individual. In order to do this, in-depth testing must be used to reveal the problem areas in the biochemistry. Therapies are then easily targeted to approach and correct these various deficiencies improving the overall function of the body.

Additionally, it's incorrect to believe there is any one single magic bullet. Nutraceuticals used alone often fail simply because they were used in isolation. This isn't the way the body is designed nor is it the way these interventions work. Natural compounds work in unison with other compounds to synergistically correct and activate pathways that have been dysfunctional. We must study and use them in this way to see improvements.

Testing is the key to personalized medicine

Without testing to guide us, the use of supplements often misses the mark, wastes money and gives little benefit to the patient. Effective use of these compounds requires and in-depth exploration into deficiencies and need. I am not talking about average testing that simply measures Vitamin D levels. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, fatty acids-all nutrients must be considered comprehensively. For example, too often when testing Vitamin E, physicians solely look at levels of alpha-tocopherol, however this isn't the way nature intended it. Vitamin E is a robust compound that includes four different tocopherols plus trienols all of which are combined in plants working synergistically. Testing alpha in isolation and supplementing it that way misses the boat. In the right person, as a result of deep testing, nature's version of Vitamin E can have a great antioxidant impact.

Other testable antioxidants like glutathione and CoQ10 can be game changers for inflamed patients. Often, the problems that come with disease and systemic dysfunction like pain and fatigue, stems from inflammation. ESR and CRP are the common inflammatory markers affecting the vessels. There are others affecting cells but frequently go unchecked like TNF-alpha, IL1 and IL8. Still others give rise to cellular inflammation and damage to delicate membranes made of fatty acids and phospholipids. Fatty acids and oxidative damage should be tracked as well.

Now we start to see a broader picture emerging that allows treatment to expand to improve cellular health. If we see low fatty acids and high inflammation on testing, the brain could be affected. The use of phosphatidyl serine could be beneficial improving memory, mood and stress responses. This compound is easily obtained at any health food store but without knowing if there is a need or the type and amount to use, supplements do very little good. Only a doctor who is trained in functional medicine, uses testing and understands the deep inner working of biochemistry can connect the dots to know what's best for you.

Additionally, the metabolic pathways themselves must be studied to find the areas requiring support. How is the thyroid working? Digestion? The stress response and immune systems? The mitochondria are the center of cellular energy production, deficiencies here lead to wide spread health problems. Additionally testing should confirm or rule out anything driving illness like parasites, candida, infections, mold, metals, or any other chemical disruptors altering the body's function.

Finally, there are endless probiotics on the market right now. Randomly choosing one without understanding how it works is senseless. While the effects of different strains overlap in some ways, there are specific benefits to each one. Some work powerfully to resolve inflammation like TNF-alpha, while others work best in the urogenital track. Of course how they are made impacts whether or not they make it into the intestine at all.

To sum it all, the use of natural compounds is beneficial, powerful and an integral part of a comprehensive healing plan. Proper use is best guided by a physician skilled in functional medicine who understands the intricacies of biochemical interactions. By connecting the many dots revealed through testing, the true needs of the patient can be met.