When Will Cole was growing up, the wellness movement was definitely not a thing yet — but that didn’t stop Cole from drinking adaptogenic tonics, eating raw food, and fully embracing his role as the “weird kid.” Today, Cole has parlayed that childhood interest in health into a career as a functional medicine practitioner who helps people around the world create customized health programs for a whole host of issues, from autoimmune conditions to digestive disorders and beyond. He’s also the author of two books — Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum — and an expert on supplementation. We spoke to Cole about his career journey, the benefits of dietary supplements, and much more.
Getting Away from Fast Food and Toward Functional Medicine
Cole grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA in the 80s and 90s, which he describes as “definitely not the Mecca of wellness.” In that environment, there wasn’t much room for the idea of holistic health and diet-focused wellness among the strips of fast food restaurants. But from an early age, Cole eschewed these norms and sought out a new path, choosing “raw-this and organic-that and sprouted-this.”
His interest in wellness came, in part, from family health factors. There are autoimmune conditions on both sides of his family, with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, type 1 diabetes, and MS symptoms on both his maternal and paternal side. Plus, he is a carrier himself of a double gene allele for the MTHFR gene, which makes the enzyme that converts folic acid into folate (this, in turn, means that his body isn’t good at bringing down a certain form of inflammation, which can lead to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s or autoimmune thyroiditis).
With these genetic components before him, Cole wanted, on a personal level, to do everything he could to mitigate his own risk factors. After all, as Cole explains, “a third of that autoimmune puzzle is genetics, but it’s only a third. Two-third is epigenetics. It’s the things that we do in life
that are constantly and dynamically instructing genetic expression and turning off and turning on genes.” In other words, lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and toxins are even more important than genetic makeup when it comes to disease expression.
Given all that, and his innate interest in wellness, Cole knew that he wanted to be formally trained in the field. When it was time for him to head off to school, he went to the Southern California University of Health Sciences, an integrative medicine school in Los Angeles. There he met Datis Kharrazian, one of the godfathers of functional medicine, whose words inspired Cole to pursue functional medicine specifically.
Are Supplements and Vitamins Worth Taking, or Should You Just Eat Right?
One of Cole’s primary areas of expertise is supplements. In designing customized health plans for people and looking for the root cause of chronic diseases, he takes a close look at what nutrients their bodies are missing and how the right supplements could reverse a condition or boost their health. But he’s quick to point out that supplements are not a cure-all. In our pill-for-an-ill world, it’s easy to think that taking a few capsules a day will solve all your health problems. Not so much, according to Cole.
“You can’t supplement your way out of a poor diet,” he says, simply. “You cannot think that taking that pill or that vitamin or whatever is going to somehow undo an unhealthy and nutrient-less diet.” So if diet is what really matters, should you take supplements at all?
While Cole says that certainly not everyone needs to take them, the benefits of dietary supplements can be huge for certain people. What they do, Cole says, is fill the gaps in your diet and deliver vital nutrients that can transform your health. He sees supplements — which include things like vitamins, natural medicines, and herbal and botanical options — as “targeted tools to fill in the gaps where diet isn’t hitting a therapeutic threshold.”
One of the reasons that so many people today need supplements has to do with soil depletion. As human activity has damaged the environment and depleted the rich nutrient content of soil around the world, food grown in that soil has subsequently become less nutrient-dense. Because of this, says Cole, “you have to be more intentional than ever before to make sure that your food medicine, your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are the best options that you have with the access you have. That you’re eating the best you can possibly do within your budget.” Meals, he reiterates, are your primary medicine.
But still, because environmental changes mean our food supply isn’t what it once was, we’re not getting as much out of our food as we did for the majority of human history. This means that the benefits of dietary supplements become even greater. For many of us, Cole says, there is a place for targeted supplementation or natural medicines above and beyond a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.
Why Some People Need Supplements More than Others
Okay, so it’s clear that one of the major benefits of dietary supplements is that they fill gaps in a person’s diet and can target specific issues. But it’s also true that while certain people can benefit greatly from taking many supplements, others just need a minimal amount, while others need none. So should you take supplements, and if so, how many? And why is your answer different from your friend’s answer?
Cole explains that you need to take into account bio-individuality (the idea that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health, that differences in things like anatomy, metabolism, and cell structure impact what each of us need to be healthy) and people’s baselines when determining which supplements might be necessary or helpful. One manifestation of this bio-individuality is the simple idea that some people are just naturally more resilient than others. Some of us don’t need a lot to get by — think of that friend who gets 5 hours of sleep a night, eats out all the time, and never gets sick — while others are much more sensitive to minor deficiencies.
To explain this difference further, Cole uses the analogy of a mug of tea. People, he says, naturally have different sized mugs. Those with a large mug won’t easily overflow with the general stressors of life — ie, they generally remain healthy regardless of what happens, and don’t need to take supplements.
But for those with a small mug, it doesn’t take much to overflow. When it comes to these people, Cole says, their body has specific genetic variants that predispose them to deficiencies, or an unhealthy gut that isn’t absorbing food as readily as it should. This can create issues because, as Cole puts it, “we aren’t just what we eat, we’re what we absorb.” For these people, the benefits of dietary supplements allow them to reach a therapeutic threshold that will help them thrive.
Today, more people than ever have small mugs, according to Cole. This is because stress and toxins in the environment have led to a steep increase in gut and inflammation issues. This, of course, is an unfortunate development, but the good news is that dietary supplementation can help.
Should You Take Supplements? Here’s How to Know.
Some of us will be able to readily identify as having a big mug or a small mug. But for the rest of us, it’s not as clear. How can you tell if you’re nutrient deficient? Should you take supplements, and if so, which ones?
Cole’s book The Inflammation Spectrum starts with a quiz to help people answer this question. Of course, you can snag the book and take the quiz, but if you don’t have the book on hand, Cole gave us a rundown on how you can assess yourself. He recommends that you simply go through the various aspects of your health that can be impacted by inflammation: your hair, skin, nails, mood, mental health, digestion, hormone health, sleep, weight loss resistance. If any of these are off, it’s a signal from your body that you’re not where you should be.
He also underscores the fact that you shouldn’t dismiss something simply because you know a lot of people with the same issue — “Oh, we all have trouble sleeping, it’s not a big deal.” “Nobody has perfect digestion.” — because you don’t deserve to settle for chronic, low-grade inflammation.“Just because something is common doesn’t necessarily mean it’s normal,” he says.
Besides doing a self-assessment, Cole also suggests getting some outside feedback. This could mean going to a clinic and getting labs done, visiting a functional medicine doctor, or using one of the direct-to-consumer labs that allow you to run basic tests at home.
In terms of what labs to run, Cole advises against going overboard and becoming obsessive. Instead, just run the most relevant labs depending on what you’re going through, which will allow you to get a baseline and find out what you can do to improve your levels.
Whatever test you choose, be sure to look at optimal ranges, which are different than labs’ reference ranges. As Dr. Carrie Jones explained when we interviewed her, labs’ ranges for what’s considered normal are HUGE, and just because you’re within range doesn’t mean you’re healthy. “You want to look at where your body is actually optimized,” Cole says.
Once you know where you’re deficient, you can begin making adjustments to improve your levels, which will have a major impact on your health. “People can do quite a bit about how they feel and how they look and their quality of life and their overall health and longevity,” Cole says.
So What Supplements and Vitamins Are Worth Taking?
When it comes to determining which supplements you should take and for how long, Cole splits people into two different groups:
Those who have a genetic predisposition that makes them chronically deficient in something without supplementation. For instance, Cole’s double gene allele for MTHFR means he will need to take folate for life. For this class of people, supplements are an important lifelong habit to mitigate deficiencies or risk factors associated with their levels being off.
The rest of us! For those without genetic predispositions to deficiencies, we should only be taking supplements for a certain amount of time to target specific issues. For instance, L-glutamine to help fix an unhealthy gut, turmeric or resveratrol to lower inflammation levels, adaptogens for when someone is going through a stressful time in life. This type of supplementation is for a time or a season, not a lifelong thing.
When there’s not a particular issue to target, the list of supplements and vitamins worth taking in the long-term is pretty short. For most human beings, Cole recommends:
A high-quality omega fish oil: Improves heart health and reduces risk of cardiovascular disease.
A good methylated B-vitamin complex: Supports energy production and immune, cardiovascular, and neurological health.
As for choosing the supplements themselves, Cole notes that there’s a difference between pharmaceutical-grade and direct-to-consumer supplements. The former require a prescription and are more potent, while the latter you can walk into CVS or a health food store and buy.
What’s more important, Cole says, is that if you buy consumer-grade supplements, you make sure you’re reading labels to avoid fillers, binders, and strange ingredients. Unfortunately, Cole says, there’s no centralized third-party that provides vetting for supplements, so it’s essential that you find a trusted source and do your own sleuthing.
Conclusion: The Final Word on Benefits of Dietary Supplements and How to Take Them
So, should you take supplements? As our interview with Dr. Cole made clear, there’s not a simple yes-or-no answer. However, it’s also clear that the benefits of dietary supplements are far-ranging and, when taken appropriately, supplements can make a major difference in your health.
To sum it all up, here’s the approach you should take when developing a supplement strategy:
Get a baseline to figure out where you need help. This could mean taking a quiz, doing a self-assessment, seeing a functional medicine practitioner, going to a clinic for labs, or using a direct-to-consumer lab kit.
When you’re assessing your needs, don’t settle for “okay.” Low-grade, chronic inflammation may be common, but it isn’t normal. It may just mean that you have a “smaller mug,” and need a little extra support to feel your absolute best.
For most people, you’ll need targeted supplements that you’ll take for a short amount of time to fix an issue. But for those with genetic predispositions to deficiencies, certain supplements might be needed for lifelong maintenance.
When choosing a supplement, make sure you find a reputable source. If you’re not getting a prescription, read labels.
When you start taking supplements, go slow in the beginning and gradually titrate up if necessary. Give the supplement time to start working before you ramp up the dose or declare it’s not working.
Do you take dietary supplements? If so, which ones, and what benefits do you see? Tell us in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Dr. Will Cole to learn how to know if you’re taking too many supplements, what it means if your pee is bright yellow, what he thinks about buying supplements on Amazon, and much more!