Health food store shopping for beginners

So you want to try natural supplements?
Many migraine specialists recommend adding natural products to your migraine treatment plan. Sometimes patients think of the idea first because of concerns about side effects from prescription treatments.  However you acquired the idea, if you’ve never shopped for supplements before, you might be feeling overwhelmed or intimidated by all the options. You may find yourself staring down the aisle at all those rows of bottles, boxes, and bags wondering how you will ever find that one you want.

Having owned and operated one for over five years, I might know a thing or two about health food stores. Please join me on a virtual tour through a typical health food store. Most are laid out just like a typical grocery store. You will find a produce section, non-perishables, refrigerated & frozen items, dairy, meat, health & beauty aids, paper goods & cleaning items. There are few key differences. First of all, the selection of over-the-counter remedies is much more extensive than you find in a conventional  grocery store. Also, the items are labeled with strange-sounding names. If you are not familiar with the terminology, you might get very lost.

Essential terms


Dietary supplement

No, it doesn’t mean “diet pill”.  It’s just the FDA’s term for every pill, tablet, capsule, powder, liquid, and bulk herb that isn’t regulated as “medicine”. So basically, everything in a health food store except the food itself is a “dietary supplement”. By law, the manufacturers of these supplements cannot make claims that their products “treat, prevent, or cure” any disease. Contrary to what mainstream media outlets may say, these products are well-regulated by the FDA. Some have even been pulled off the market due to adverse side effects or marketing that violates the FDA rules.  It is common for the FDA to issue warnings and fines to companies that don’t follow the rules.  These supplements are also regulated by watchdog groups and industry non-profit organizations. Reputable manufacturers put pressure on each other to maintain strict, pharmaceutical-grade laboratories and to develop new products in accordance with the highest standards of science. Anything you can take by mouth that isn’t a drug is a “dietary supplement”. This broad term includes: vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, botanicals (herbs), homeopathic medicine, probiotics, nutraceuticals, and so much more.

Homeopathic

This is another term that often confuses people. To the uniformed, “homeopathic” is often used as a catch-all word to mean “natural”. However, homeopathic medicine is a very specific form of complementary medicine that will be covered in another article. It does not include herbs, vitamins, or any other type of dietary supplement.

Vitamins

Vitamins are naturally found in plants and animals. They are essential for growth and healthy functioning. There are two types of vitamins: water soluble and fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins are easily absorbed by the body and excreted by the kidneys. There is a low risk of vitamin toxicity, but a much greater risk of vitamin deficiency. Some water-soluble vitamins are Vitamin C and all B vitamins. Fat soluble vitamins are Vitamins A, E, D, and K. The excess is stored in the liver and body fat. Take too much and you can build up a toxic level. Signs of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, liver, and heart problems. If you think you might be deficient in one of these vitamins, it’s a good idea to get your levels checked and monitored as long as you continue supplementation.

Minerals

Minerals are naturally found in the earth and absorbed by plant and animals. Minerals are needed for health teeth, bones, and nerve functioning. Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium are just a few available minerals. Just remember that for proper absorption, you need a 2:1 ratio of Calcium to Magnesium.  Not all products have this ratio, so turn the bottles around and read the labels.

Single Herbs

Herbs are any product made from plant material (roots, leaves, berries, etc.). Feverfew, Butterbur, Ginkgo Biloba, Ginger, Peppermint, and Valerian Root are all herbs.  Just remember to look for the right type. Feverfew needs to have 0.02 – 0.04% parthenolides to be effective. Butterbur needs to be the Petadolex formula to be safe.  Again, turn the bottles around and read the labels on the back.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Some are produced by the body while others must be obtained through diet. 5-HTP is one of 20 amino acids needed for proper functioning.  It may also be found in special sections labeled “Sleep” or “Mood” as it is a precursor to serotonin, a neurochemical essential for sleep and mood regulation.

EFAs

You’ve heard of fish oil, right? It is one of many oils that contain the essential fatty acids Omega 3, Omega 6, and Omega 9. Americans consume a lot of Omega 6 and 9 oils in our high fat diets.  What we don’t always get are the Omega 3 essential fatty acids. These are found in high concentrations in tuna, mackerel, and other fatty fish. Flax seed oil, Borage oil, and Wheat Germ oil also contain Omega 3 fatty acids. The Omega 3 fatty acids increase levels of good cholesterol. It may be labeled using the abbreviation EFA or the full name, Essential Fatty Acids.

Probiotics

Ever heard of acidophilus? It’s just one of billions of beneficial bacteria that are supposed to be in our GI system. Probiotics are supplements containing one or more strain of beneficial bacteria. Some formulas are especially designed for infants because their digestive systems are so different from those of adults.  They are also found in yogurt and other fermented foods. These supplements are usually found in refrigerated shelves next to dairy alternatives. This is one time when it’s worth the extra money to get a product with an enteric coating.

Enzymes

These are naturally-occurring in plant-based foods and are present in a healthy stomach. Their sole purpose is to break down the food we eat. Sometimes, plants high in enzymes (i.e. papaya or pineapple) are made into nutraceuticals to be consumed as pills. All fresh produce contains enzymes. Even an apple contains the enzyme, malic acid. They are also found in supplements that blend fruits like papaya and pineapple with enzymes from a wide variety of foods. Some doctors recommend enzymes to improve digestion in patients with gastric stasis.

Antioxidants

Vitamins A, C, and E, plus supplements like CoQ-10 are antioxidants. This means that these supplements fight the oxidative damage of free radicals. That brings me to two other important terms: oxidation and free radicals. Oxidation occurs when oxygen combines with other substances to interfere with normal cell functioning. Free radicals are molecules with one unpaired electron which makes them unstable and reactive. When free radicals react with chemicals in the body, they damage healthy cell functioning. Antioxidants block this reaction by making the free radicals stable.

So you have your list of supplements that you copied from Migraine.com and you’re ready to go shopping. Let’s get the lay of the land so you don’t get lost running all over the store.  Most supplements useful for migraine are herbs, vitamins, or minerals. By understanding how health food stores organize their inventory, you can save a lot of time. The supplement aisles of a health food store are usually separated into these categories:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Single Herbs
  • Multi-Vitamins
  • Amino Acids
  • Essential Fatty Acids
  • Homeopathics
  • Essential Oils
  • Probiotics
  • Herbal teas
  • Glandulars
  • Protein

Larger stores may also have specialty products separated by category:

  • Fitness
  • Sleep
  • Digestion
  • Allergies & Asthma
  • Cold & Flu
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Men’s Health
  • Women’s Health
  • Children’s Health

Occasionally you will find a “Migraine” or “Pain management” section, too. The people responsible for store layout are not headache specialists. Just because a product is in their “migraine” section, doesn’t mean it will work. Also, there are many products that you won’t find in a “migraine” section that do have some studies to back up their use.  Product placement is about marketing, not medicine.A good health food store has managers and buyers that demand high quality and good science to back up every product on their shelves. That doesn’t mean the cashier or stocker know anything about migraine. Unless you are looking for something very specific, don’t waste your money on the most expensive brand. The generic store brand is made in the same pharmaceutical-grade laboratories as the high-dollar brand with all the fancy labeling. There are only a few quality labs in the U.S. and every decent brand is made in one of these facilities. There are a few exceptions to this rule:

Size and texture of the capsule, softgel, or tablet
Certain brands tend to make larger pills that can be difficult to swallow if you have a strong gag reflex or frequent nausea. Some supplements, like calcium or fish oil, tend to be found in larger sizes. If you find a brand that is easier to swallow or digest, then it’s worth the extra cash. Many times the label will show a diagram of the actual pill size.

Enteric coating
This is a special coating that protects the pill from being dissolved by stomach acid. It will not be absorbed until it passes into the small intestine.  This is a good idea for probiotics or for supplements with a strong taste (like garlic, cayenne, fish oil, etc.) that might upset a weak stomach.  You do not want this coating on supplements that relieve nausea. You want those to break down in the stomach so they go to work faster.

Liquid vs. pill
Some products absorb easier and faster if taken as a liquid. If you want faster results, you choose a liquid. Also, sometimes the recommended dose is so high that you would have to take a handful of pills to meet the recommendation. The liquid form doesn’t require that you swallow so many pills. I prefer to purchase a liquid Calcium and Magnesium blend rather than try to swallow 4-6 “horse pills” every day. Instead, I swallow one ounce of a fruity liquid about the consistency of Pepto-Bismol.  The doctor is happy because I am getting my minerals and I’m happy because I didn’t choke on them.


As always, if you have questions about migraine-friendly health food store shopping, you can always post your question in the Natural Remedies section of our Forum.  I frequent the Forum and will see any question or comment posted and respond within a day or two.

Happy, healthy shopping!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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