"To supplement or not to supplement?" That is a question I'm often asked. My answer is usually "yes," with some conditions.

"To supplement or not to supplement?" That is a question I'm often asked. My answer is usually "yes," with some conditions.

My reasons for suggesting supplements have changed over the years as specificity of formulation, quality and research on clinical nutrients all have greatly improved. Meanwhile, nutrient deficiencies have widened as the American diet has worsened.

Fifteen years ago, when I began studying herbal medicine, studies were hard to come by for many herbs. Today information is a Web search away.

Some practitioners — myself included — recommend supplements because our soil is depleted, and many foods lack nutrients to sustain health. On another level, I regularly see clients overcome problems ranging from the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis to the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy, thanks to nutritional and herbal supplements.

Many doctors stock supplements for their patients because they see good results from quality brands. Meanwhile, many clinicians who use herbs and well-crafted nutrient formulas have an eye on the goal of their practices, trying to get at the root cause of patients' problems, which often boils down to diet.

In addition to vitamin deficiencies, millions of Americans are overtly mineral deficient. Nutrient deficiencies can have serious, various and hard-to-detect symptoms and can exacerbate chronic diseases — thus supplementation.

Though quality supplements are safe and effective for treating and preventing many conditions, they're unfortunately neither a sustainable nor equitable solution.

Some people can get good nutritional advice, afford to eat well, take supplements and possibly avoid use of medication that may lead to any number of side effects, including nutrient deficiency induced by the drug itself. Others take the prescription medications that are supplied through health insurance — if they're lucky enough to have it. Yet, they might have been able to use a far less toxic (and less costly) supplement.

If you're considering supplementation, let your doctor know and talk to a knowledgeable expert about quality brands. Some herbs can interfere with prescription drugs, others can synergize with a drug, making it more effective than expected.

Now, that's a side effect I hope we can talk more about.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com