The Supplement Question

Since the dawn of Chiropractic on the plains of Iowa, the profession has struggled to define itself. Though many chiropractors incorporate fitness and nutritional counseling, kinesiology, physiology and supplements into their practices, purists contend that the focus of Chiropractic should remain unchanged from those early years under D.D. Palmer’s visionary guidance. “The profession that D.D. started way back then is still focused to this day on the correction of spinal subluxations to allow the patient to betterCapsules express the body’s natural ability to heal itself,” explains David Koch, D.C., professor of philosophy at Life University.

A History of Supplements

During the profession’s infancy, D.D. Palmer and his son, B.J., were adamant that anyone who wished to follow their vision would “need to focus on it exclusively, and give up their ‘pills, potions and powders,’ and all other healing methods and modalities they had practiced before. The Palmers believed their discovery was so amazing they wanted chiropractors to only adjust their patients so they could see how powerful the adjustment was. D.D. Palmer said, ‘Don’t mix my wonderful discovery with anything else,’” Koch says.

As Chiropractic began to flourish and catch the attention of practitioners orbiting the healing world, converts began mixing adjusting with things they already knew about, such as nutrition and nutritional supplements. The gap between supplements and Chiropractic shrunk even further during the 20th century as medical and technological companies attempted to manufacture better living through science. “For a long time, medical doctors were saying that nutrition didn’t have much to do with medical ‘health care,’” says Koch. “In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s they didn’t seem to believe there was a link between sickness and nutrition. The futuristic medical ethos of the post-WWII era seemed to proclaim that prescriptions would eventually cure all ills and enable humans to live forever, regardless of negative lifestyle practices.”

Koch also notes that during this era, many chiropractors took up the cause of nutritional health care and disease treatment. For example, some pursued and defended the idea that there were nutritional links to diseases like cancer. Chiropractors began to push for and help to develop therapeutic supplements, and it made sense for those chiropractors to market and sell them as well.

The Case Against Supplements

For many chiropractors, the problem with supplements is that there is nothing inherently Chiropractic about them. A quick walk through GNC reveals that anyone can get their hands on any combination of supplements promising more energy, better concentration and problem-free sleep.

“If a patient goes to a chiropractor, I assume that he or she is seeking the special skills of a chiropractor, which can’t be purchased at the local health food store,” says Koch. “But then the chiropractor says, ‘Let me adjust you and start you on this new nutritional supplement.’ He does both, and the patient’s life is dramatically improved. What does the patient conclude? If they are like most people I know, given the choice, they are still more likely to attribute their healing to the supplement. As a chiropractor, I want my adjustment to be a single variable experiment for the patient. I want to give the patient the opportunity to see that their emerging health under chiropractic care is the product of their own innate healing potential, and all I did was remove an interference to its expression.”

The Case for Supplements

For John Brimhall, D.C., a Palmer College of Chiropractic graduate and founder of Brimhall Wellness, supplements bridge the gap between adjustments. “In this day and age, I would not know how to help someone without considering their nutrition and whether they have diabetes or high blood sugar,” says Brimhall, a chiropractor and seminar leader who formulates supplements for Xymogen. “I’ve done blood work and hair samples on thousands and thousands of people, and I’ve never found anybody without toxicities.”

Brimhall points to artificial flavors, refined-sugar snacks and genetically modified foods as the main contributors to the toxins that wreak havoc on the body. In his booming practice, Brimhall says he prescribed nutrition along with adjustments because “the adjustment won’t hold if you are [nutritionally] deficient or toxic.” After conducting tests for more than 200 toxins, Brimhall says he commonly prescribes adrenal supports to ease stress and supplements to provide kidney, liver and digestive support.

“I evaluated each patient based on blood tests and muscle tests, and I would synergize an exact blend of what a patient needed inside controlled-release veggie caps or protein powders,” says Brimhall. Though he acknowledges that chiropractors wishing to recommend nutrition should undergo an extensive training program, Brimhall is quick to say he would never recommend something he didn’t take himself.

At 66 years old, Brimhall takes 12 different nutrients a day and jokes that his 35-year-old wife and 2-year-old son can’t keep up with him. “I always tell people that it’s your body, your health and your choice whether or not to take supplements, but if you don’t get the results you want, you might want to consider taking them.”

When asked about his motto, “See Miracles Daily,” Brimhall recounts a series of anecdotes about total health turnarounds from patients with multiple sclerosis, diabetes and degenerative disc disease. “The reason I saw so many patients is that they couldn’t get help elsewhere,” he says. “They had a vertebra out of place, but they also had a nutritional deficiency and needed detox. It was great to evaluate the whole person and figure out what patients are missing, and it’s such a fun way to practice.”

Everything in Moderation

While not as avid a promoter of supplements as Brimhall, Bruce Parker, D.C., views supplements as a beneficial health tool that can make a difference for some patients. “I see Chiropractic as a way of ridding the body of interference, but I also see Chiropractic as part of a treatment plan,” says Parker, a practice consultant and president of the Parker Process. “I might recommend a supplement once in a while—I certainly have in the past—but I always promote it as part of a wellness package. My goal is not to get patients out of pain, my goal is to restore patients’ health and help them live healthy and free of interference for the rest of their lives.”

Following a strict diet and wellness program, Parker eats well, exercises, lives the chiropractic lifestyle and takes a green supplement and a protein product for added energy. Now over 60, Parker says he has the energy of a 35-year-old, and admits that he used to be a much bigger proponent of supplements for himself and for his patients.

“I’ve always practiced the way I’ve lived—using my body as my own laboratory,” he says. “Years ago, I took 100 pills a day for everything under the sun and felt like crap. Now I go through life with a wellness approach of being active and eating well. I’ve gotten off carbs, I follow a paleo diet and I eat a lot of greens. My energy is better, and I jump out of bed feeling great.”

Supplement Skeptics

While there is no denying that supplements can create a lucrative profit stream for any office, many chiropractors are still on the fence about their effectiveness. “In Defense of Food,” famed food writer Michael Pollan’s treatise on real food, states that controlled experiments seem to reveal that supplements “don’t appear to work.” Though scientists know that the vitamin C inside an orange is beneficial, isolating, extracting and ingesting that one nutrient is not nearly as effective as eating an orange. The qualitative dissonance between nutrition in whole foods and single nutrient delivery suggests that fundamental aspects of nutrition remain a mystery to science.

“Chiropractic is based on the premise that the body heals itself and it doesn’t need anything else, so I don’t think supplements play a big role,” says Jennifer Brandon, D.C., owner of The Baby Adjusters. “My main focus is getting patients to understand subluxation. Even if someone is eating an all-organic diet, [it won’t have as much of an effect] if her nervous system isn’t working. We have to make sure the power is turned on.”

For Brandon, who exercises every day and eats all organic, the idea that a good, healthy diet of real food is not enough to sustain the body is ridiculous. “I think that old idea that the soil we grow our foods in is not good enough is a bunch of bunk,” she says. “If you prescribe supplements, you’re doing a disservice to the patient because they don’t realize it’s the adjustment that’s helped them. They revert to thinking that health comes out of a bottle. Chiropractic is vitalistic because it comes from the inside out, so to have these supplement makers out there saying that you on your own are not as healthy as you should be, that goes against our logic.”

Finding the Right Doctor

Another concern about supplements is that patients can be left feeling used in the selling process. Visits where supplements are prescribed can become prohibitively expensive, to the point where patients get discouraged and stop going. “When you add in lab analysis and checking blood levels, the costs really start to [add up],” says Parker. “The body knows what it needs—it has a pharmacy inside. If you make lots and lots of supplement changes it takes the attention away from the nervous system.”

Additional problems arise when a patient states that he or she is uncomfortable or unwilling to take supplements. If a patient expresses reservations and the doctor pushes the supplement anyway, the situation can become awkward and uncomfortable, leaving the patient feeling badgered and abused for the sake of profit. For patients who are new to Chiropractic and on the fence about its healing power, an overemphasis on supplements can undermine their confidence about the profession since the doctor seems unclear about what causes healing.

“I know lots of chiropractors who take and swear by miles of pills every day,” says Parker, “but you need to find a doctor you trust. If someone makes you uncomfortable, run like hell—you’re in the wrong place. If a patient is resistant to something because of how it’s presented, maybe the doctor is not communicating very well. [Patients don’t want] to be in a position where they feel uncomfortable because they are being sold. If you are a doctor and you are selling supplements just to make money, you need to rethink your business model and remember what is right for the health of the patient.”

When finding a chiropractor, Brandon recommends that potential patients call the chiropractor in question and ask if they sell supplements, find out who takes them and ask if they care for patients who don’t want supplements. “I’ve definitely had patients who felt their previous doctors’ primary concern was making money from the supplements they sell,” she says. “You are doing a disservice to patients if you do not let them know ahead of time whether or not supplements are a part of your practice.”

When it comes to young chiropractors just starting out, Koch recommends keeping it simple. “Make sure you give a life-changing adjustment and create a culture of professionalism,” he says. “Be a professor and a teacher, but make sure your primary service is the chiropractic check-up with adjustments, as needed. Then, when your patients come to you, telling you how much Chiropractic and you have enhanced their lives, you will have the privilege of reminding them, ‘It’s your own innate intelligence causing you to function so much better; all I did was adjust you.’”

Though supplements remain a controversial subject among chiropractors, scientists, medical doctors, nutritionists and consumers alike, for decades individual nutrients and foods like eggs, coffee, wine, gluten, carbs and red meat have fallen in and out of favor with the slightest turn of a fad or scientific study. When faced with such stark uncertainties in the food wars, Koch goes back to the single greatest piece of nutritional advice he knows, which he read on the side of a box of Wheaties when he was 10 years old: “For good nutrition, eat a wide variety of foods daily.”