Synergy in Nutritional Supplements

Using Synergy as A Key Criteria
To Evaluate Supplements

Synergy in nutritional supplements refers to the combined effect of the individual ingredients - a sum which is more powerful than the sum of the individual ingredients by themselves.

Synergy in nutritional supplements is rarely considered when comparing supplements because it’s a complex issue which supplement consumers know virtually nothing about.

The Head Formulator or Head Scientist at a supplement company has to understand how the active nutrients are going to reach their target cells; through which metabolic pathways and what molecular changes may take place on the way to the cells, due to the exposure of enzymes and stomach acids.

He/she also has to understand the interaction of all the nutrients present and what co-factors to incorporate in the formula to ensure synergy and thus maximum efficacy. This is a highly specialized skill.

When multipal ingredients are combined in a formula they either, work synergistically together and enhance each other, or, they remain neutral or, in some cases, cancel each other out. Therefore a professional supplement company must be sure its research and development is focused on ensuring:

  • All ingredients are examined at molecular level for positive interactions to enhance their effectiveness and to ensure no potentially harmful substances are produced.

  • Individual ingredients are only used in amounts that have no potential to do harm. High doses of Vitamin C in ascorbic acid form, for example, can do more harm than good, due to the generation of additional free radicals (pro-oxidents).

  • formulas only contain raw ingredients that are PROVEN to be safe and effective.

Synergy is a major factor influencing the efficacy and value for money of a supplement and as such needs to be considered by consumers even if only from a simple perspective.

There is one straightforward way you can factor in synergy when evaluating and comparing nutritional supplements.

But first, we need to discuss some 'synergy basics'. Starting with this question:

‘Why would a doctor/physician never be hired by a pharmaceutical company to develop a new drug?’ 

Answer:    Because they wouldn't have the expertise to do it!

Doctors are trained to diagnose illness and prescribe appropriate treatments but they do not have the specialized training to formulate drugs nor professional grade nutritional health supplements. 

Medical students receive very little (around 4 hours) training in nutrition and alternative medicine within 4 years of study, and none of that deals with nutritional supplements. There is no ‘Preventative Medicine’ curriculum. 

My point here is that the supplement industry has numerous “doctor formulated” supplements. As I have said throughout this site - a majority of supplements are ultimately created by marketers according to the ‘marketability’ of certain ‘in vogue’ nutrients and apparent market needs. 

I have no hesitation in referring to the majority of doctors who formulate or approve supplements as marketers.

Paying for a doctors’ input does not improve a supplement. The use of a doctors’ name or picture in an attempt to gain credibility is nothing short of taking advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge and ability to evaluate the claims of manufacturers and supplement suppliers.

Some doctors formulate their own range of supplements! While supplements are concerned with the preventative side of disease the medical profession is essentially trained for the treatment side – dare I say 'more profit in that'! 

So where did doctors learn to formulate supplements???

Additional post graduate training? Show me their specialist degrees (from the list below) and make a believer out of me.

That’s not to say that some progressive doctors don’t study up on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a treatment. But the majority is reluctant to discuss CAM with patients due to a lack of education. (1)

How willing do you think your doctor would be to discuss supplement use as a treatment option?

Doctors and ‘other’ marketers do not understand the synergistic effects of various nutrients; the metabolic pathways they follow nor how they will react with body fluids and natural chemicals in your body. This is a highly specialized science (bio-chemistry).

They hear that a particular nutrient is “really good” for this or that and then another nutrient is also “really good” and so they figure that if they put them together in a supplement they must be doubly good! 

Sorry, that’s not how it works.

Formulators and 'Formulators'

Scientists who create the formulas for supplements are called formulators. In the supplement industry there are real formulators and then there are the 'others'.

Some, who have what might be termed a ‘minimum set of qualifications’ and work for the somewhat bigger, more well known companies, think it’s just a case of selecting a range of ingredients which have been established by science to produce therapeutic effects within your body. So long as they have the studies in hand to back the use of these ingredients they believe all is well!


Those with fledgling qualifications do not have the necessary depth of knowledge to fully understand the mechanism of action - how certain ingredients interact in the body, which molecular structure changes take place, what reactions occur and which new chemicals are created. 

There are also factors such as adverse reactions with prescription drugs or the physiology of the supplement consumer to consider?

Then we have Cofactors

The use of the right cofactors requires specialized scientific know-how.

Explained in a simple sense, cofactors are molecules which allow enzymes to create metabolic reactions in order that other nutrients can make themselves available for utilization by the body. 

Formulators must know the cofactors for the various ingredients used in supplements. This knowledge helps ensure optimal absorption and metabolism of various nutrients.

Even the most unqualified of formulators can find out which cofactors to include for basic vitamin and minerals!

Here they are:


Cofactors needed for assimilation

Vitamin A

Choline, essential fatty acids, zinc, vitamins C, D, and E.

Vitamin B complex

Calcium, vitamins C and E.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

Manganese, vitamin B complex, vitamins C and E.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Vitamin B complex, vitamin C.

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Vitamin B complex, vitamin C.

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)

Vitamin B complex, vitamins A, C and E.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Potassium, vitamin B complex, vitamin C.


Folic acid, vitamin B complex, vitamin B5


Vitamin B complex, vitamin B12, folic acid, Inositol.


Vitamin B complex, vitamin C.


Vitamin B complex, folic acid, vitamin C.

Vitamin C

Bioflavonoids, calcium, magnesium.

Vitamin D

Calcium, choline, essential fatty acids, phosphorus.

Vitamin E

Essential fatty acids, manganese, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin B1, Inositol, vitamin C

Essential fatty acids

Vitamins A, C, D, and E.

Source: (2)

But when it comes to more complex herbals, amino acids and phytonutrients it’s a different story.

In fact the bio-scientist who I have access to would not divulge this information – it’s a closely guarded secret.

This is the type of expertise you are paying for when you purchase the industry's best, professional standard supplements - this is why they work so well compared to their competitors.

Yet another area that must be fully understood involves ingredients which cancel each other out or compete against one to hinder absorption – minerals being a good case in point.

Without the correct training, qualifications and years of experience the end result is a grossly overpriced supplement that offers little in the way of benefits to the user but lots of profit for the formulators and suppliers. Supermarket shelves, health food stores and internet websites are full of these.

Here’s a simple example. 

Two popular herbs - Macca and Muria Puma are commonly included in supplements aimed at increasing sexual desire in men and women. What the formulators don’t know (or choose to ignore) is that because of their differing alkaloid content these two herbs cancel a large proportion of each other out! 

A properly trained, ethical scientist would never include Macca and Muria Puma in the same product.


When it comes to multi nutrient supplements containing 30, 50, 80 or more ingredients, synergy becomes a major, major issue. The ingredients must be selected, based on a thorough understanding of their combined synergistic reactions, in order to create a powerful and effective synergy.

"…studies have established that the correct combination of active ingredients can increase the efficacy of the individual components by as much as fifteen times." (2)

Synergy in nutritional supplements is an intangible factor which separates professional level supplements from the rest. Since you’ll pay substantially more for this how can you be sure that the synergy is really there? 

‘The proof is in the pudding'.

Leading, well known multi nutrient supplements work – that’s why they’re well known, popular and lead the market. You can confirm the presence of synergy through the following common results: 

  • Your energy levels increase and stay more consistent
  • You stop catching colds, flu’s and viruses
  • Your skin tone improves
  • You sleep more soundly
  • Individual health ‘quirks’ disappear or start reducing
  • You feel calmer and more at ease

If after 3 - 6 months you don’t experience similar results then I recommend you change brands. 


Now we’ve come to the crux of this article!! 

If you want to rest assured that the type, form and amount of each ingredient in your supplement have been safely pre-selected based on a thorough understanding of its synergistic effects with the other ingredients, then you need to check the background credentials of the scientist(s) involved in its formulation. 

Those credentials should full in line with the disciplines listed below!

Due to the chemical relationship of synergy in nutritional supplements, most highly qualified and renowned formulators possess a pharmaceutical background. So keep an eye open for degrees in Pharmacology; experience in the pharmaceutical industry; or development of pharmaceutical medicines.

Here is a typical range of qualifications and experience which a professional formulator will have.

Experience in disciplines such as:

  • Food Technology
  • Biotechnology
  • Microbiology
  • Cellular biology
  • Herbology
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Naturopathic Medicine
  • Environmental processes
  • Complementary Medicine
  • Pharmacology

And qualifications in the form of multiple university degrees:

  • Biochemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Organic chemistry
  • Clinical microbiology
  • Microbial-Chemistry
  • Physiological Chemistry
  • Clinical Chemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Food Science/Food technology
  • Nutritional Science
  • Natural Products
  • Homeopathic Medicine
  • Molecular/Cellular Physiology

Other important credentials:

  • Extensive research work
  • Published author of books & scientific research papers
  • Holder of patents
  • Development of pharmaceutical and complementary medicine products

Let's Sum Up

To use synergy as a criteria to evaluate and compare supplements you need to take a quick look at the qualifications and extent of scientific background of the chief formulators.

This is not hard to do and really helps you to know just how good a supplement really is! But don’t be surprised if you can’t get your hands on this information.

Many supplement companies have things to hide!

If this happens, change brands!

There aren’t many bio-scientists around with the necessary level of experience and expertise to formulate the best vitamin / health supplements that nutritional science and bio-chemistry allows. Most of those that do are unfortunately working in the pharmaceutical industry. 

How can you check qualifications?

Reputable companies will provide this information on their websites. Use the site search function. The leading companies also provide an on-line ‘ask a question’ service so use this to request the information. Otherwise just send off an email. If a company refuses to supply you with any reasonable information about their formulators and/or research and development personal, I think that should raise a red flag for you.

Ok,  that brings us to the end of this topic. The take home message is simply this:  Synergy in nutritional supplements is a factor worth considering when making informed decisions about which supplements to use.

I invite you to our next Supplement Evaluation Criteria:

Vitamin supplement manufacturers standards 


  1. Corbin Winslow L and Shapiro H. Physicians want education about complementary and alternative medicine to enhance communication with their patients Arch Intern Med 2002; 162: 1176-1181

  2. Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Third Edition. 2000. 1: 7

  3. Xtend-Life newsletter archives. Article “The biggest boost for overall health and well-being... ever! PART 2”, issue April 14th, 2004

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