Are vitamin supplements just a waste of money?
Recently there has been a wave of vitamin bashing in the media. Esteemed heads of various medical societies have been issuing dire warnings of the uselessness of consuming vitamin pills based on data from the latest studies. These same doctors are reassuring people who everything our body needs can be found in the food we eat and that buying vitamin or mineral pills is a waste of money. If you believe this, please stop reading, grab your phone and order up some fast food. Don’t forget to take your antacid, statin drug, blood pressure medication and your antidepressant. Obviously you are perfectly fine just eating the standard Canadian diet!
Now on a more serious note, nutrition is fundamental to a healthy body. Years ago I saw a young man who was very much into fitness and apparently nutrition. In fact he intimidated me a little as he reeled off the latest facts about bodybuilding and the supplements he was taking. I began to doubt I had anything of value to offer him in the area of healthy eating. His list of vitamins and minerals he was taking seemed a mile long. And yet he had health issues. So, as I do with all my patients, I asked him to complete a week-long diet diary. When he returned for his next visit I didn’t see a single vegetable or fruit on the list! That’s right, this savvy young guy hadn’t eaten a single apple or carrot or piece of lettuce all week! Flabbergasted, I questioned him on this. “Well”, he replied “I don’t need any fruits or vegetables because I have all my vitamins covered through my supplements!”
No! It doesn’t work that way! Vegetables and fruit don’t just contain a certain amount of vitamin C or A or iron, they also have hundreds of other chemicals in them that are vital for our good health. Chemicals that we haven’t even identified yet, chemicals that work together to keep up healthy and strong. Not to mention the fiber and fat and protein and carbohydrate of the vegetable or fruit that can’t be squeezed into the vitamin pill. So a healthy diet is way, way more important than the world’s best supplement protocol. The Gurus of Modern Western Medicine are quite right about that.
Here, though, is the problem. Are Western diets, and now spreading, (no pun intended), to Eastern diets, giving people what their bodies need from their food? Are humans supposed to be spherical in shape, develop diabetes, heart disease and cancer and die when they are middle-aged? Of course not. Just looking around us, we see that something has gone very wrong with our nutrition. I remember when I was a child 40 years ago, that an overweight child was a rarity. We had one overweight child in my grade 5 class and she was teased mercilessly. Now it is not uncommon for half the class to be overweight or obese. Think about your workplace. How many of the people around you actually look rested and energetic and healthy? Can they even stay awake without their morning coffee? How many women are on antidepressants? How many guys are on statins for their cholesterol? Believe it or not, with the rare exception, most of our current diseases are completely preventable. And if caught in time, completely curable. But by what? Nutrition!
In order to compensate for years of poor nutrition or to deal with a current health condition or stress in our life sometimes a jump-start is needed. By using supplements, we can get large amounts of certain vitamins or minerals or enzymes that have specific effects on the health and function of the body. An interesting fact is that genetic individuality exists for vitamins and minerals, so the vitamin D that is enough for one person’s body to work well, may not be enough for the next person. The food that we eat is often genetically modified, chemically treated, picked unripe, again chemically treated, stored and shipped for many days before we eat it and in the process it loses most of its nutrients. So supplements can boost the less than ideal nutrients in food. Acute illness, chronic illness, stress, air pollution, aging, pregnancy and breast-feeding are also indications for increased nutrients. So if you fall into one of these categories, or if you are basically healthy but you want to prevent disease, how do you know whether to supplement or not? Here are a few basic rules of thumb when making a decision about if and what to supplement:
1. Do your research. Just because your friend or relative is taking a supplement, it doesn’t mean it is right for you. Google the supplement online, read the articles and then check out the studies mentioned in the article. When researching the studies, look for the size of the study, the specific type of supplement used and who did the study. Check the authors credentials for product affiliation.
2. Know the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of the vitamin or mineral suitable for your age and gender. This is usually the dose that will prevent deficiency, but is not a treatment dose. It is a safe dose for the age and gender, but may not have much effect on the condition you are supplementing for. This brings us to the next point:
3. Know the amount that can cause toxicity. This is especially important if you have a compromised immune system, liver or kidneys.
4. If you are taking any prescription medications, check with your naturopathic doctor, or if you don’t have one, your pharmacist about interactions with supplements. Don’t ask your medical doctor. Doctors and nurses will usually tell you not to take anything with the prescribed medication. This is not necessarily because it will conflict with it, but reflects their lack of knowledge of possible supplement interactions. So they play it safe by just forbidding all natural supplements. Naturopathic doctors are extensively trained in recognizing drug/nutrient interactions, and some pharmacists have knowledge in this area too.
5. Try one supplement at a time and note any strange reactions. If you start taking a vitamin or mineral and you wake up feeling stiff or your digestion is off or there is another issue you didn’t have before, that supplement may not be right for you.
6. Liquids, chewables and capsules will always be absorbed more easily than tablets. Look out for a long list of fillers, and for supplements that seem like a “bargain”. Cheap supplements usually don’t absorb very well.
7. Keep in mind that some vitamin and mineral needs increase in pregnancy, during recovery from surgery , in times of stress and acute infections.
So, don’t believe everything you hear, good and bad, about nutritional supplements. Do your own research and listen to your body when you try them out. Above all, remember not to let your supplements substitute for a healthy diet full of vegetables and fruit.