The truth about supplements

Every so often, the media starts a new round of nay-saying about vitamins. “Spend your money on food instead”, says a Feb 2006 article in Consumer Reports. “Supplements can actually cause harm”, says a November 2007 article in Reader’s Digest. They’re taking a healthy practice out of context to sell magazines.

In the face of unavoidable environmental stress, all animals — including humans — need more concentrated forms of certain nutrients than they can get in their daily diet, in order to not just survive but thrive. Wildlife provides ample evidence of this need. Deer browse on vitamin C–rich pine needles to bolster their immune systems and clean out the by-products of the fat metabolism that keeps them alive throughout the winter. Bears seek the antioxidants, vitamins, and other phyto-nutrients in wild berries, even though it takes hours to gather just a couple of cups’ worth. Mountain goats are crazy for thimbleberry leaves one week, and a week later they prefer the mouldy bark of a dead Ponderosa pine. These are all concentrated sources of nutrients that are not present in the things they eat for daily survival and, with the exception of the berries, they’re not particularly palatable or a good source of calories. But the animals seek them out, not for the taste, but in response to the inner wisdom of their own bodies. They’re scratching a nutritional itch.

Modern life has shrouded that inner wisdom for you, while at the same time it’s increased your stress immensely. So, now more than ever, you need concentrated forms of certain nutrients to help you cope. The problem is, some supplements are thrown into the market with little thought for the purity and potency of what goes inside. Many are synthetic, and therefore molecularly foreign to your cells. But when I search for the well-designed studies of supplements that really contain what their labels say they contain, in forms the human body can recognize and utilize, there’s solid evidence proving the benefits of taking supplemental vitamins.

For example: Alzheimer’s disease is so common that more than 50 per cent of the population has it by age 85, with the typical global loss of gray matter in the brain; but in healthy adults, the greater the supplemental intake of vitamins B6 and B12, the greater the volume of gray matter. These benefits relate specifically to getting your vitamin B6 and B12 in supplement form, not from food.

In a Harvard study of over 35,000 female health professionals, the risk of cataracts significantly declined with an increased intake of vitamin E, lutein, and zeaxanthin. And, among people who have age-related macular degeneration , taking supplemental zinc along with the antioxidant vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene significantly prevents oxidative damage to the retina.

In nursing home residents, six months of taking a multivitamin improved bone density and helped lower the number of falls by 63 per cent. In another study, 54 per cent of nursing home residents had vitamin D levels below normal, suggesting a higher risk for fractures. And the vitamin D level was unaffected by exposure to sunlight or drinking “vitamin D&” milk. As it turns out, 80 per cent of vitamin D supplement users had normal vitamin D status, compared to only 37 per cent of non-users.

Furthermore, as your vitamin D levels increase, your resistance to disease increases. Research that discredits this powerful benefit doesn’t specify what kind of vitamin D was used. Minor detail? Major. It’s vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol, that protects you against the pathogens that try to cross your mucosal barriers. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is less well utilized by your body. And dose? The standard recommendation of 400 IU is way too low. I shoot for 1,000 to 4,000 IU daily.

Your commitment to regularly taking the right dosage of the right supplements also significantly lowers your cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. In an enormous study of middle- to upper-age men, higher vitamin C intake was associated with a 42 per cent reduction in risk of stroke. In fact, increasing your daily intake of vitamin C by just 30 mg, vitamin E by just 30 IU, and beta-carotene by just 3,000 IU is enough to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.

Even Harvard and Mayo Clinic researchers are believers in the value of taking supplemental nutrients. But to me here’s the big issue. You need the right nutrients, in the right dosages, and in the right formulations, to get the pure benefits. So, choosing how to meet your supplement needs is a big, complicated responsibility, and while I’m a big believer in everybody being their own personal health care provider, I’m also a realist. That’s why I contribute to Zwell’s Health & Zwellness newsletters. The scope of my training and experience gives me great contacts within the research community, and allows me to see what works and what doesn’t, to keep up with the science, and to keep an eye on the production end of things so I know which formulations can be trusted.

Based on all that, I make recommendations about what supplements you need, why, where to get them, and how to take them. I’ve dedicated my professional life to making judgments like these on your behalf. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot, and your health is too important to let it be determined by chance.

So here’s the bottom line. Start with a top-quality multi-nutrient, designed for someone your age. That becomes your foundation. Seal that foundation with selected nutrients according to your situation — whether that’s a health concern, personal or family history, or simply your sex.

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The content and opinions expressed in this article are the professional and/or personal view or opinion of the author only. Opinions expressed should not be construed as medical advice, and the article’s content is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional medical care and diagnosis. Individuals should always consult with their health care provider before beginning or changing any treatment program.

Photo © fred hall

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