Q&A: Supplements

The Question:

I would be really grateful if you could write at some point about vitamin and mineral supplements. The reason I ask is because of the negative press recently about vitamins. I have tried to do some research myself using the Internet, and I think the research that has been done on links between vitamins and cancer is scary. It seems that super-vitamins are the real worry, but I am now not sure if my family should continue to take the usual multivitamin we all take each day.

I came on your seminar a couple of years ago and found it a great help; your logic about overeating makes good sense to me. Since the seminar, I have read every newsletter and each one has been extremely interesting – but to my knowledge I don’t think you have recently written your thoughts about taking vitamins.

My Answer:

I’m not in a position to say whether or not ‘multi’ vitamin and mineral supplements – super or otherwise – actually cause harm, because I don’t know any more than you do about that, from the press. I don’t take them because I believe they make no contribution to my health, and there’s considerable evidence to support that. So it’s same result – not buying them – but for different reasons.

Here are some of the problems with all of those ‘multi’ supplements, quite apart from whether or not they are actually harmful.

Each individual item of real food contains thousands of elements that work together in teams, in ways that aren’t even fully understood. Just two of countless examples would be vitamin A needing omega-3 fatty acids and zinc before it can be assimilated, and vitamin K2 required to move calcium into your bones.

It’s impossible to keep track of all those interactions – but you don’t need to when you eat a wide range of real food. For example, you’ll be ‘supplementing’ K2 whenever you eat butter made from grass-fed cows. ‘Multi’ vitamins and minerals contain perhaps thirty or forty elements, so not even close to the magnificent magic in the real things.

There are, however, some specific vitamins and minerals that are so commonly deficient, that supplementation might be valid. For example, I take 400mg of chelated magnesium per day. The four tablets are quite a size, though; if you crushed them up they would fill a tablespoon. A ‘one-a-day multi’ couldn’t possibly include enough to make any difference at all. In addition, it’s likely to contain an inferior – and useless – form, in that it’s not chelated.

I find the magnesium makes a huge difference to my energy levels throughout the day. I know this because I’ve run out of it in the past and lost energy, and I understand that a great many people are deficient due to depleted levels in our soils.

Many people, especially all of us in rain-soaked England, are deficient in vitamin D, as it’s mostly created by the interaction of the sun on our skin and the cholesterol under it. Again, the form is important and I’ve recently discovered that vitamin D isn’t really one thing, but many. Supplementing with D3 is a very good idea, unless you’re outside a lot in fairly clear weather with skin exposed. I use a liquid form daily, and an occasional five minutes under a sun lamp isn’t a bad idea either.

It’s smart to ‘supplement’ with food as well, although maybe not every single day. For example, a few Brazil nuts for selenium, seaweed in various forms for iodine, and Himalayan or Celtic sea salt for trace minerals. As a general principle, the food is always preferable to the isolated forms, whenever possible.

By far the most researched and beneficial supplement, of course, isn’t a vitamin or a mineral, but the essential fatty acid, omega-3, which can be otherwise a bit hard to find in good quantities in our modern food.

An impressive recent study involved almost 33,000 people taking either a placebo or omega-3 fatty acids. There were a number of important findings, but one in particular caught my attention. In those who already had some, sub-clinical degree of hardened arteries, there was a 51% reduction in the incidence of heart attack for those taking omega-3s, compared with placebo. Not bad! (1)

I firmly believe that with supplements of any kind you get what you pay for. So spend your money first of all on the highest-quality omega-3s you can find. I do notice that symptoms associated with systemic inflammatory improve from my omega-3 capsules, but this will also be related to many other “lifestyle choices” which could be pro- or anti-inflammatory.

It’s ideal, of course, if you really do feel better as a result of taking a supplement, but this isn’t necessarily the case. I can’t say I feel different when I take D3; I do so because of the research. The only other way to know about specific nutrients to supplement would be to test, and most people don’t do that unless they are ill, and even then probably not.

There are three quite hefty books on nutrition I’m currently reading, and each one has a chapter on supplementation. I’ve referred to all three in writing the above, but if you’re interested, you can take a look yourself:

  • Perfect Health Diet (2012) Paul Jaminet, PhD
  • Your Personal Paleo Code (2013) Chris Kresser, MS, LAc
  • Primal Body, Primal Mind (2011) Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT

All of these authors have web sites with generous amounts of information on nutrition, if you don’t want to buy the books or want to check them out first. And if you put their names into a search engine, you’ll find even more.

NOTES
1. Meta-analysis associates supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids with lower risk of death from all causes over follow-up. Wen YT, Dai JH (2013) Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases  (epub ahead of print)

Comments

  1. clairecrosby306@gmail.com'Claire Crosby

    Thanks very much for your reply to my question Gillian.

    As always, your thoughts make good sense and are backed up by research. The results of the omega-3s study is impressive. As someone who often lacks energy, I will be trying out your advice about magnesium.

    Thanks again,
    Claire

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