In an ideal world, we would get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients we need from whole foods without having to take concentrated amounts of these substances in pill or capsule form. This was possible 100 or even 50 years ago when our foods were grown on fertile soils, were unrefined an unprocessed, and contained all the nutrients nature intended them to contain.
Unfortunately, our foods are more processed and refined than they used to be, they are loaded with residues of pesticides and other toxic chemicals (including hormones and antibiotics fed to livestock), and as evidenced by this 40-year USDA study, they contain 38% fewer nutrients than they used to. In an effort to increase production and output while cutting costs, we have drastically lowered the nutritional value of virtually all foods by destroying essential vitamins, minerals and enzymes our bodies need to assimilate and absorb these nutrients. These deficiencies in our foods lead to deficiencies in our bodies. Even organic and biodynamic farming cannot yet compensate for our decades of agricultural and environmental abuses.
The same environmental pollutants that deplete our foods are depleting our bodies through the air we breathe and the water we drink and bathe with. These pollutants are altering our body chemistries and compromising our immune systems. To add to the challenge, the demands placed on our bodies by the environment and lifestyles we have created have had a negative impact on our mental stress levels. And we now know that chronic or prolonged mental stress leads to increased physical stress and is a major contributing factor to many serious degenerative diseases.
In order for us to achieve and maintain good health, our bodies must be in a state of balance or homeostasis. The various factors described above all contribute to a state of imbalance and inefficiency indicative of nutritional deficiencies. In order to address dysfunction in the body and optimize our health we need to bring the body back into balance by identifying and correcting these deficiencies through diet and supplementation so that normal function may be restored and the body can regain the ability to heal itself.
Although many of the nutrients we determine to be deficient may be obtained from eating natural, whole, unprocessed foods, many others must be obtained from nutritional supplements which come in the forms of tablets, capsules, liquids and powders. Therefore, supplementation is essential to the success of any healthy lifestyle change. For people attempting to improve their health through exercise, the need for supplementation is even greater because the body is being asked to perform at a higher level and even moderate exercise produces a certain amount of stress and free radicals within the body.
For those who are reluctant to begin “popping pills”, look at the alternative. Would you rather voluntarily take natural supplements now to address and prevent imbalances or be faced later with having to take the little red and blue pills full of synthetic additives and preservatives for your hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, or other degenerative or life-threatening conditions? Besides, have you ever considered how many different chemicals you ingest every day from consuming processed and refined foods? Incidentally, those little red and blue pills (pharmaceuticals) contain plenty of chemicals and toxins themselves. Pharmaceuticals are not intended for prevention, they are intended to correct a condition or disorder that has usually manifested itself as a result of a lack of preventive efforts.
Another concern or complaint about nutritional supplements is that they are not regulated. This is simply not true. Under the Dietary Supplememnt Health and Safety Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the FDA has full authority to remove a dietary supplement from the market if it is deemed to be unsafe. The funny thing is the FDA has even broader control over pharmaceutical medications and yet they have proven far more dangerous than dietary supplements. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) filed a Report on Dietary Supplements in 2013 indicating that from 2008 to 2011 the FDA received 6, 307 Adverse Event Reports (AERs) for dietary supplements. These AERs are filed when a consumer has been injured or hospitalized from the use of a dietary supplement. In that same timeframe, there were 2,739,611 AERs received for pharmaceutical drugs. That’s quite a disparity, wouldn’t you say? That means you are 434 times more likely to be harmed by pharmaceutical drugs than by dietary supplements. Not to mention that over half of all drugs approved by the FDA are eventually taken off the market for safety concerns. So which do you think—supplements or drugs—are the greater health concern?
When it comes to supplements, there is something in the naturopathic world called “The 4 Pillars.” These are: 1) multi-vitamin/mineral; 2) antioxidants; 3) essential fatty acids (EFA’s); and 4) probiotics. Although some manufacturers now combine all four into one or two pills, I don’t recommend taking them this way. Generally, quality and absorption are sacrificed when too many compounds are bound together. It’s one thing to include extra antioxidants with a multi, but EFA’s and probiotics are not easily bound together because of their more unstable and perishable nature. I do happen to agree with the idea of the four pillars. I just think it’s less effective to bind them all together.
So why these four? The multi is the broad spectrum supplement that covers the basic vitamins and minerals our body needs to function properly. The antioxidants are the extra insurance that protects us against free radical cells that can lead to cancer, the leading cause of death. Essential fatty acids are called essential because our bodies are unable to manufacture these fats, yet we need them for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are hormone production and proper brain and heart function. And probiotics support a healthy gut flora, which is the foundation of our digestive and immune systems.
There are other supplements I commonly recommend to people, but they are designed to address more specific needs and health issues. The idea behind taking anything beyond the 4 pillars is to get your body back to a state of balance until the body can maintain that balance on it’s own. Although in some cases, such as certain hormonal imbalances, you may need to take them for life if you want to stay healthy.
By far the most important of the issues for which supplements can be very helpful and often necessary are gastrointestinal disorders such as acid reflux, gas and bloating after eating, or bowel issues. Because if your gut isn’t right, no amount of healthy food or supplements are going to fix your health. It all starts in the gut. After the GI issues have been addressed, you can prioritize others and work on them one at a time or several at a time, depending on what your body can handle. And that is a common mistake—taking on too many issues at once and overwhelming the body, which can be very counterproductive. To help you figure this out, it is best to meet with a nutritional consultant or naturopath.
So the next question is: “Does brand matter?” The short answer is YES! While the temptation is to buy the cheapest brand because you figure, “vitamin C is vitamin C, right?”, consider the fact that—just like foods—all supplements are not created equal. There are some exceptions, but generally when it comes to supplements you get what you pay for. The key differences between good and bad supplements are absorption and truth-in-labeling. The cheaper brands tend to contain unbalanced formulations and inferior binders that make absorption more difficult or inefficient (i.e., you pee out more than you absorb). They also tend to use more fillers, many of which come with unpleasant or harmful side effects. These brands are also famous for misleading labels, which can mean the product may not contain the amount of the active ingredient indicated.
Product prices are generally based on how much it costs to research, manufacture and market the product. The reason the pharmaceutical industry gets such a bad rap is because the trend there is to spend more and more money on marketing and less on research and quality ingredients. This is beginning to happen in the nutritional supplement industry as well. Too many corners are cut in the effort to rack up margins.
The higher quality brands are usually the ones that contain the highest quality ingredients and don’t spend as much money on marketing their products in the mainstream. In fact, the highest quality supplement manufacturers are typically distributed through health care professionals in order to cut down on marketing and advertising expenses and distribute the supplements more responsibly.
If you prefer to go “over-the-counter” and you want a factor besides price to consider when determining the quality of a particular brand, at the minimum look for the “GMP” logo on the label. This indicates the manufacturer is complying with the “Good Manufacturing Practices” standard of quality control. GMP requirements cover many aspects of quality control, not the least of which are submitting to random independent lab testing and clearly defining and documenting manufacturing processes to ensure consistency and compliance with specifications.
Hopefully, this has given you a greater understanding and appreciation of why nutritional supplementation is so important and why it is essential to use only the highest quality supplements money can buy. Nutritional supplementation is an essential and necessary part of any nutritional lifestyle change. You may never be able to achieve that state of balance and optimum health without them. If you have any questions or concerns with regard to your supplement recommendations, do not hesitate to discuss them with your nutritional consultant.