To Supplement or Not to Supplement, That is the Question
(OR: Dietary Supplements: More than 50 Shades of Grey)
by Sarah Larson, ND, LAc
Should people take dietary supplements? There is a lot of discussion about the health benefits and risks to supplementing one’s diet with additional vitamins and minerals. I’m not talking about taking medications, that is a much different conversation. When people take a multivitamin or other dietary supplement to augment their diets, it is possible to inadvertently take more than the necessary dosage. Such over-consumption may cause further health problems.
I hold the opinion anything you can get through eating a healthy diet full of organic, fresh and locally-sourced vegetables and fruits, alongside local, organic protein options with “good” fats should be gotten that way. Consistent healthy good intake will provide nearly everything we need to maintain good general health. We have evolved to be omnivores which means we can absorb nutrients from both animal and vegetable sources. Humans have both canines and molars; different shapes of teeth for biting and tearing as well as for prolonged chewing1. Plants absorb minerals from the soil in they grow and those minerals are then passed through a healthy human gut and into the blood stream for use. Nutrients from eating animal protein are also important to optimizing health. For example, the most easily absorbed form of iron comes in the form of heme-iron which can only be found in animal flesh, though plants do provide iron as well it’s just not as easily obtained. I am not stating vegetarian or vegan diets are unhealthy, that is not the purpose of this blog, rather I am simply stating a balanced and diverse diet offers more nutrition options.
Another very important aspect to healthy intake of nutrients is good gut flora. We are finding out more each day about how varied and vitally important bacteria are to our digestion. As one of my gastroenterology professors once said, I paraphrase, “We have evolved to be the perfect host to bacteria, yeast and viruses.” A mutually beneficial relationship has certainly developed.
When we eat processed foods, from which many of the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals have been removed, we can’t make all the necessary building blocks our bodies need. There are also several diseases and side affects from medications that inhibit proper digestion which also keep people from accessing the available nutrients from food. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are often the result. Supplements may be helpful in augmenting these deficiencies. However, supplements are made by humans and not all are created equal. There are companies who synthesize products with the least expensive ingredients which may make the products less useful. For instance, magnesium, a commonly-dispensed dietary mineral, is available over the counter in many forms. The least expensive form of magnesium is magnesium oxide. However, studies have shown this to be one of the least absorbable forms of magnesium2. There is no point, from either a health or financial standpoint, to taking a supplement that the body cannot break down easily enough to be able to use.
On the other hand, I don’t believe in giving every patient a lot of supplementation. Not only does it get expensive quickly but, as I said before, optimizing nutrition by way of a healthy and diverse diet should be the primary goal. There are cases where absorbability is compromised; such as in ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease. When people can’t take in nutrients from food, supplements are often in order as the correct product should be both readily absorbable and from a trusted, reliable company. If I feel strongly a particular physician-grade product is vital and should be purchased from me, I will do my best to educate the patient as to why that is so. The opposite is also true, in the case of magnesium, however, there are several over-the-counter sources I trust and will inform patients where they may go to purchase a less costly product. Finances are an aspect of everyone’s health, so I do try to take into account the cost of supplements when creating an achievable and realistic treatment plan.
Photo courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pentog/7861259700/