Why should I take supplements?
- Over 20 years of research has shown the positive effects of taking regular supplements, disproving the notion that they are merely ingredients for expensive urine.
- Whilst a varied, nutrient dense diet is 100% vital to sustain life, sometimes it’s not enough.
- Nutrient deficiencies effect at least a known 2 billion people globally.
- Our nutritional requirements are as unique as our bodies.
In 1992, Victor Herbert, a nutrition scientist was quoted in Time magazine for saying that vitamins resulted in “expensive urine.”
Unfortunately, since this was published, many sceptics have been using this out-dated and inaccurate quote in an attempt to brandish supplement use as a pointless effort despite the thousands of research papers proving this to be untrue.
It is of course crucial that we all get a well balanced nutrient dense diet first and foremost. However, research is constantly showing us time and time again that often this is not enough, and we must supplement vitamins and minerals to avoid deficiency. We are all individual with different requirements as made evident by the study of genetics. Eating a whole food, varied diet and the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables can still sometimes fall short, but the majority of Brits do not even meet these basic standards. A typical western diet does not provide adequate nutrients to support against deficiency.
Nutrient content in produce is falling short in the UK and Europe as outlined in this food composition report. Nutrient depletion can increase with over farming, food preparation and the time it takes to get from plant to plate. Some people, genetically or through disease, struggle to digest and absorb the nutrients from the foods they eat. We know that deficiencies can lead to diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. We need macro and micro nutrients for the human body to perform metabolic functions and this population study shows that, at the very least, 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiency.
Pregnant women and growing children are most at risk of deficiencies. This is because they need to account not only for their baseline needs but their bodies are under a higher demand and need extra for growth and development support.
Most of this post will be talking about the basic vitamins and minerals in supplementation, however it’s easy to forget the range of supplements that exist. In some cases, taking supplements may be better than the food ingredient. The prime example is of course turmeric. In food, turmeric is not very absorbable, but concentrated curcumin and addition of pipperine can scale up the impact and bio-availability enormously.
Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness. Sometimes, an individuals personal eating preferences may influence our requirements. For example, one of the greatest sources of vitamin A is beef liver. You may be thinking that vitamin A, for a vegan is easy to get because of it’s abundance in carrots, sweet potatoes and other vegetables however this is not necessarily the case. Plant sources of vitamin A contain only precursors in the form of carotenoids which need to be converted to retinol. Retinol is bio-available, and so the body can use it. You need a large amount of carotene containing foods to be converted to retinol. For example, you would need to consume 4.5lbs of carrots to get the same amount as a 3oz (palm sized) portion of liver. On top of this, a huge degree of the population actually genetically (BC01 gene) cannot absorb vitamin A. As vitamin A is fat soluble, it helps to consider consuming fat containing foods.
The WHO have identified that 250 million children worldwide are most effected by vitamin A deficiency. Deficiency can lead to night blindness, eventual blindness, dry eyes, growth defects and increased infections.
A group of water soluble vitamins which is urinated out rather than stored may initially prompt you to think of “expensive urine”. However, the body needs B vitamins to convert food into energy, regulate hormones, for cognitive function, liver detoxification, DNA synthesis and much, much more. The typical RNI (recommended nutrient intake) for B vitamins are as follows:
Vitamin B1 – 1.1mg
Vitamin B2 – 1.4mg
Vitamin B3 – 16mg
Vitamin B5 – 6mg
Vitamin B6 – 1.4mg
Vitamin B7 (Biotin) – 50mcg
Vitamin B9 (Folate) – 200mcg
The RNI for folic acid has just this year been announced to be due for increase and to be fortified to flour products to ensure adequate intake in the population. This may not be positive news due to the form of folate being used (folic acid). Read here to find out more about folic acid.
Vitamin B12 – 25mcg
It is undeniable that B12 is the most important vitamin for those who do not consume animal products. B12 can only be found in animal products or fortified in nutritional yeasts so for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet, supplementing with B12 is crucial. B12 is needed for reduction in fatigue and red blood cell production. Pernicious anaemia is an autoimmune condition whereby the stomach attacks itself and is unable to produce intrinsic factor which is needed for the absorption of B12. Many neuro-degenerative disorders such as dementia can be a result of the deterioration of myelin sheeths, (the tissue that allows nerve impulses – which B12 supports).
When looking to supplement with B12, always look for products that contain the forms methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin or a combination of both. Taking B12 in liquid or powder form under the tongue can often be the optimal way to absorb it. Vitamin B12 is needed in a process of methylation too, a process which genetically, 70% of the population have a reduced ability to perform.
The above dose amounts outlined in the RNI are suggested for people to aim to meet in order to survive but not necessarily to thrive, and doesn’t account for people with deficiencies. From a naturopathic perspective, these quantities are considerably low.
“There is evidence of low vitamin D status in adults and older children, both male and female which has implications for bone health: in particular increased risk of rickets and osteomalacia” (the national diet and nutrition survey 2010-2015). It is estimated that around 10 million people in the UK are vitamin D deficient and it is important to know your levels. Vitamin D is crucial for the immune system, bone mineral turn over and the balancing of hormones, being classed a hormone in itself. Despite a very limited amount of vitamin D in mushrooms, the type of mushrooms they are present in are not your average button mushrooms found in supermarkets. We need vitamin D3, provided predominately from sunlight and synthesised in the skin. The UK isn’t known for it’s hot sunny days and in order to get the vitamin D3 you need relies on time of day, exposure of skin, and the correct location. Supplementation of vitamin D, I believe, is the best way to make sure you’re getting enough.
The UK RNI for vitamin D3 for an average adult is 800iu per day. Some, who believe in a holistic approach to health would go as high as 4000iu a day; some even higher. Remember the body is constantly striving for balance, more is not always better but you have to take responsibility for your own health and seek what is necessary for you as an individual.
You can always get your vitamin D levels tested via a 25-hydroxyvitaminD blood test with the GP or privately with a lab such as Thriva.com. From a naturopathic standpoint, if your levels are below 80nmol/L then you may wish to consider supplementation to reach adequate amounts. As always, please express any concerns about your own health with a healthcare professional.
“There is evidence of iron-deficiency anaemia and low iron stores in a proportion of adult women and older girls. This is in line with findings from previous surveys and does have health implications for these groups” (the national diet and nutrition survey 2010-2015). According to the WHO, iron deficiency affects 1.5 billion people globally. 141 million of this are in Europe alone.
Iron is mostly associated with anaemia, and this is because globally, anaemia effects more people than any other health problem.
Iron is one mineral that is required in balance. Too much or too little iron can cause damage to your body. Men are at a greater risk of developing iron toxicty than women because of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Iron remains in the body otherwise so if you suspect an iron deficiency or considering supplementation, always seek advice and test levels first.
Iodine deficiency is the leading cause for preventable brain damage in children. Iodine is needed for thyroid function and the growth and development of children. In may of last year, the WHO wrote an article expressing delight that they are on their way to defeating iodine deficiency by their use of adding iodine to salt. Whilst this is still good news, table salt is not healthy for the human body. It is from sodium chloride which mimics the taste of real salt. The natural salt is heated at temperatures as 1200 degrees fahrenheit resulting in loss of 80 essential minerals. Table salt contains toxic chemicals, anti-caking agents and excipients harmful to the body. Even the iodine added to the salt is synthetic and not in it’s natural form. One of the best ways to get a good source of iodine is through sea vegetables such as wakame, arame or kelp.
Like with iron, iodine requires balance. Those who suffer from hypothyroidism are quick to supplement with iodine. However, as the thyroid is the only tissue in the body to absorb iodine, you must check your iodine levels and seek medical advice as sometimes iodine can turn a hypothyroid individual into a hyperthyroid sufferer.
Research suggests that an astounding 80% of the population are magnesium deficient, with millions unaware. With magnesium being responsible for over 300 metabolic processes in the body, we cannot afford to be so low in such an important mineral. Magnesium deficiency is easy to miss because only 1% is stored in blood. Certain factors can promote magnesium deficiency such as alcohol, which impairs the ability of the kidneys to reserve magnesium. The body preserves serum magnesium at the expense of magnesium in cells and bone, so serum levels may appear normal in magnesium deficiency. Magnesium requires both parathyroid hormone and vitamin D for absorption. Theoretically, people with low vitamin D (which is indeed prevalent in the UK) or parathyroid hormone levels might be at risk for magnesium deficiency.
Sign and symptoms which may indicate a magnesium deficiency:
Twitches, tremors and muscle cramps
Loss of apetite
High blood Pressure
Studies have shown that a higher intake of magnesium is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower fasting blood glucose and insulin and low levels are associated with osteoporosis in menopausal women. Click here for more studies.
Based on the extensive research available, it is my view that supplementation of fatty acids, macro and micro nutrients are important for people to reduce their risk of developing deficiencies that may lead to life altering diseases.
Science, and our knowledge about foods and our bodies are expanding more and more and we have lots to learn. Fruit are more dynamic then the human body and science only understands 3% of it! We need to keep up to date with our knowledge whilst not forgetting that nature is usually the best answer.
We are all unique, shapes, sizes, have different eating habits, lifestyles and with an individual genetic make-up. We are all on a personal journey with our health and we need to take the reins with health goals. Don’t forget that nutrition is just one piece of a well-being puzzle. We must also balance our mind and spirit as well as keeping our bodies active and our structure aligned.
If you are concerned about your health, always seek professional advice.