You walk into a pharmacy or health shop, or you go online, and you see hundreds of vitamins, minerals and superfoods that supposedly you cannot live without. People buy them. People are then confused because they pop these pills and they do not work. So why do we use them? Why do they exist?
To clarify, I am an avid user of supplements. I advise my patients to use them. I formulate supplements. But I am strongly against the concept of cheap, irresponsible, over-the-counter supplements and the lack of training around the creation and prescription of these products.
On of the reasons supplementation is so important is that we simply do not get what we need from our food. Lots of foods these days are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some are fortified by law (e.g. white bread) and some are fortified voluntarily (e.g. breakfast cereal)because the manufacturing process removes nutrients, and also because soil fertility is poor and getting worse in the UK. The issue is these vitamins are synthetic and not well absorbed or used by the body. We don’t need folic acid, we need folate. Most of us have variations on the MTHFR gene which means our need for folate is even greater. Folic acid interferes with folate absorption. Not many practitioners or doctors know this and continue to recommend folic acid-containing supplements.
In the 21st century, many of us are eating a highly inflammatory diet, high in grains, processed foods and meat..Our food is coated in pesticides, which increases inflammation. Some of our foods are even contaminated with mycotoxinswhich are toxic metabolites produced by fungal organismscapable of causing death and disease in animals and humans. Mycotoxins can be present on foods partly due to long-term storage methods. These are not only the foods that we are eating, these are also the foods used to feed the animals and fish we buy for consumption. It’s not always easy to get grass-fed meat. So it goes all the way up the food chain. Due to human industrial activity, large amounts of airborne mercury and other heavy metals end up in lakes, rivers and the ocean and ends up being ingested or absorbed by small organisms and working its way up the food chain. Carnivorous fish are especially high in heavy metals.
Water is depleted of minerals and our tap water is full of chemicals, oestrogen from the contraceptive pill and limescale. On a daily basis, we are exposed to plastics, chemicals like pesticides and petrol, and subtler stressors like blue light andWi-Fi. These environmental factors exacerbate the effects ofstress,affect our sleep patterns and together provide immunological challenges from every angle, triggering an inflammatory response. We travel more (and so does our food, which means that by the time our produce reaches us it’s lost most of its nutritional value.As we age we absorb less from our food.
We expose our microbiome to countless challenges, including pharmaceutical drugs, stress, infection, inflammatory and processed foods and social toxins such as alcohol.
We are deficient in fat-soluble vitamins due to malabsorption in the small intestine, we are deficient in minerals, B vitamins, zinc and stomach acid secretions from stress, we are deficient in vitamin D from lack of sunlight, we are deficient in omega 3 fats from eating an inflammatory diet. We have multiple deficiencies from medication depletions. Appropriate supplementation enables us to offset some of these issues.
Sadly, buying anything over the counter is usually a waste of money. Most of these supplements are cheap, do not contain bioavailable nutrients and may contain contaminants and heavy metals. Quality is important, which is why it’s worth investing in good quality supplements and seeking advice from a trained and qualified professional. Most herbalists are not trained in how to use supplements. If a nutritionist is not trained in nutrigenomics and if they do not have a good understanding of different forms of nutrients available, they will not be able to differentiate between the ingredients in supplements. Most nutritionists are not trained in how to use botanicals and often recommend products with no understanding of how they work, particularly adaptogenic herbs.
There is a great deal of competition in a growing marketplace and not all supplements are created equal. There is growing awareness about ingredients but not enough training around how to use these ingredients synergistically. I certainly make a point of educating and training clients and patients on how to recognize a bad product so they start to recognize fillers and undesirable components that should not be present in a product. Other things to consider are ease of application. As an example: one of the prenatal formulas I use with my patients comes in two forms; a powder which doses as a scoop or in capsules which comes as 8 capsules a day. 8 capsules a day is incredibly impractical.
The other thing to look out for is a mark of GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) certification. This ensures compliance with food safety regulations and assures integrity of the manufacturing process, so effectively it is a stamp of quality assurance.
Do you know how to recognize fillers and how to recognize a good quality supplement? Is the supplement organic? Are you sure that it does not contain additives, sugars, artificial colours or flavours?