by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project
People often ask me about whether supplements are really necessary or helpful at all. My standard answer is: it depends!
We each have a special set of needs, according to our bio-individuality, which means no one answer is good for everyone. However, there are a few supplements that can assist most people in maintaining their health, and these are the ones I feel most comfortable recommending for the general public, without knowing the specifics of a person’s background and/or condition. I will tell you what they are in a minute.
One very important thing to keep in mind is the quality of the supplement, whatever that supplement might be.
Make sure the supplement you choose to take has a third-party certification from an independent agency such as the NPA (Natural Products Association), NSF (National Sanitary Foundation) or OTC (Over the Counter Drug GMPs), and fulfills the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Dietary Supplement Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). You see, dietary supplements are presumed to be safe and the FDA does not check labels, what is in the bottle, how or where the supplement company is making their products, or where their products are sourced from. Independent third-parties vary in what they inspect, but usually will make sure your supplement contains only qualified materials, meets required specifications for quality and purity, and is evaluated for potential contaminants such as filth, heavy metals, pesticides, and microbiological organisms. For example, lead, mercury, and PCBs can be present in many fish oil supplements.
According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences, “fish high on the food chain can accumulate mercury, lead, and other contaminants, those metals can make their way into your fish oil supplements.” Make sure to choose EFA (Essential Fatty Acids) supplements that are meticulously tested for lead or mercury contaminants. The trustworthy brands will state something like “Molecularly distilled and 3rd party tested to ensure PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead and other contaminants are below acceptable limits set by the Council for Responsible Nutrition and other advisory agencies.”
Take a proactive role in reading labels (remember last month’s article?) as they will let you know whether the supplement has many fillers or obscure ingredients. Always look at the “other ingredients” list below the “Supplement Facts.” Some brands have more harmful ingredients than healthful ones.
1. Artificial colors:
These are overused in a number of supplements, especially those designed for kids: FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, and FD&C Yellow No. 6. And kids should be the last group of people to get near food coloring, as a number of studies show the connection between their consumption and ADD/ADHD and other behavioral issues.
2. Hydrogenated oils:
You do so well in avoiding them in your diet, why consume them in your supplements? Soybean oil is pretty ubiquitous in vitamins and aside from being processed and potentially hydrogenated, if not organic it is likely from genetically modified soy.
3. Titanium Dioxide:
This colorant has been associated with a number of health issues, including lung inflammation and immune system dysfunction.
4. Talc/Magnesium Silicate:
Talc is a filler and anti-caking agent and it is not actually considered to be food-grade. So it shouldn’t be in our supplements!
5. GM Corn-based ingredients:
These include corn syrup, maltodextrin, citric acid, dextrose, and synthetic vitamin C (ascorbic acid). We don’t have enough data about the safety of genetically modified foods, so it’s best to keep them out of our diet and definitely out of our supplements.
With all of this to look out for, some people might think it is better to just avoid supplements altogether, especially if you eat a healthy diet. I wish that was the case. Unfortunately, our modern lives and environment require us to enhance our diets with certain nutrients, because today we are experiencing:
• A decline in soil diversity and quality (which means a decline in nutrient density of foods);
• A decrease in variety of plant species consumed;
• An increase in exposure to food and environmental toxins;
• Overuse of antibiotics, birth control and other medications;
• An increase in chronic stress;
• A decrease in sleep quality and duration;
• A reduced connection with nature and less time spent outdoors;
• A move away from the tight-knit social groups that were the norm for humans until very recently (and the resulting effect on our nervous system); and
• An increase in the number of hours we spend sitting.
(list compiled by Chris Kresser, L.Ac)
A multi-vitamin will help us address the decline in nutrient density in our food, the lack of diversity of plants we consume and will provide support with nutrients that we use more than we can easily replenish, like vitamin B (which we use up when we are stressed). Look for a whole-foods based vitamin (instead of synthetic ingredients), and prioritize organic.
Most of us spend a lot of time indoors and when we are outside, we tend to hide from the sun with clothes and/or sunblock.
Even if we were really good at getting adequate sun exposure (at least 30 minutes in morning or mid to late afternoon), we would still have a difficult time synthesizing vitamin D from the sun in the winter months. Since synthesis from the sun is our main source of this vitamin and very few foods contain it, I often suggest vitamin D supplementation, unless you have checked your vitamin D levels and they are at 50 ng/ml (nanograms oer milliliter) or above.
Levels of vitamin D are considered low when they are below 30 ng/ml. If your levels are low, 10,000 IUs of vitamin D3 is a good place to start, making sure you get checked again in a few months to monitor your levels. If you are somewhere between 30 ng/ml and 50 ng/ml, 2,000 IUs/day of vitamin D3 supplementation might be a nice maintenance dose in the winter months (4,000 IUs if pregnant/lactating). Adequate vitamin D levels support bone health, immune system, and cognitive function; deficiency is associated with depression, dementia and lowered immune activity. Low levels of vitamin D in pregnancy are associated with gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and low birth weight (Aghajafari, et al).
Omega-3/ Fish Oil:
Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain function, normal growth and development, and are anti-inflammatory. Deficiencies have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, some cancers, mood disorders, and arthritis. However, taking high doses of just any fish oil is not going to address these needs and could actually cause harm. So the main thing to keep in mind regarding fish oil or other Omega-3 supplements is how much you are already getting from food sources such as wild oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, 100% grass-fed beef and enriched eggs (these are usually fed flaxseeds and fish oil), and the quality of the supplement you choose. Chris Kresser L. Ac. recommends that if you are generally healthy, the best strategy is to consume about 12–16 ounces of cold-water, fatty fish or shellfish each week, because fish and shellfish contain many other beneficial nutrients that fish oil does not, including selenium, zinc, iron, and highly absorbable protein. (Fortunately, most cold-water, fatty fish and shellfish are also low in mercury and other toxins. If you don’t eat fish, he suggests supplementing with 1 teaspoon of high-vitamin cod liver oil. In addition to about 1.2 g of EPA + DHA, it is rich in the active form of vitamin A and vitamin D, both of which are difficult to obtain elsewhere in the diet. I want to add that if you eat fish infrequently, then it is a good idea to add a teaspoon of cod liver oil every other day, or particularly on days when you do not eat fish.
We carry more than 2 pounds of bacteria in our digestive system for a good reason: they aid digestion; protect us from pathogens; create B vitamins; improve the absorption of many nutrients, including calcium; reduce yeast infections; improve immune function; help prevent cancer; assist with detoxification; alleviate constipation; prevent and reduce acne; and the list goes on. And they are not only in our digestive tract. They are all over our skin, in our lungs, and in just about every orifice in our bodies.
In fact, we are outnumbered 1 to 10 human cells to microorganism cells. We are the neighborhood these organisms get to call home, and we want to keep the neighborhood clean and peaceful. One of the ways to achieve this is by eating fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, kefir and yogurt. However, when one needs a booster of friendly bacteria, the most efficient way to repopulate the gut is through probiotic supplements.
Once again, quality is everything, and you will want to find a brand that offers 10 viable strains, high potency, is acid and bile resistant (survives stomach acid), and packed in vegetable capsules or available in powder form. If you want to go further, find one that is also fortified with prebiotics. Capsules will have anywhere between 2 Billion (maintenance dose) and 50 Billion (clinical dose) organisms, and you can decide which to take based on whether you have recently been exposed to antibiotics or are fighting a cold, and need a clinical dose or if you are doing well and are just going to take this supplement in addition to eating fermented foods (maintenance dose).
The main strains to look for are:
1. L-Acidophilus DDS-1
2. L. Bulgaricus
3. L. Casei
4. L. Plantarum
5. L. Brevis
6. B. Lactis
7. L. Rhamnosus
8. L. Salivarius
9. B. Longum
10. B. Bifidum
Remember, this is a basic list that can assist most people, but your individual needs and results may vary. Consult your physician before making any changes to your current diet and supplementation.
Aghajafari F, Nagulesapillai T, Ronksley PE, Tough SC, O'Beirne M, Rabi DM (2013). "Association between maternal serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and pregnancy and neonatal outcomes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies". BMJ 346: f1169. doi:10.1136/bmj.f1169.PMID 23533188.
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