Do we need them? I’d love to say no, but unfortunately given today’s environment the answer is yes for most people. Here are some of the reasons:
Soil diversity and quality has declined in modern times, decreasing the nutrient density of the food that comes from this soil. Modern farming has also led to a reduction in the diversity of plant foods that we eat on a daily basis and an increase in environmental toxins. Not to mention, most people don’t eat nearly enough of the right foods to obtain the amounts of nutrients that our bodies thrive on.
Our generation grew up with chronic antibiotic use, long-term use of birth control pills and other medications which wreak havoc on the liver and digestive and endocrine systems. We have reached a point where healing the gut and reversing damage to our bodies require more than dietary changes.
Our lifestyles today are challenging. In general, we are chronically stressed, we have poor sleep quality and quantity, we are not getting enough activity and movement in or we are over exercising, and we don’t spend enough time connecting with nature or spending time with one another.
I encourage my clients to obtain as many nutrients from food as possible because nutrient dense, whole foods are essentially pre-packaged nutrients that fit together naturally, containing many co-factors and enzymes required to absorb those nutrients. Though as I mention above, most of us are not obtaining the optimal level of at least some nutrients. Supplementation may be necessary indefinitely or for a period of time depending on the situation. For example, many of us are vitamin D and magnesium deficient. Other vitamins that we tend to be deficient in include vitamin A, K2, C, B12, selenium and iodine. Given our years of consuming more omega-6 vegetable oils when saturated fat had a bad rap, many have an imbalance in their omega-3 / omega-6 ratio as well (they should be balanced).
Because we are all so different and our bodies have different needs based on our lifestyles, diets and history I don’t make blanket recommendations. The best way to determine what deficiencies you have is to work with a functional medicine or holistic practitioner. As practitioners, part of our job is to research and test the best supplements for our clients to ensure that they are getting the appropriate nutrients their body needs. We help to monitor any adverse reactions or interactions with other medications you may be taking and help ensure proper dosing and timing. Some nutrients are known to be toxic if taken in high doses. For example, vitamin A can cause liver problems, too much zinc can reduce copper in the body and vitamin E and selenium may be linked to prostate cancer.
It is also important to note that the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA and is in fact, not regulated at all. Standards for quality do not exist and there is nothing keeping companies from making false claims on their packaging which is ineffective and even dangerous. A Canadian research group conducted a study on a variety of different generic brand supplements. They found that many of these supplements found in well-known pharmacies (e.g. Walgreens, Wal-Mart) contained unlisted fillers, contaminants, completely different compounds than listed, and in some cases no active herbal ingredients at all. Over 60% of the store brand supplements tested had incorrect labeling, and more than 50% didn’t contain the advertised ingredient.
Given this problem, it is very important to purchase high quality supplements from trusted source. It is also important to find brands whose products are considered to be pharmaceutical grade which are at the top-tier of quality and generally only dispensed (or at least endorsed) by practitioners and clinicians. These supplements are produced under rigorous laboratory conditions, tested for purity, contaminants, and are free of allergens and questionable ingredients. The companies package synergistic compounds together to help improve your body’s ability to absorb the active ingredients. You can also be sure that you will be getting only those ingredients listed on the labels, without fillers and toxins.
Supplements can have a place in our health journey, provided we use them sensibly and not at the expense of a whole foods-based, nutrient dense diet. Ignore the dogma that is rampant in the health and wellness industry about the latest and greatest supplement and figure out what will work best for YOU with the help of someone trained to do so. You may find that in the long run you save money on products and supplements you don’t need and actually feel better using the supplements that serve your mind and body and improve your health.