Supplements seem to be everywhere these days, but why are so many people taking them? Some say they are a waste of time as you get everything you need from food; unfortunately, for most people living in Britain today, this is simply not the case.
While it is true that our primal ancestors never took supplements, there are several reasons why our modern lives and surroundings mean they should now form an essential part of healthy living. Thousands of years ago, combining factors resulted in no need for supplementing diets, including the fact that our primal ancestors had a more diverse diet and their soil was naturally much richer in minerals, as well as free from the toxins and pesticides found in present-day soil.
A quick overview of vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamins form in living things and 13 are considered essential for a healthy life. These 13 essential vitamins are the ones which your body needs to function properly but can’t produce enough of without outside sources.
- Fun fact: the word ‘vitamin’ was first coined in the 1920s and comes from the Latin vita meaning ‘life’ and amine because early twentieth century scientists thought they contained amino acids.
- Minerals are found in the ground. Plants extract them from the soil and then we consume them through the plants that we eat or by consuming animals which have eaten plants containing minerals. We also ingest minerals in the water we drink. 14 minerals are considered vital for a healthy life.
This means there is a combined total of 27 vitamins and minerals considered essential for our bodies to function normally. The world-wide scientific evidence is empirical, leading to internationally recognised minimum amounts we should consume daily. In Europe these are referred to as the Nutritional Reference Value (NRV), which is the ‘level of a nutrient considered adequate to meet the nutritional requirements of an average healthy adult to prevent deficiency’. Notice the wording ‘to prevent deficiency’: these levels are only a baseline. For optimum health the requirements are most likely much higher for many of these nutrients.
Here are 9 reasons why today, I truly believe we need to supplement even a healthy diet:
One of the key reasons why supplements are so important in our modern lifestyle is due to the condition of our soil. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America admits that nutrient levels in soil have dropped 81% in the past 30 years. That means, statistically, to get the same nutritional benefit as we did 30 years ago, we now need to consume five times as much food. Yes. Five times more.
According to Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas, ‘Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly … but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.’1
Today, when you eat your salad vegetables, unless they say ‘organic’ on the label, they might not have even been grown in soil at all! In fact, it’s most likely no non-organic salad leaves have been grown in soil. They will have been grown indoors hydroponically which means growing plants without using soil. If you would like to know more about hydroponics, I recorded a podcast with the brilliant Patrick Holden CBE who ran the Soil Association for over 20 years. Listen to the podcast here.
Our primal ancestors evolved while eating a hugely varied diet of natural organic food. Today, even though there are tens of thousands of seemingly different products on our supermarket shelves, many have similar core ingredients. Our uniformity and narrow product brand selections lead to huge holes in our nutritional consumption.
While the food diversity problem is getting worse, it’s not entirely new. Back in the 1930s, in order to better understand tooth decay, a pioneering dentist named Dr Price travelled the globe looking at the diets and lifestyles of remote communities. To his surprise, he found numerous communities living with the absence of disease suffered in America. Amongst the places he visited, he spent time with Inuits, Aborigines, the islanders of Thursday Island and the New Zealand Maori. Part of his research involved shipping back the traditional food of these remote communities to his laboratory in America. He tested them and found that when compared to the average dinner plate in the USA, the remote communities’ food was on average:
- seven times richer in calcium
- four times richer in magnesium and copper (however, in some cases, the concentration of magnesium was as much as twenty times higher.)
- often fifty times richer in iron
- often fifty times richer in iodine
- far higher concentration vitamins C and B was repeatedly seen
- significantly higher concentrations of vitamins A, D, and K.
The environment also plays an important role for certain nutrients, particularly Vitamin D which helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in our body. While we can get a limited amount of vitamin D in certain foods, the best source is from direct sunlight, which the human body can create (synthesise). 40% of Brits spend less than 15 minutes a day outside and that means very little vitamin D,2 and even those who do spend plenty of time outside just won’t get adequate sun exposure in the winter months. Consequently, the NHS recommends that most people should take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months, when lack of sunlight is even more prevalent.
As we get older our bodies do not have the same ability to break down and absorb nutrients like they used to. Any medication you are on may even deplete essential nutrients and cause an imbalance. Certain conditions can also affect nutritional absorption. For example, studies have estimated that 20% of elderly people have atrophic gastritis, which can affect the absorption of nutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and magnesium.
As you know, exercising uses energy, but it also uses nutrients. It is therefore important to get enough nutrients to help you optimise your exercise as well as helping to aid recovery after a workout. You may not be aware that it is recommended to take a vitamin C supplement after intense physical exercise in order to support your immune system.3
Weakened immune system
Each year, we are learning more and more about the important role that our microbiome has in preventing disease and promoting good health. But our internal eco-system is under attack from our modern way of living. Chemicals and our obsession with bacterial cleanliness might be backfiring and actually unbalancing our gut’s microbiome. Sufficient vitamins and minerals, along with the consumption of Omega-3 oils, are known to help maintain the normal function of the immune system.
Certain dietary choices can lead to a lack of specific vitamins from food itself. Vegans, for example, are at risk of not getting enough B12, iron, Omega-3 (especially DHA), vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iodine, and selenium.
Medication and drugs
As mentioned for the elderly, while medication can be lifesaving, it rarely comes without side effects. One of the most common being how they block or dramatically reduce the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Alcohol also acts as an inhibitor of vitamin absorption, particularly the B vitamins.
What I take daily
There are numerous different approaches to supplementing our food intake with vitamins and extracts. As you might expect, I don’t believe that one approach fits all. For example, if you regularly go on holiday or spend time outside and also eat lots of oily fish, nuts, and seeds, then there might be no need to take vitamin D tablets. However, if you rarely expose your body to the sun and don’t intake sufficient amounts of vitamin D via your diet, then you would most definitely be wise to take it in the form of a supplement.
On the whole, my view on supplementing is quite simple: eat foods rich in nutrients and use additional supplements as a kind of secondary insurance policy.
Everyone is different, so when it comes to supplements, without knowing you personally, it’s difficult for me to recommend exactly which ones you should make part of your daily life. If you have both the time and the cash, you can go and have your blood (or even your poo) profiled. For most people, just making an educated guess about what is right will be enough to help bolster your wellbeing and longevity. And remember, what we are talking about here is not drugs or medication but nutrition.
When it comes to vitamins, as long as you ingest roughly ten times the recommended daily amount over around ten days, then the aggregation will be fine (the only exception to this is the water-soluble vitamin C and all the B vitamins). Sunbathing is a great example. A one-week holiday in the sun with careful exposure can help our body accumulate enough vitamin D for several months.
But aren’t supplements dangerous, especially if I take too many? Interestingly, the American Association of Poisonous Control Centre, an organisation that monitors the causes of death each year in the USA, states that since they first started keeping records over 35 years ago, there have been just 13 allegations that vitamins were a cause of death. And not one of them was ever substantiated. Furthermore, Canadian biochemist Abram Hoffer said flatly, ‘Nobody dies from vitamins’.4 You may be surprised to learn that incorrect or over-medication (including prescription drugs) is now one of the leading causes of death.5 I am not for one minute belittling prescribed medication because, in many instances, they prolong life. I am just trying to highlight as forcefully as possible that vitamin and mineral supplements are simply good nutrition, but just in a different form.
My daily routine (in no particular order)
- 2g of vitamin C (more if I feel a cold coming on)
- Omega-3 (one rich in DHA to support brain and joint functions)
- 1g Magnesium Bisglycinate (taken in the evening to support better sleep)
- Multivitamin (a quality one is probably the best insurance policy ever)
- Resveratrol (strong antioxidant)
- Turmeric (strong antioxidant and great for joints)
- CoQ10 (rocket fuel for the mitochondria within our cells)
- NAD (for mental performance and longevity)
- Powerful probiotics (to support my gut)
- Collagen (possibly the most important supportive molecule in the human body)
- Glucomannan (a great prebiotic fibre that supports our microbiome).
Did our primal ancestors take supplements? Of course not. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t want to have to recommend them. However, even if we only buy organic food, eat very few processed meals, avoid deadly processed CARBS, completely abstain from added sugars and avoid toxins (as best we can), our health is still at a slight disadvantage from our primal ancestors. You see, they ate hundreds of different plants, bugs, insects and animals, and their food options naturally changed as the seasons changed. Their diet was far more diverse than what we eat today. Additionally, their soils were not full of toxins or chemically produced pesticides and they were not breathing in pollutants.
Ideally (just as our primal ancestors did) we want to get all of our nutrients from our food and not have to worry about the state of our microbiome. However, so much has changed in Great Britain in terms of the nutritional density of our food and since our body has yet to evolve to be in sync with it, a life without supplements leaves many individuals lacking in various areas.
The result of these environmental changes means the nutritional value of much of our food is suppressed, meaning we would have to eat copious amounts of some items just to satisfy our basic requirements. Even with some organic foods, soil quality has been so badly depleted over the years plants aren’t able to soak up as many nutrients through their roots as they have done historically.
Our view on vitamins and minerals is quite straightforward. Eat as much organic and nutritionally dense food as possible and then supplement to meet any dietary shortfalls.
In order to achieve optimal nutrition, let me summarise the use of supplements with four thoughts.
- Dr Carl C Pfeiffer said, ‘For every drug that benefits a patient, there is a natural substance that can achieve the same effect' (Pfeiffer's Law). While I don’t believe this is always the case when it comes to curing all medical ailments, I do believe that nearly all Westernised illnesses are mainly caused by poor nutrition.
- Nutritional based medicine (including orthomolecular medicine – which aims to provide optimum amounts of substances in the body, including vitamins) is non-toxic, whereas pharmaceutical medicine is typically toxic (molecular toxicology).
- Natural, herbal, and nutritional medicine have been around since antiquity, but because you can’t patent a vitamin or a mineral, huge corporations don’t get behind them. And if huge corporations don’t get behind them there is nobody to promote their use to doctors.
- ‘Vit’ in the word vitamins, is derived from the Latin vita, meaning life, as in vital for life. As in: if we don’t get enough from our diet, our health will suffer!