I am guilty of, at one time, claiming that nutritional supplements were a waste of money. I've said more than once that using supplements is of no benefit and just leads to expensive urine. However, that was before I had a complete understanding of the critical role that nutritional supplements can play in disease prevention and reversal, not to mention quality of life.
When thinking about nutritional supplements there are several things to consider:
1. Our recommended dietary intakes are based on preventing all out nutrient deficiency, scurvy (Vitamin C) or rickets (Vitamin D) for example. But, preventing an all-out nutrient deficiency is completely different than maximizing nutrient intake. Nutrient needs can't be placed in only two categories such as deficiency or normal, they exist on a continuum: deficiency to insufficiency to normal to optimal to toxic. Optimal nutrient intake should always be the goal.
2. The standard American diet is not providing the nutrients we need. The foods eaten on a daily basis are highly processed, which require more vitamins and minerals to be metabolized. So, while we have plenty of calories, we are lacking in nutrients. Even a person with a perfect diet will have a difficult time obtaining the amount of nutrients from food required for optimal nutrient status. And, keep in mind, the nutrient status of foods depends on where the food is grown, how far it has to travel to get to your local grocery store, whether it's organic or conventionally farmed, toxins in the soil or in processing, and genetic alterations. There are so many variables that deplete the nutrient content of foods and most of us have little control over them. So, while we may have a whole-foods, plant-based diet, minimally processed diet, we probably aren't getting optimal amount of nutrients from our food.
3. "Normal" lab values of nutrients are based on the average American. And guess what? The average American is not meeting the requirements for optimal health. So, while you may have some normal looking lab work, it doesn't mean you're receiving the nutrients you need for optimal health. And, this is one reason why the scientific research around supplements seems confusing. Research studies use these "normal" values, but we have to remember that normal doesn't mean optimal.
4. We all have different genes and the standard reference intake ranges aren't one size fits all. You and I will more than likely need differing amounts of nutrients to maximize health outcomes based on our own genetics.
5. Medications decrease nutrient absorption. Americans take a lot of medication to manage chronic disease states. And many medications lead to nutrient deficiencies. Most medications are meant for short-term use, but as chronic diseases progress, medication doses are often increased and nutrient deficiencies can develop. I ran into this problem with my use of prescription NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for my psoriatic arthritis. NSAIDS are not intended for long-term use, however I was on an NSAID for eight years and my gut microbiome suffered, which led to numerous side effects and nutrient depletion. Some other common examples of nutrient depletion related to medication usage are metformin leading to vitamin B12 deficiency, statin drugs depleting CoQ10, and birth control pills causing B vitamin deficiencies.
6. Triage theory suggests that when micronutrients are in short supply, our bodies will adjust and take other nutrients from needed systems to make up for the imbalance. We will likely have no adverse effects or symptoms, but as time passes and the nutrient deficiencies continue, we will develop chronic disease and have a lack of optimal health as we age.
I am in no way suggesting that nutritional supplements can take the place of a whole-foods, minimally processed, plant-based diet. However, whole foods in combination with high quality nutritional supplements can work together in a powerful way to maximize health outcomes. I have personally had such success with managing my autoimmune disease by maximizing my nutrition and the use of nutritional supplements has been instrumental. I have been able to heal my gut with l-glutamine powder and broad spectrum probiotics. I have discontinued the use of my NSAID by using a selective kinase response modulator, ginger supplements, and omega 3 fish oil. I also take a great multivitamin daily, as well as a potent vitamin C formula. All of these supplements coupled with nutrition, stress management, healthy sleep, and exercise have allowed me to reverse my autoimmune disease.
It's important to choose nutritional supplements wisely and with the help of a trained professional. There are many reputable supplement companies that provide safe, reliable products. But, there are also companies that take your money and provide sub par, potentially unsafe products. And, dietary supplements can interact with your medications, so it's important to have a full nutrition assessment by a Registered Dietitian who specializes in functional nutrition in order to get the most accurate, safe recommendation. Do not start taking a dietary supplement without first speaking with your doctor or dietitian!