Just What Are Supplements FOR?

My new student and I were talking in the office the other day.  She was surprised (and all my students are, actually) at how often I talk to patients about nutrition.  Usually without my patients really WANTING to hear my opinions about nutrition, LOL!

So we got to talking about the question, “What are supplements for?”  This is something I don’t think I’ve ever put in so many words before.

We know our diets stink.  People eat too much meat, too much junk food, too much sugar.  We don’t get enough whole fresh foods.  Even if we did get all our servings of fruits and veggies (and I try really hard) our foods aren’t as nutritious as they were in the past.

This decrease in the nutrition content of food is generally because of changes in farming practices and because we tend to get our food from far away.  We get peaches from Chile instead of from Georgia.  We get apples from Washington State instead of from local orchards.  And we want to eat apples in June when they haven’t been harvested in over 6 months.

So one of the main reasons I advocate supplementation is to make up for gaps in our diet.  A good quality, comprehensive multivitamin (and yes, Shaklee’s Vita Lea is the best on the market, the one I use and recommend) goes a long way to filling in for days when our diets aren’t the best, or when the food we eat has lost nutrition due to storage and processing.

Other than a multivitamin, what other supplements do we take to make up gaps in our diet?  People under stress tend to use up the B vitamins more quickly.  People who suffer with migraines tend to have gene mutations which make them need more B vitamins.  More than half of us don’t get enough magnesium in the diet.  We eat way too much omega 6 oil, so omega 3 fats from fish oil supplements can help correct that.  And of course nearly everyone needs a vitamin D supplement especially in winter.

These supplements as mentioned above are used from a Functional Medicine approach.  This means we give the body what it needs to function properly, and avoid poisoning it!  Supplements used in this way are generally very safe, and very few side effects.

Giving the body what it needs doesn’t just refer to food.  This includes fresh clean water, plenty of rest and quality sleep.  Practicing our faith and getting fresh air and sunshine, exercise, and time with those we love are “nutrients” as well.  The word “nutrient” comes from the same root as “nurture.”  When we nourish ourselves properly we will be healthier!

And poisons or toxins include pesticides, alcohol and excess sugar but can also include excess stress.  Negative self-talk is toxic.  Smoking, recreational drugs and artificial food ingredients are other examples of things we should avoid in order for our bodies, minds and spirits to be as healthy as possible.

How else can supplements be used?  Supplements can also be used as drugs.  Some examples are St. John’s wort for depression, milk thistle for liver disorders, and red yeast rice for high cholesterol.  These supplements are considered botanical drugs.  They have risks just like pharmaceutical drugs do.  The risks tend to be lower, but the effectiveness is lower as well.  Some supplements can be used either way.  For instance, magnesium in high doses is a very effective laxative and is used for bowel prep before colonoscopy.

How can you tell the difference between a supplement used for a functional medicine purpose and one used as a drug?  It’s pretty simple actually.  Is the nutrient or supplement found in food, and can one be deficient in it?  One can be deficient in magnesium, but there’s no such thing as a milk thistle or St. John’s wort deficiency.

I’d like to use a very current controversy to illustrate the difference.  Right now there are a lot of supplement companies starting to market krill oil as a “better fish oil.”  Early research suggests that the main omega 3 fatty acids in both krill oil and fish oil are better absorbed from krill oil and may influence cholesterol and glucose metabolism in favorable ways when compared to fish oil.

The problem is that krill isn’t food for humans.  We have little or no idea what a safe dose of krill oil would be, or what the long-term effect may be.  There are no studies showing how krill oil supplements affect heart risk or any other health risk in humans.  Fish oil supplements are generally made from edible fish like sardines, tuna or salmon.

So fish oil is a functional medicine supplement, made from a human food that most of us don’t get enough of to balance out the oodles of omega-6 fatty acids in our diets.  Krill oil is not a human food, containing a form of omega-3 fatty acids not clearly understood.  I would therefore classify krill oil as a drug, one that’s not well understood.  Certainly not well enough to recommend regular use.

Before someone recommends a supplement to you, think to yourself whether that supplement is meant to fill a gap in your diet and provide nutrients your body needs to function well.  If not, it is a drug.  Make sure you understand the risks and benefits, because there are always risks with drugs, whether they come from nature or from a factory.  Often the ones that come from the factory are safer because they’re better understood and better studied.

QUESTION: Have you ever thought before about the question “What are supplements for?”  What do you think now?

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