Supplements are all the rage these days. But do they really make a difference?
Spoiler alert: Yes, they do! I recommend supplements to my patients all the time.
But before you run to the store and pick up the latest and greatest supplement you heard about on Instagram, there are some things you should know.
Figuring out which supplements you need is a complex process. Everybody is different. We all have different nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. So we all have different needs.
For the next few weeks, we’re going to dig deep into the topic of supplements. We’ll cut through the confusion and unravel the mysteries. Which supplements should you take? Where should you buy them? How much should you take? How do you know if it’s time to stop taking a supplement? Can supplements hurt you? What’s actually in supplements anyway? How do you know which brands are good?
We’ll answer these questions and so much more… So let’s dive in!
Why Take Supplements?
If we all ate nutrient-rich diets, had perfectly balanced biochemistry, and lived in a toxin-free world, we wouldn’t need supplements. But that’s not the case — for any of us…
Supplements are intended to replace missing or deficient nutrients. Adding in the right supplements at the right time can bring your body back into balance.
So what causes our bodies to be out of balance in the first place?
Well, that depends. There are a lot of factors that contribute to nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. Let’s look at a few of the ones that might be affecting you.
Lack of Food Nutrients
We all know that living off fast food and bypassing all the fruits and veggies will lead to health problems. But did you know that even when you eat healthy, you may not be getting all the nutrients you need?
One of the side effects of mass agriculture is soil depletion. When big industrial farms grow the same crops year after year, the soil loses its nutrients. And if there aren’t nutrients in the soil, the food grown there lacks nutrients as well.
And this isn’t just theory. Science backs it up. The Kushi Institute analyzed nutrient data over 20 years beginning in 1975. They studied the levels of critical nutrients in 12 fresh veggies. What they discovered was not encouraging:
😳Calcium levels dropped 27 percent
😳 Iron levels dropped 37 percent
😳 Vitamin A levels dropped 21 percent
😳 Vitamin C levels dropped 30 percent
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat your vegetables. Of course a healthy diet makes a big difference in overall health. But even if your diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, you probably still have some gaps in your nutrition.
Have you ever tried to lose weight? Then you likely deprived your body of nutrients while you were trying to lose fat.
Or maybe you’ve cut out foods for other reasons. I work with patients with gut issues, IBS, and food sensitivities or intolerances. Many of them come to me after trying to manage their symptoms with elimination diets or other intense dietary restrictions.
For people with GI conditions, plant foods — which are some of the most nutritious foods — can be the most difficult to tolerate. So sometimes it’s best to avoid them.
Any time you restrict your eating, you also restrict your nutrients. You won’t lose any ground giving up fast food of course. But if you’ve given up whole food groups or tried to stay in a calorie deficit, you’ve missed out on some of the nutrients your body needs in order to thrive.
The Standard American Diet
In the nutrition world we call this the “SAD” diet. And with good reason.
Many Americans eat a lot of processed and fast foods. And this type of diet not only fails to provide the nutrients you need, it can actually deplete your body of the nutrients it already has.
Nutrients serve a variety of functions in our bodies. And some of those nutrients are used to rid the body of toxins or counteract the effects of anti-nutrients. So if you are eating mostly foods that are taxing to your body — fast food, sweets, processed snacks — then your body is likely deficient in critical nutrients.
And this can show up in a variety of health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.
Problem Absorbing Nutrients
For some people, not eating the right foods isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s possible to have issues that keep your body from being able to properly digest and utilize the nutrients you eat.
Your body uses a variety of processes to break down the foods into the nutritional components that your body can use to function. Much of this is chemical. From saliva, to stomach acid, to digestive enzymes — your body needs it all in adequate amounts to get the most benefit from your food.
If you have any conditions that affect these chemical processes, your body will not be able to fully utilize the nutrients you eat. Many people have no idea they have any of these problems. These issues are often silent, or have only mild symptoms. That’s why it’s important to work with a practitioner to figure out what your nutritional deficiencies are and what you can do to solve the problems that caused them.
Effects of Disease and Medication
When you have a disease, your body is literally in dis-ease. Things aren’t working right. And with some conditions, this can result in nutrient deficiencies.
Additionally, some of the pharmaceuticals used to treat disease can cause nutrient deficiency as well. It’s important to talk with your practitioner to make sure you are filling in the nutrient gaps to help your body stay in balance.
You’re probably aware that antioxidants are good for you. But do you know why?
Antioxidants combat free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that have an uneven number of electrons. So they can easily interact with other molecules. And when this happens, you have oxidation.
And when this gets out of control, you get oxidative stress, which can lead to a whole mess of things including:
😬Atherosclerosis (hardening of the blood vessels)
😬High blood pressure
Our modern environments — including poor food quality, pollution, and chemicals found in common products — cause oxidative stress.
But as I mentioned before, you can combat the oxidative stress caused by free radicals by including antioxidants and specific vitamins and minerals (supplements) in your diet.
In recent years, scientists have discovered that we don’t all process nutrients in the same way. And sometimes it comes down to DNA.
There are genetic polymorphisms (variants in DNA) that affect how our bodies deal with nutrients. A common example is the MTHFR gene, which can affect the way your body processes Vitamin B.
If you have one of these genetic variants, you may need to take specific supplements to compensate and make sure your body is able to fully utilize the nutrients it needs.
So I Probably Need Supplements… What Do I Do Now?
As I mentioned, supplementation can be complicated. And it’s important to know which supplements your body actually needs. It’s not a good idea to just go to the vitamin store and pick out something that looks good.
I always recommend that people work with a qualified practitioner who has training in supplementation. An RDN can help you get the testing you need. Then they can create a supplement plan that will provide your body the nutrients it needs without the undo stress that too many supplements or the wrong type of supplement can cause.
Ready to find out how supplements can help you get your body back in balance so you can feel better?