Supplements: Do We Really Need Them?

For most of us, the answer to the question in the headline is: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

In years gone by, many doctors honestly believed that taking vitamins and supplements was a bad idea, or at best, of little or no value. “Eat a good diet,” they would often say, “and you’ll get all the vitamins you need. Don’t waste your money making expensive urine.” Thankfully, times have changed.

Now, many mainstream, traditionally trained practitioners-especially those who are even just glancing at the literature-are less sure of the wisdom of that earlier advice. Others are even recommending supplements for certain ailments.

So why is it difficult to get enough nutrition from our food? A major part of the problem is that much of the food we eat is grown in nutrition-depleted soil. For instance, a carrot grown by Farmer Jones in his depleted fields may have a beta-carotene value of 2,000 IUs (International Units), while a carrot grown in healthy soil may have an IU value of 10,000. That’s an extraordinary difference.

Complicating the issue, most Americans eat a good portion of their food in a highly processed form, which effectively removes or sharply reduces nutrients in the food. For example, one cup of cooked brown rice contains 105 mg of potassium, while one cup of cooked “enriched” white rice contains less than half that amount (42 mg)-the consequence of processing. Food manufacturers counter this kind of information by noting that processing greatly extends shelf life of their products, and often enhances appearance. One magazine reported the results of a study that concluded that, on average, as we eat, every mouthful of food we take in has traveled 1,400 miles to get to us. We pay a high price for these “advantages.”

So the experts among us design a “healthy” food pyramid, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who abides by it.

None of us, it seems, is willing or able to eat at least five servings of vegetables per day, including two yellow vegetables and three green vegetables, and some fresh fruit. Is this good for us? Sure! Do we do it? No!. And this is the minimum requirement to get the vitamins and minerals that are needed for regular daily functioning, assuming there is no nutritional deficiency already in place.

Questions About Vitamins

So we ask an important question: How does one know which vitamins they need, and how much of each vitamin? Certainly, if you have an apparent deficiency state, then you and/or your doctor can identify some of what you need in the way of supplements. For example, mineral deficiency can manifest as weak, ridged nails or, in some instances, as leg cramps. Tests can help determine a patient’s general mineral status, as well.

In other instances, taking specific vitamins and other supplements is part of the treatment plan for a specific disease or health complaint. I regularly engage in a process with my patients to determine the biochemical mechanisms that are faulty, thus resulting in symptoms or a disease state. Once this is determined, we’re on a path to determine the nutritional support we need to help these biochemical mechanisms to function properly.

Here are other good questions: What increases a person’s need for vitamins, minerals and amino acids? Other than inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals, what causes nutritional deficiency? What exposures in a person’s life increase the body’s requirements for more nutrients?

Part of the answers to these questions comes from considering how and where we live. All of us who live in this industrialized country are exposed to chemicals even before we are born!

The Environmental Protection Agency did a study in 1982, using cadavers and surgical samples, testing for residual chemical toxins. One hundred percent of these samples contained at least five chemicals-dioxin (a pesticide), and four solvents: styrene, 1.4-Dichlorobenzene, xylene, and ethylphenol. Nine more chemicals were found in 91 to 98 percent of the samples. A total of more than 20 toxic compounds were found in 76 percent of all the samples! In utero, the fetus is exposed to chemicals from the mother, as well, in breast milk. Billions of tons of pesticides and herbicides are dumped into our air and waters, globally, each year. The amounts of chemicals to which we are exposed are astronomical.

When chemicals come into the body, it must work hard to break them down, then “package” the remnants and remove them from the system. The “raw materials” for this work are vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Logically, the more chemical pollutants one is exposed to, the more nutrients one needs. These are nutrients that would be in addition to the basic needs of the body, as the result of normal activity.

Over time, with the exposure to more and more chemicals, available nutrients are depleted until finally there are not enough nutrients remaining to support normal activity and function. Further, since the body cannot adequately remove the chemicals from the tissue, these chemicals can and do damage the body-leading to any number of symptoms and disease states.

There are still other states and conditions under which the body needs and uses more than the “normal” amount of nutrients, if they are available. Given all of this, it is essential that we all consider taking quality supplements with nutrients that are absorbable, bio-available, and themselves non-contaminated, as part of our daily commitment to care for ourselves in healthy ways.