Are health supplements necessary?

People commonly ask us, "if you're eating a healthy diet and getting a good night's sleep, do you really need to take health supplements?"  The short answer is in the form of another question: "how many people do you know that have a healthy diet all of the time and consistently get a good night's sleep?"  The answer is usually a resounding "noone...".

So, when might you need supplements and what should you look for?

When we’re not getting the nutrients from our food

If our soils don’t contain the nutrients, then they can’t be in our food.  Period.  If soils are intensively farmed with monocultures, then the soils can become depleted in various nutrients.  New Zealand soil is generally lacking in many minerals, particularly iodine and selenium, which are both critical to healthy thyroid function and to optimal health.

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Further, the farming methods often used to maximise crops result in top-heavy plants with shallow root systems.  This means that the plants can only access the nutrients in the very top level of the soil and some estimates say that fruits and vegetables can contain as little as one fifth of the nutrients that our grandparents’ fruit and vegetables contained.  Getting all of our nutrients from our food is getting harder and our nutrient requirements are increasing because of the amount of stress that we are exposed to in our modern lifestyle.  

Our body's ability to absorb the nutrients from our food will also vary, depending on factors such as the acidity of our stomach, the levels of digestive enzymes and the types of bacteria in our guts. 

To process stress

In times of stress, your body requires more nutrients for basic functions, so how often are you stressed?  Late nights at work, exposure to chemicals in our environment, relationship pressures, the list goes on - these stressors require additional nutrients for the body to process.  Your nutrient needs are as variable as your lifestyle.

There’s a big difference between simply surviving and thriving

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We often think of health as a dichotomy – we are either sick or we are well.  But health is on a diverse spectrum, from feeling ‘bleurgh’ to feeling fantastic, and ideally we want to be at the optimal end of the spectrum as often as possible.  Take for example a person with low vitamin B12-status – this person is likely to feel fatigued and have difficulty thinking clearly.  Are they likely to die from having low vitamin B12 levels, perhaps not, but could they feel a lot better by taking supplemental vitamin B12 – almost certainly.  Sufficient vitamin B12 is also very difficult to obtain from a vegetarian diet, so vegetarians are even more likely to benefit from supplementation.

If you’re interested in learning about the role of micronutrients in treating people with ADHD, anxiety and depression, check out the amazing research being done by Julia Rucklidge and her team at Canterbury University

How do you know how much of a nutrient you need?

The RDI is a helpful indicator in understanding the amounts of nutrient required to avoid a deficiency state, but the optimal amount is often much higher than the RDI, just remember to take into account any upper limits or toxic dosages.  Just like any other substance (including water) – if you have too much, it can be damaging to the body.

In the case of vitamin C, the RDI in New Zealand is 45 mg, whereas the research shows that for vitamin C to reduce the length and severity of upper respiratory tract infections (i.e. to combat a cold), you need to be taking a dosage of 2,000mg a day, which is significantly above the RDI.  Similarly, your need for additional nutrients will vary throughout your life.

Usually it is a case of getting to understand our body and taking note of when we feel our best, or relying on the advice of a trusted brand or practitioner.

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What to look for in a supplement:

  • Sustainably and ethically sourced ingredients – many useful herbs like goldenseal are becoming endangered in the wild so ensure that your products are being harvested in a responsible way and that the farmers are being paid a living wage.
     
  • High bioavailability – nutrients come in many different forms, with some being much more bioavailable than others, which means that you may need to take less of one form than you would for another form. For example, liposomal vitamin C has an absorption rate of around 98% which is much better absorption than standard ascorbic acid (and is less likely to cause digestive  upset).  Chelated forms of nutrients are also becoming very popular at the moment because of a claimed increase in bioavailability.
     
  • Synergystic nutrients – in nature, nutrients are often found alongside synergistic nutrients – like bioflavonoids found in citrus, which not only assist the absorption of vitamin C, but also work with vitamin C in the body.  It can often be a good idea to take food-based supplements for this reason (nature is pretty clever at getting the recipe right) or to use a brand of supplement that has considered and included these factors.
     
  • Minimal excipients – excipients are extra ingredients in supplements added for a stabilising function such as a tableting aid.  These ingredients do not have a health benefit and can often be detrimental to your health.  It is generally a good idea to look for a product that contains minimal excipients.
     
  • High quality – look for reputable brands that manufacture to high standards using high quality ingredients and undertake regular testing of products to ensure that the product matches any claims made on the label.

Verdict

Even if you are eating a varied, healthy diet, taking a high-quality multivitamin can be a great place to start and more specific supplements are likely to benefit you at different stages in your life. 

Talk to your health practitioner to work out what supplements may help you to feel your best.

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