In 1747 Scottish naval surgeon, James Lind, discovered that an unknown substance in lemons, limes and several other fruits and vegetables, that prevented scurvy; a serious problem for sailors of that period. This nutrient would eventually become identified as vitamin C. One by one other scientists followed in Lind’s footsteps finding medical solutions by isolating vitamins in food.
While we owe much to the contributions of this early scientific community, the process of identifying and isolating vitamins led to the incorrect assumption (which is now shared by a majority of nutritional scientists) that vitamins are just as effective and health-promoting in their isolated state as in their natural whole-food state.
Of course the superior way to get proper nutrition is a balanced diet of high quality, organic, food. Vitamin and herbal supplements are powerful therapies with complex interactions in our bodies and ideally would be taken under the supervision of a health care professional. However, before the purist in me gets carried away, I need to acknowledge we don’t live in an ideal world. We all have to contend with factors that may make diet-only nutrition less than ideal.
Today many people live fast paced, stressful lives. They eat on the run grabbing fast food, skipping meals, eating junk food snacks, and going on fad diets. Any of these factors could put them at risk of nutritional deficiencies.
Not one of those people? Actually neither am I but even with a kitchen stocked with a variety of healthy organic foods I don’t always eat properly. I have long stressful days, like anyone else, and when I get home I might well go for comfort and speed when fixing my dinner. What I end up with usually isn’t very balanced. Nights like that occasionally are no big deal if you eat properly the rest of the time. But life has ways of throwing stretches of “those nights” together sometimes. When I was taking care of my mother, she wasn’t in the hospital often but when she was it was usually for weeks at a time. During that time I was always worried and anxious, didn’t sleep properly, and ate in the hospital cafeteria or restaurants. As soon as I could I’d go to my health food store and get vitamin and herb supplements to help me through. My point is we humans are all flawed and imperfect creatures that sometimes make bad decisions and need some help.
- The elderly (a result of a slower metabolism, medications, and poor diet)
- Those recovering from burns and major illnesses
- Taking certain medications that can leach nutrients
- Heavy drinkers
- Vegetarians and Vegans who are often are deficient in B12
Given all that a discussion of dietary supplements becomes necessary.
SYNTHETIC VS. WHOLE FOOD
What’s the difference? Traditional vitamins are often made from various synthetic materials. Whole food vitamins are usually made from boiling different foods in water and then extracting the nutrients out of the broth and putting in the pill. I think you know which one I prefer – whole food. Let me tell you why using Vitamin C again as an example.
Whole foods that contain Vitamin C also contain complementary compounds, like rutin, bioflavonoids, Vitamin E, selenium and zinc, needed for Vitamin C to work optimally in our body. When you take only an isolated supplement with just ascorbic acid the Vitamin C isn’t utilized as well. It’s a case of the total being greater than the sum of its parts. When the body doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle it must gather the complementary minerals and substances Nature said are needed for the supplement to work properly; sometimes even robbing other areas of the body of these vital ingredients.
I’ll admit there are some drawbacks with whole food supplements. They are more expensive and not as dense, so you’ll need to take more big tablets every day (about 3-6 tablets daily.) On the other hand, they are easier to digest and can even be taken on an empty stomach (for most people.)
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Regardless of whether you choose whole food or “regular” vitamins there are some things you should look for.
Natural sources on the ingredients label. The more natural ingredients the better, even if you don’t choose a whole foods vitamin. For Vitamin C look for citrus fruits, bell peppers, papaya, or even rose hips on the label, not ascorbic acid.
Balance of Vitamins and Minerals
No Fillers Fillers are toxic, synthetic additives used to bind the composition of a vitamin and can have a negative effect on major organs. Look for cellulose, gelatin, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, magnesium stearate, and titanium dioxide on the label.
Solubility Some vitamins pass through the system before breaking down and releasing their nutrients. Be wary of any shiny vitamins. They have been coated with shellac which makes them look pretty in the bottle but prevents them from breaking down properly in your system. One way to check for proper solubility is to drop one of the tablets in a glass of water. It should dissolve within an hour.
WHAT DO I TAKE?
I don’t take nutritional supplements on a regular basis. When my body is under prolonged stress I will “back it up” with a multivitamin. What I choose depends on the need and my cash flow. While I prefer whole food supplements they are quite a bit more expensive than “traditional” tablets. What is available at my local health food store has always been a factor too.
I’ve tried several whole food supplements and have probably used Nature’s Way the most. Their vitamins and minerals are derived 100% from natural whole foods with no added synthetic vitamins.
On the more traditional side I really like Solaray. They are my go-to company when my doctor prescribes a specific vitamin therapy. They are clean, affordable, often include complementary compounds, and are easily absorbed. A doctor once shared vitamin testing results with me and Solaray was the only name I recognized on the long list of acceptable (read actually work) brands. When my doctor prescribes vitamins to correct an imbalance I look for Solaray. When I had an iodine deficiency he prescribed kelp supplements. Solaray Kelp comes with the complementary compound of Folic Acid.
Well there you have my brief overview of a complex subject and ultimately a very personal decision. There are so many factors and products out there, this barely scratches the surface, and bears further examination in the future. What did I leave out? What products have you tried that you can recommend? Please leave your comments and questions below.