Many people might think that it is sufficient to just take a multi-vitamin in order to obtain all the nutrients we need. If it was that easy the western world would be a lot healthier… There can be a few potential problems with supplements.
Supplements can be helpful as therapeutic support in certain situations but they should not and cannot replace the natural foods humans have evolved to be eating.
Natural foods are nutritionally balanced in a way that the body knows exactly how to utilize. We have evolved to derive all our nutrients from these foods, not from chemicals.
The problems with supplements
First of all the market is not very well regulated.
Many supplements are also synthetic and it is debatable how much of them the body can actually utilize.
Therefore it pays to find supplements that are natural and as close to their food state as possible.
It also pays to get them from a reputable brand. These don’t come cheap though.
The most important factor, however, when we look at obtaining all these nutrients is that they work together in such a complex way that only the body is smart enough to really know how to do.
I’ve experimented with a lot of different supplements in my time and have found that they had either no effect or adverse effects on me.
That isn’t to say that they can’t be of benefit.
Let’s have a look at nutrient interactions
- Fats for example are required as a carrier for the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and further are needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A (the plant source of vitamin A).
- We need fats for mineral absorption. Cholesterol from animal fats is also a precursor to vitamin D.
- On the other hand, minerals like iron and zinc are needed for the body’s use of essential fatty acids.
- Moreover, we need fats to properly utilize proteins. In fact, most protein-rich natural foods like eggs, meat and milk also contain fat.
- A specialized protein called the ‘intrinsic factor’ is needed to assimilate vitamin B12. This protein is secreted in the stomach and depends on calcium status, pancreatic enzymes and the right pH in the upper intestine.
- Adequate protein and mineral levels are also needed for proper acid-alkaline balance in the body.
- Vitamins, again, only properly work in conjunction with other vitamins or other co-factors.
In ‘Nourishing Traditions’ Sally Fallon states that:
‘most vitamins produce optimum results in the presence of certain naturally occurring co-factors, such as trace minerals, enzymes and co-enzymes, as well as other vitamins. They do not exist as single components but as part of a complex of compounds.’1
The B vitamins are a good example as they’re needed as a complex: lacking some of them but having more of the others can interfere with their function.
Another example is vitamin P which enhances the absorption of vitamin C.
Other vitamins work together with minerals:
- Vitamin D is needed for calcium and phosphorus absorption,
- Vitamin E works together with selenium and zinc and activator x (Vitamin K) is a catalyst for general mineral absorption.
- The absorption of minerals is regulated by a complex mechanism involving hormones and other nutrients.
- Calcium, manganese and magnesium rely on proteins as carriers.
A lot can go wrong in the process of mineral uptake:
‘The glandular system that regulates the messages sent to the intestinal mucosa require plentiful fat-soluble vitamins in the diet to work properly. Likewise, the intestinal mucosa requires fat-soluble vitamins and adequate dietary cholesterol to maintain proper integrity so that it passes only those nutrients the body needs, while at the same time keeping out toxins and large, undigested proteins that can cause allergic reactions.’2
Minerals can compete for receptors and moreover, there are certain anti-nutrients like phytic acid in grains and tannins in tea that can bind with minerals and prevent their absorption.
Therefore the right balance is vital for proper mineral status:
Too much phosphorus for example can lead to calcium loss but too little inhibits calcium absorption.
Potassium and sodium work together, Chromium is needed for synthesis of cholesterol, fats and proteins and Copper work in balance with zinc and vitamin C.
Iodine utilization requires vitamin A. However, excess iodine can be toxic and result in similar problems as a deficiency.
Too much calcium and phosphorus can lead to manganese deficiency.
Molybdenum is needed for iron absorption and Zinc is needed to maintain vitamin E levels in the blood.
Enzyme activity also depends on the presence of adequate vitamins and minerals. Magnesium is especially important and many enzymes incorporate a single molecule of a trace mineral without which they cannot function.
Food enzymes are important to digest proteins and thus to absorb nutrients.
Excess levels of certain vitamins and minerals can be toxic:
For the vitamins that is more true for the fat-soluble types as they get stored in the body’s fat reserves. This is particularly true for vitamin A.
The issue here is that the fat soluble vitamins need to be in balance with each other in order not to become toxic. If you have a vitamin D deficiency and ingest a lot of vitamin A, this will have a toxic effect.
The same goes for iodine: if it is supplemented at the absence of selenium it can have opposite effects. Minerals like inorganic iron also can be toxic.
The Bottom Line:
So we can see that all nutrients work together in such a complex manner that trying to supplement them in an isolated form can be difficult, counterproductive and even dangerous.
Unless a proven deficiency or condition warrants supplementation of single nutrients, we should aim to get them from the sources that nature had intended for us: whole foods.
1.Fallon, Sally, Nourishing Traditions (Washington: NewTrends Publishing, Inc., 2001), p.36
2.Fallon, Sally, Nourishing Traditions (Washington: NewTrends Publishing, Inc., 2001), p.40
Minkoff, Eli C., Biology (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1991)
Roberts, Michael and Ingram, Neil, Biology (Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Ltd., 2001)
Stone, Carol Leth, The Basics of Biology (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004)
Minkoff, Eli C. and Baker, Pamela J., Biology Today: An Issues Approach (New York: Garland Science, 2001)
Fallon, Sally, Nourishing Traditions (Washington: NewTrends Publishing, Inc., 2001)