SHOULD YOU TAKE SUPPLEMENTS?Jan 26, 2021
Clients often say to me, “Our ancestors didn’t need to take supplements, so why should I?”
I love this question, and people are usually surprised by my answers...
Supplementation is a topic I’ve researched a lot because it can be so murky - there’s so much snake oil, hype, and garbage out there…
But without a doubt, IMHO, my answer is this (spoiler alert):
Sure, you can get by without supplementation…
But will you be in optimal health? No.
Will you live to a ripe old age and still be healthy? Probably not.
Are you setting yourself up for imbalances and/or illness down the road? Almost certainly.
This is according to the highest quality studies out there (double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials) that now demonstrate the amazing effects that supplements can have on the human body.
Like what, you say? Let’s dig in.
There was a time when many expert opinions differed on the topic, but now most agree that a well-crafted, personalized supplementation protocol is a very good thing.
In fact, nearly all of the top-tier functional medicine and health experts I follow now agree:
Supplementation is important for the prevention of disease and indispensable for optimal health.
As someone with a strong prevention angle on health, I agree.
Most people think that eating a ‘ balanced diet’ can provide your body with everything it needs.
I wish I could say that this is true….but it’s now FAR from the case because of our modern
depleted soils and
Changing times…these kids only knew ‘organic’ food. They called it ‘food.’
These factors together tremendously affect your body’s internal levels of a given nutrient because they
1. deplete your body of the nutrients it needs to thrive, and
2. create more stress in your body than your ancestors ever had to endure, and higher stress demands more energy, minerals, and systems to ‘buffer’ the outcomes.
I’ve seen this in action myself:
I’ve witnessed clients reverse chronic illness using food, supplements, and detoxification.
I’ve also seen the direct impact supplements can make that simply can’t be achieved through food and detox alone – especially once chronic disease sets in.
(In a future post, I’ll provide a detailed list of the supplements I feel are necessary for nearly all humans in our stressed-out, toxic, over-taxed world.)
BUT OUT ANCESTORS DIDN’T…
Since we’re on the subject, the assumption that our previous generations didn't take supplements is simply not true. There are many examples of supplementation in ancient cultures.
These include anything from root, stem, and leaf teas used for specific medicinal symptoms, to medicinal powders ground by mortar and pestle and highly concentrated oil extracts.
Just because they didn't have encapsulation technology to package this stuff with back in the day doesn't mean that these can't be considered supplements - they were concentrated sources of nutrients extracted from plants, trees, and herbs that had a medicinal effect or a highly concentrated nutrient profile compared to, say, just eating food.
Supplements aren’t necessarily synthetic!
They can comprise totally natural, wild foods, like medicinal mushrooms - game changers for health!
We also know that our ancestors did things like eat dirt, which provides a wide range of beneficial probiotics.
Even animals—ranging from insects to chimps—engage in zoopharmacognosy, or self-medicating, by consuming specific plants.
Furthermore, the methods that we use to gather, cook, and consume foods are drastically different than those of our ancestors, meaning that we probably are also just getting fewer nutrients from the food that we eat.
Take the way we eat meat, for example: we generally only eat animal muscle and discard the collagen-rich connective tissue.
Previous generations simmered animal carcasses for hours, liberating collagen, gelatin, and fat-soluble vitamins from connective tissue. This would be similar to us using a collagen, amino acid or organ meat supplement, or a packaged bone broth.
So, the notion that our ancestors (as well as the animal kingdom) didn't supplement or self-medicate is simply false.
(We even see examples of animals using psychedelic compounds: bees get stoned on orchid nectar, goats eat magic mushrooms, birds eat marijuana seeds, rats and mice consume opium, lizards, flies, spiders, cockroaches and cows consume loco grass, moths eat datura flower, etc... And elephants -bless them - will get drunk on anything they can find! (Usually, fermented fruit in a bog hole, but they’ve also been known to raid breweries in India.)
SO HOW TO SUPPLEMENT PROPERLY?
This is the potentially tricky bit.
Your body’s internal (tissue / cell) levels of a given nutrient depend on many factors, including your genetics, microbiome, lifestyle, diet, race, life history, epigenetics… and probably whichever way the wind was blowing at the time of your birth.
…In other words: there’s no blanket answer because we all metabolise nutrients differently. VERY differently.
So, while there are certain supplements that myself and many experts consider essential for all humans in varying amounts, there’s no formula you can use to know much of a given supplement you should take.
You just need to get blood tests for the really critical stuff.
CUSTOMIZING YOUR SUPPLEMENTS IS CRUCIAL.
Don’t just blindly take a random assortment of pills thinking that you’re doing yourself good in the long run. It’s a highly personal thing.
Depending what my clients are dealing with, their life history and goals, I recommend a panel of tests that always includes a suite of basic but essential things like iron, Vitamin D, B12 (via methylmalonic acid ideally), zinc, copper, RBC magnesium, homocysteine, a complete blood count and several others.
Getting your bloodwork done can point to both nutrient deficiencies, but also to potentially looming issues down the road, so it’s certainly useful (regardless of whether you get on the supplement train). Just make sure you have an expert with a ‘prevention medicine’ lens look at it for you.***
(If you live in Canada, your blood work will be covered if your GP will orders it for you; if they won’t, you can go to a Naturopath, who can order the rest for you. These tests are usually quite inexpensive, wherever you live, and are certainly worth doing now and again.)
A poignant example of why blood work is key:
You need to supplement differently to be healthy if you carry the very common “MTHFR” gene variant(s) like I do (~10-15% of caucasian folks, 25% of North American Hispanics, etc). To grossly oversimplify, among many things can go awry with us, we tend to have low circulating levels of B vitamins and our detox pathways often need help because we are “poor methylators.” Tell-tale signs of these mutations show up on blood tests that include homocysteine, Vitamin B6 and folate. (You’ll know definitively if you get your DNA sequenced.) This is key because up to 70% of people with depression are found to have the MTHFR genetic variant and go their whole lives suffering needlessly or taking terrible pharmaceutical drugs, when in fact, they could find relief in simple supplementation.
That’s just one example of the power of understanding your biochemistry (and genetics).
I just had my own blood work done, which I recommend do once a year or so in the dead of winter because our bodies’ needs and how we metabolize things shifts with age, seasons, stress levels, etc.
My results were really informative - a couple of numbers even surprised me owing to a new supplement routine I’m trying. I’m glad I did it because it helped me know that it’s time to change things up.
[***Aside: It’s worth mentioning that blood work can be deceiving because of flawed reference ranges. This is actually a HUGE problem: most doctors will not tell you (or be aware) that your blood work results are abnormal unless your numbers fall outside the highly abnormal “reference ranges,” which are generated based on very sick populations! What is “normal” on those tests is really ‘pathological’ (as opposed to ‘functional’).
What does that mean? It means that you can still have MAJOR problems but score within the “normal” reference range; you will only be flagged if you score WAY outside of what is optimal for a healthy person. In that case, you’ll probably already know you’re out of range because you’ll likely be sick. Once you’re, you can use those numbers to start figuring out why, but it doesn’t help prevent you from getting there.
Epic fail when it comes to preventative care…
And obviously not useful if you’re looking to optimize your health.
Lest I rant, this is the topic of another discussion entirely. See more here if you’re interested.]