Supplements. Are they good, bad, or both? Which ones should I take and when?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed simply by the sheer number of supplements out there…
You read articles or hear information from a friend that such and such vitamin or enzyme or extract or whatever is great for this or that ailment or condition or weight loss or anti-aging…
But how do you navigate all this and make the right decision for yourself?
Food as Medicine
In most cases, the best first approach to get all the nutrition you need is through whole foods. The nutrients in food are generally in their most effective form when closest to their original packaging.
Unfortunately, in many cases, it just is not that simple. “I am low in this vitamin” or “this enzyme helps combat this situation so I’ll take this isolated nutrient” just doesn’t work. Nutrients often require cofactors (other nutrients) or certain conditions (such as protective mechanisms to carry them to their intended target) in order to be effective.
Learning this fact almost caused my head to explode at one point. I thought I needed to monitor to a neurotic level what foods I was pairing together. And if I did decide I needed a supplement, then I needed to buy all the cofactors as well… life became pretty challenging at this point.
What’s nice about whole food sources and an ancestrally focused diet is that they usually contain all the cofactors and protective mechanisms that are necessary to get the job done or happen to taste awesome with another food that contains them (collard greens with bacon fat as a delicious example). Traditional preparation methods (cooking, combining with fat, fermenting, soaking, and sprouting) often result in the most bioavailable (the ability for nutrients to be broken down and absorbed by the body) delivery of nutrients.
There are times when whole food sources may not be enough:
- Different dietary and lifestyle circumstances burn through certain nutrients at an accelerated rate. For example, stress burns through b vitamins, Vit c, calcium, magnesium, and omega 3’s. A high sugar intake depletes Vit d, Vit c, calcium, magnesium, and chromium. (Side note: now consider the fact that high stress increases sugar cravings… Yikes!)
- Many people have compromised gut health. It’s difficult to ingest the nutrients you need if your food is going right through you or causing you discomfort. And if your gut is inflamed or leaky, food will not be broken down and absorbed appropriately. And this can lead to food sensitivities.
- Life is challenging and messy and your resources or work schedule may simply not be conducive to obtaining and preparing healthy foods or getting as much rest as you need to properly absorb nutrients.
- A vital void – This is the case if you’ve had an organ removed, for example, the gallbladder is removed and you no longer produce enough bile to break down fats, or your thyroid is removed.
- You need a break, you just simply need some relief. Stress from chronic pain, lack of energy, or symptoms of hormone imbalance. All these can take down even the most determined, strong, and motivated individuals. Sometimes you just need life to get a little easier. You need a quick and easy boost so you have the energy to implement dietary and lifestyle changes.
A conservative approach to supplements
I believe in a conservative approach when it comes to supplementation. Just as I do when it comes to medication. These can be powerful tools and resources and are often necessary to keep you alive, functioning and comfortable. But this should not be where the story ends.
These resources are marvels of medical science or ancient wisdom that should not be taken for granted or treated as a free pass to no longer pursue the root cause of your problems in the first place. Taking anything in the form of a pill should not be considered the end game or a total fix.
Medications or supplements may relieve symptoms (known as allopathic care) and this can be an important part of recovery. They can give you the relief you need to make dietary and lifestyle adjustments so that one day you no longer need them. If you take things to relieve symptoms and ignore the root cause you are setting yourself up for a rude awakening when the original issue continues and possibly manifests into a full-blown disease.
Imagine you were to drop a piece of pie on the floor and just put a rug over it for months or even years so you wouldn’t need to look at the ugly mess anymore. Out of sight, out of mind…
The rug stays there and you ignore the molding, critter-infested situation that eventually comprises the whole house.
Support the body, don’t just replace.
If you do decide to take supplements try to focus on things that will support the body’s innate ability to heal itself. For instance, if you have low thyroid hormone, don’t just take thyroid hormone and call it a day. Do the work to find out what you can do to support the body to get those numbers back to where they should be. (Either by doing your own research or enlisting a trusted professional) There are dietary and lifestyle adjustments that can, more often than not, mitigate the need for supplementation in many situations. And that formula will look different for everyone.
This sounds difficult, why not just stay on the hormone? Because when we start taking replacement therapies the body often downregulates its own production of hormones or whatever it is you are replacing. Then you may need to continually increase the dosage of the product for the desired result.
Bottom line: I take supplements.
There are some I keep on hand when I go through my typical rollercoaster of running myself into the ground and I stay on them until I can rest and restore my health. And there are a few I take on a regular basis just because I know my lifestyle requires a higher demand for them or my body can’t efficiently utilize them.
The solution to your health challenges is a simple matter of identifying your body’s unique needs, imbalances, and weaknesses. And then finding a strategy to resolve them that suits your lifestyle and personality.