Tuesday, June 9, 2009

To Supplement Or Not To Supplement

When discussing healthy eating and diet sometimes the topic turns to vitamin supplements. There are varying opinions on the effectiveness of supplements, how easily absorbed supplements are, and how much you can really trust supplement manufacturers.

So today's entry will take a look at vitamin supplements and take a look at the truth behind supplements. There will also be some helpful hints related to supplements that might help with some of the problems that are sometimes raised related to supplements.

To start, it needs to be said that ideally you'd get all of the vitamins and nutrients you need on a daily basis from food. If we could all consume a balanced diet then there would be no need for supplements. However, most of us eat too much of the wrong foods, not enough of the right foods, or foods that are depleted of the nutrients we need. Canned vegetables are a good example. While canned vegetables are better than no vegetables, eating fresh or even frozen vegetables will net you more vitamins and nutrients.

So while the quality of our food is often lacking, the quantity is also a problem. I remember seeing an infomercial for a juicer a few years ago. They had the juicer in the middle of a table surrounded by a vast array of vegetables and fruits. The host made the point that the daily recommended intake of those vegetables was represented right there surrounding the juicer. It is nearly impossible for someone to consume that many vegetables. Thus, supplementation is necessary to make up the gap.

Another category of people that really need to be on supplements is vegetarians or people that do not eat red meat. If you read a book about vitamins they will always list those that are most at risk for a deficiency of a given vitamin. For 95% of vitamins people that are listed as being most at risk are "vegetarians or those that do not eat red meat". It is imperative that you take a good daily multivitamin supplement if you fit this category. Despite what many folks claim, humans were meant to consume meat. We have the teeth and the digestive systems for it. While we are not exclusively meat eaters, we are like bears: omnivorous. Which means we need a balance of plant and animal based foods to remain healthy.

Finally, if you are still opposed to supplements it is important to realize that you are probably already taking supplements and just don't know it. If you drink milk, milk is fortified with vitamin D. If you eat cereal or oatmeal (or just about any packaged breakfast food) then you are taking supplements as manufacturers "enrich" those foods with vitamin supplements. Even many commercially sold fruit juices are enhanced with vitamins. Supplementation of these nutrients is one reason we live longer and healthier today.

But what about supplements themselves? What are the best forms to take them in? After all, there are liquids, powders, tablets, and gel-tabs. There are even creams you rub on your skin for absorption by the body. The answer to the question of which is better is: it depends. Everyone is different, maybe your body can't handle the tablets, or you have trouble swallowing them. Maybe the liquids are to hard on your stomach. The creams could irritate your skin. So you have to find what works best for you.

Also, there have been reports of unscrupulous supplement manufacturers. So do a little research and stick to reputable manufacturers. Avoid overseas, mail-order supplement manufacturers. Read what experts recommend in the way of supplement companies. Use that accumulated knowledge to make a smart choice in supplements.

Some supplements can be proven through blood work. If you have high cholesterol, and you start taking 500mg of Niacin a night, if you are taking a good supplement you should see an improvement in your blood cholesterol numbers. Same with vitamin D. If you have low vitamin D and you start taking a supplement, you should see your vitamin D level go up if the supplement is working.

The question of what kinds of supplements you should be taking depends on your circumstances. At a minimum, most people should be taking a good, daily multivitamin. Not all of these are created equal so you need to find one that has plenty of the essential vitamins, and if they include minerals and herbs then their value is even higher. If you are a vegetarian or do not eat red meat, make sure the supplement you choose has a fair amount of iron in it.

Discussing these kinds of things with your doctor is important. Many doctors now prescribe supplements to their patients. My doctor prescribed fish oil and Niacin (a B-vitamin) to help combat my low HDL and high triglyceride cholesterol levels. My wife has been prescribed vitamin D by her doctor. Vitamin supplements are now commonly prescribed and recommended by physicians.

When you take your supplements is important too. Most people take their vitamins in the morning, either before or after breakfast. I disagree with this tactic. The only time I think you should take supplements in the morning, is if you need to take more than one tablet of a particular supplement.

For instance, to help with my omega-3 intake I added an Acai supplement to my regimen. The recommend dosage calls for 2 gel-tabs a day, so I take one before bed with the rest of my supplements, and one with breakfast every morning. This way I am breaking up the dosage over the day as opposed to one giant dose at the end.

Why do I recommend taking supplements before bed? Well the answer has more than one answer. First, absorption is better. Second, side-effects are less noticeable. And finally, it is usually easier to remember to take them at night.

Absorption is better because you are probably going to sleep through the night, and therefore the supplement stays in your system longer. Do this experiment: take your multivitamin with breakfast. When you urinate notice the color and smell of your urine. You are urinating out much of the vitamin supplement you took. Now take the supplement at night, and notice take notice of your urine the next morning. It shouldn't be any different than normal. The reason for this is that most people can't go 3-4 hours without urinating during the day, but go 6-8 hours at night. Those extra hours allow for much better absorption as the nutrients remain in the body much longer.

Side-effects are also less noticeable. For instance, Niacin will cause skin flushing which most people will sleep through unless it is severe. (This side-effect diminishes as your body becomes accustom to Niacin.) Many people suffer upset stomach from supplements, but most people will sleep through that as well if they take the supplements prior to going to bed.

I have also found that it is easier to remember to take supplements before going to bed. Most people eat breakfast these days on the run or at work. If you forget to bring your supplements with you then you obviously can't take them. If you take them prior to going to bed, you usually are at home, and you probably keep your supplements at home. I have found I miss taking my supplements much less often by making it a bedtime ritual.

Most people need to supplement their diets with vitamins. You should discuss what your needs are with your doctor, choose supplements for your specific set of circumstances, and then take them on a schedule that works best for you. The negatives that are sometimes pointed out related to supplements can be minimized, and supplements can be an important part of your health and nutrition.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tip on taking vitamins at night. I never really looked at it that way. Makes sense.


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