In a perfect world, supplements would not be necessary. It would be great if we all ate a perfect, whole foods, organic, locally sourced diet. But, we don’t. And, even if you did, there is a chance you would still be deficient in one or more nutrients. Proper, prudent supplementation can have a profound impact on your health. While it is true there are people that seem to get along fine without ever having taken so much as a multivitamin, I believe that it is worth the time to invest some effort into researching what could optimize your health when it comes to supplementation. There are some supplements which I believe almost every person should take, while some that only people of certain ages, sex and cultures (depending on where you live) take.
You may ask why you need supplements? Vitamins and minerals are essential for the normal growth and development of a multicellular organism. Using the genetic blueprint inherited from its parents, a fetus begins to develop, at the moment of conception, from the nutrients it absorbs. It requires certain vitamins and minerals to be present at certain times. These nutrients facilitate the chemical reactions that produce among other things, skin, bone, and muscle. If there is serious deficiency in one or more of these nutrients, a child may develop a deficiency disease. Even minor deficiencies may cause permanent damage.
A book could be written on the pros and cons of supplements. It gets very confusing and convoluted with all the pop culture pseudo-science advice out there. I am not recommending taking a boat load of supplements. Actually, less is better. Everything you ingest needs to be processed by the liver. But, being deficient in Vitamin D or Magnesium can have deleterious affects on your health. An apple or head of broccoli of today is not the same as it was 10,000 years ago. We are eating a sweeter, watered-down version of the original form. Apples were originally very small and extremely tart, chock full of many precious nutrients, and very low in sugar. Now they are big, shiny and incredibly sweet. Every single banana you have ever eaten is genetically the same: the Cavendish banana, sweet and blemish-free. We need genetic diversity in our diet, but that is another blog post altogether. You should be eating a very large dinner plate of vegetables every day, but few people do. Many of those vegetables are harvested from over-farmed and depleted soils without proper crop rotation, or shipped thousands of miles to get to you. Why are we getting nectarines from Chile when we have some of the best fruit in the world grown in BC? In our society of excess we expect nectarines in December when our harvest season is July/August.
Supplementing with a few basics can have a great impact on your immune system, recovery from exercise and stress, energy levels, and overall biomarkers of health (hormones, insulin, cortisol etc). In another blog post I will cover training supplements, as that requires some attention with all the claims to miracles on TV and in magazines.
All of these supplements can be purchased at Costco, Superstore, Whole Foods, Choices, health food stores, pharmacies or online (swansonvitamins.com). You may not need to take any of these. Take a look at the food alternative, and if you are getting enough from natural sources then you may not need to supplement.
- Fish Oil – Almost everyone needs more Omega-3-fatty acids. This will help with pain, inflammation, mood and weight loss. I only recommend liquid fish oil and it can be found in most stores these days. Ascenta NutraSea brand is one of the best brands you can find locally. Start with 1TB 2x/day for 4 weeks, and then cut back to 2tsp/day. Fish oil for children is great as Omega-3 is essential for brain development. If you eat fish more than twice per week, then you may not have to supplement. Fattier fish like mackerel, salmon, herring, and sardines are great. Flax, walnuts, chia, hemp seeds and natto (the only form of soy I recommend) are fish/meat-free alternatives, but not nearly as good. Note: I do not recommend supplementing with Omega 6 or 9. We get plenty of that in the diet already, and too much skews the ratio of Omega 3 to 6&9.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is a pro-hormone and vital to immunity and most physiological functions. Living in Canada, we are very well north of the equator. Only in the summer is the angle of the sun such that we are producing Vitamin D from the suns rays. I recommend 1000-4000IU/day in the winter, taken in the morning (on the higher side if you are always indoors, get sick often, or are prone to depression). Vitamin D helps with pain, inflammation, healing, and mood. If there was only supplement I would recommend, it would be this. If you have weight problems, you need even more, as body fat stores suck up a lot of Vitamin D. The best natural food sources are fish, liver and egg yolks. Since I am not a huge advocate of conventional dairy, I cannot, in good conscience recommend it as a source of D. The very best source is sunlight on bare skin, with no sunscreen. A healthy (not overdoing it) daily dose of sun on big areas like the back, chest and legs will produce and store Vitamin D. On a sunny day it takes just 5-15 minutes. Since sunlight causes our bodies to make vitamin D, daily exposure is helpful. A helpful rule: estimate the amount of time it would take for your skin to turn pink – or slightly, but noticeably darker – in the sun. Then reduce that time by 50 percent if you have fair skin, 25 percent for darker skin, and get that amount of exposure between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. two to three times per week.
- Magnesium Glycinate – helps relax tense and chronically painful muscles. Magnesium is helpful for people in chronic pain. It also induces a deeper sleep. Purchased online (swansonvitamins.com) or a compounding pharmacy (Finlandia in Vancouver). “Natural Calm” at Swanson’s and some higher end health food stores works great before bed. Taking Epsom salt baths can help since the Magnesium in the baths salts can absorbed through our largest organ, the skin. The best natural sources are dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, bananas, dried fruit and dark chocolate. I take magnesium every night before bed. It helps relax me, and also creates more vivid dreams.
- Calcium Citrate – all women over 25 and men over 50 should consider taking this. It’s primary function is helping with bone production, but it has also been shown to help with muscles function and pain. Calcium Citrate appears to be one of the best absorbed. Some women take 2-3 different forms to cover their bases. Take as per the bottle recommendations. The best natural sources are dark leafy green, bok choy, broccoli, green beans, almonds, and canned fish with bones (like sardines and salmon). While Health Canada would have you believe you need 2-3 servings of dairy a day for optimal health and to get your Calcium, I disagree. Dairy can potentially contribute to a wide array of health problems such as skin conditions, gas, bloating, and leaky gut.
- Vitamin C – 250-500 mg/day. You can take up to 3000mg/day in the cold/flu season for very short periods of time. It may cause stomach upset, so if it does, then get your C from fruits and vegetables. The best natural sources are red/yellow/green peppers, kale, kiwi, all berries, tomatoes, oranges, and herbs like thyme, parsley and basil.
- Multivitamin – This is just a little extra insurance, since it contains all the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal health. I only take mine on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A bottle of good quality multivitamins, taken three times a week, will last a year.
- Iron – men should never supplement with iron or very rarely. High iron in men has been linked to heart disease. In fact, one of the reasons I regularly donate blood is to reduce my iron stores. But, since women lose plenty of iron every month due to their menstrual cycle, then iron supplementation is a “maybe”. Never just add iron into the mix without knowing for sure, via more than one blood test, if you are deficient. It would be better to get iron from natural sources like red meat, organ meats, seafood, oysters, dark leafy greens, dried peaches and apricots. If you can stomach it, grass fed organ meats are an elixir of health. Properly prepared beef liver is supposed to excellent. Recipe here: http://fatburningman.com/triple-meat-meatloaf-with-beef-chicken-grass-fed-beef-liver/
Other honorable mentions for supplements include Vitamin K2 which aids in bone production and hearth health, and B-Complex which can help with energy. If you suffer from chronic pain, Fibromyalgia or depression, then B-Complex can really help.
If asked what are the most important I would say, it depends. It depends on your age, sex, where you live, how much you exercise, risk factors, previous health history and much more. If given the choice between eating some broccoli or taking a pill, always choose the whole foods option. It’s hard to each too much broccoli or kale. But some foods are “hyperpalatable”. It’s why we can eat an enormous bowl of pasta (tasty, but devoid of real nutrients) but could never eat that much Brussels sprouts. They are just too filling and nutrient dense.
If you are interested in knowing what you may need to be supplementing with, then talk to your coach. It would start with keeping a food diary for a few days to see what your diet is like. Everyone is different. A construction worker who is outside all day would not need to supplement with Vitamin D. Vegetarians have different requirements. The key is taking only what is necessary. Supplements are just that, a supplement to a healthy diet. They are not meant to replace food.
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