Have you ever walked into a pharmacy or a nutrition store and gazed upon the bottle upon bottle of options for supplements? Perhaps you want to buy some calcium, but find it hard to pick out the best one. Price is certainly one thing to consider, but it is definitely not the most important thing to mull over when purchasing. You wouldn’t just pick the cheapest car when auto shopping, just because it’s the cheapest. That $200 deal might just be trash on wheels and what a waste of your money it could be.
To Supplement, or Not to Supplement, That is the Question…
The first question is whether you actually need to buy any supplements. Even the Canada Food Guide now recommends a multivitamin/mineral supplement. There are many reasons why a supplement may be useful or even essential.
1. You don’t eat enough healthy, nutritionally balanced and varied meals. Broccoli, tomato, and lettuce are not good enough to cover your vegetable category. Can you try to guess the most consumed vegetable of North America? Potatoes. Usually in the form of French fries. Really not good enough.
2. You have higher nutritional needs. Illness, stress, medications, and higher activity levels are examples of situations that cause a need for more nutrients. Some medications cause specific nutrient deficiencies. Ask your health practitioner or pharmacist about your medications and their impact.
3. You have poor digestion/absorption. Just because you consume something does not mean that your body uses all those nutrients. We tend to produce fewer digestive enzymes as we age. Those with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, colitis, indigestion, and others may not have good digestive absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients. Also, as we age, we produce less stomach acid and fewer digestive enzymes. Even if you have heartburn or acid reflux, you may still have insufficient stomach acid. It may be that the problem is not enough of a protective lining of mucus to shield the stomach tissues or that the valve that stops stomach acid from rising is too loose and allows stomach acid to seep back and irritate the esophagus (the tube that brings food from your mouth to your stomach).
4. Our food is less nutrient-rich than it once was due to nutrient-poor soils from over farming, early harvesting so that foods can be send on long journeys across the continent or from the other side of the world, pollution, and poor quality foods. We used to grow our own food or buy it from our neighbours. We used to pick up fresh foods daily. We now buy foods laden in preservatives. We add artificial or “natural” flavours to try to make them tasty again. We buy foods from the other side of the world. Try eating a banana in Thailand. It tastes totally different than what we eat here. Why? Because we don’t grow bananas here! Those bananas are picked long before they are ripe.
It is impossible for me to list all the supplements that you could or should consider, so we’ll just cover a few fundamentals about multivitamins/minerals in this article and expand on other important supplement categories next month.
If any of the four listed issues above are ones that you think affect you then consider a multivitamin/mineral. As mentioned, not all supplements are created the same. When picking up a multi, read the label or ask someone to help you. These are some things to look for:
a) We all have different needs at different stages of our lives. Women are different than men. Age plays a factor. So, if you are over the age of 45 or 50, pick a multi designed for “seniors” or “older adult”.
b) Some nutrients are trickier than others. Looking at a multi, one way to assess quality is to check out the vitamin E. Does it read “dl-alpha-tocopherol”? If so, then that company is using a synthetic vitamin E which is poorly absorbed. Make sure that it reads “d-alpha-tocopherol”. Note the missing “l”. If the multi has “mixed tocopherols” or, even better, includes “tocotrienols”, you are getting a leg up on your vitamin E source and that multi is likely a very good one.
c) Check out the “non-medicinal” list of ingredients. I recommend avoiding supplements that add in extras like aspartame (an artificial sweetener—more likely found in the chewable forms), hydrogenated palm or soybean oils (hydrogenation produces trans fats, that bad stuff you have been hearing more and more about), sodium benzoate (a preservative), and FD&C dyes.
d) Remember, multis are a mix of various vitamins and minerals. If your multi is a single colour (usually a bright reddish orange), then dyes and other coatings have been used. Multis also often smell bad. The B vitamins, in particular, smell bad. That’s normal. If you have to, plug your nose when you take them.
Here’s a hint about swallowing these usually large pills: Have a small mouthful of food, chew it well, and pop in 1 or 2 of the supplement tablets or capsules with the food. You will find it much easier to get down.
Supplement How-To, part 2
Last month I covered some basic things to consider for choosing and taking supplements to optimize your health. This month’s article will cover a few specifics about some particular areas of health, but do remember that these recommendations are still generalized and you may want to discuss your particular needs with your health care provider or qualified natural health practitioner as each individual’s needs will vary.
Note that for this category, I didn’t simply label it “Calcium”. Many nutrients are key to good bone health.
a) Calcium: Calcium carbonate is commonly used, but it is generally poorly absorbed. Calcium carbonate is what antacids use to decrease stomach acid. The problem with that as a calcium source is that we need stomach acid in order to absorb calcium and our stomach acid tends to decline as we age (even if you have acid reflux, it does not mean you have too much acid, just likely not enough mucus to protect from the acid). Better options include calcium citrate, calcium chelate, and my preferred, calcium microcrystalline hydroxyapatite complex (MCHC). The last one can not only slow the rate of bone loss, but also reverse bone loss attributed to osteoporosis.
b) Magnesium: More than 60% of the body’s store of magnesium is in the bones. Sufficient magnesium is required for vitamin D and calcium absorption. In addition, magnesium on its own has been shown to slow the rate of bone loss. Magnesium oxide is a poorly absorbed form, so what you are best consuming in supplement form is magnesium citrate, magnesium chelate, or magnesium glycinate.
c) Vitamin D: Vitamin D is essential for optimal calcium absorption. While your body can make this nutrient from exposure to sunlight, many of us do not get enough sun throughout the year to support our needs.
d) Others: Manganese, copper, zinc, strontium, boron, and phosphorous are other key bone nutrients.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
You’ve likely heard about the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs). Some best sources are found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds (yes, of the famously known “Chia Pet” plants), and fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, and mackerel. The merit of EFAs is not overstated. They are “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own and they need to be consumed in foods.
There are some supplements where the cheapest brand may be just as good as the most expensive. That is not the case with EFAs. While you don’t necessarily have to search out the most expensive one, quality of oil is important.
When choosing fish oils, the small fish are best, i.e. sardines, mackerel, herring, rather than the large salmon, tuna, halibut, and cod. This is because the larger fish, being higher up on the food chain, have potential for a higher accumulation of heavy metals such as mercury.
Flax seeds are a great source of omega 3 EFAs (and fibre), but in order to get the oils out, you need to either buy flax oil, flax oil capsules, or grind flax seeds. Once ground, the flax seeds need to be kept in the fridge. Another option is to buy husked flax seeds as the oils are readily accessible and they are shelf stable.
Hemp seeds and chia seeds are great snacks as they can be chewed to access the oils, protein, and fibre.
In order to properly absorb and utilize all nutrients, your digestive system has to be working well enough. You may not need any of these supplements, but if your digestive system is impaired, you can ask me which, if any, might be best suited for you and what others might you include that I haven’t written about here.
Some key digestive nutrients include the following:
a) Digestive enzymes: As we age, we produce fewer digestive enzymes, substances that our bodies need to break down the foods that we eat so their nutrients can be absorbed and used. Eating raw or lightly cooked (TCM prefers lightly cooked, steamed, slow cooked, and soups and stews) vegetables, fruits, grains (especially sprouted grains), and legumes will provide some enzymes. Supplemental enzymes in capsule format are also available. If you are lactose intolerant (problems digesting milk and dairy products), make sure your enzyme supplement includes lactase.
b) Probiotics: Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that you hear a lot about in yogurt commercials. Yogurt is a good source, but if you are taking or have taken a lot of antibiotics, or if you have digestive issues (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, cramping, etc.), probiotic supplements are best as they contain much higher dosages of the good bacteria. There are many strains of these bacteria, so it may be best to talk to a natural health care practitioner to determine which is best for you. This is another category where quality makes a difference because if the quality is poor, not enough of the good bacteria will survive and live in your intestines.
c) Fibre: Most of us do not get enough fibre in our diets. Although many people think that we only need to worry about fibre if we are constipated, its benefits are many. Fibre does help with regulating bowel function, will not cause “too many bowel movements” when taken properly, helps keep blood cholesterol in check, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and may even help prevent cancer, kidney stones, and gallstones.
d) Senna: I want to mention this one because it is commonly taken to remedy constipation. Note, however, that it can become habit forming because the body can become dependant on it. Talk with your health care provider for other options so that you can limit your senna use.
“Supplements” is a huge topic and I’ve only covered a very small part of it, but some things to remember are that no supplement should be used to replace a healthy diet and lifestyle, that while generally safe you should make sure that the supplements that you take are suitable for you and in combination with any medications that you take, and that quality of product and an appropriate dosage will impact the effectiveness of any supplement.
Dr. Melissa Carr is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncturist with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Kinetics from the University of Guelph in Ontario. In addition to running her own clinic, Dr. Carr also acts as a natural health and nutrition consultant for a several companies and writes for health magazines. Believing that her role is as guide, teacher, and motivator, her goal is to work in partnership with her patients to bring them to their optimal health. www.activetcm.com 604-783-2846