Do you ever wonder if you really need all those vitamins and supplements you’ve been taking? I mean, if you’re eating healthy, can’t you just get everything from your food? I get asked this question a lot by my clients, and I’ve also been known to ask my own Naturopath the same thing! I’ve never liked swallowing pills, and I’ll be honest. Somedays I just look at my supplements lined up and grimace. Can you relate?
At least since going to nutrition school and studying functional medicine, I know what mine are for and exactly why I’m taking them. So I wanted to help you understand why you might or might not need your vitamins and supplements too. These days vitamins and supplements are big businesses. In the US alone last year the vitamins and supplements industry grossed a whopping $32 Billion dollars!(1)
And did you know this industry is largely unregulated?(2) This means that a lot of vitamins and supplements on the market may have suboptimal ingredients or ingredients like a bunch of fillers and binders that basically don’t do anything for you and could even make you sick if you’re sensitive to an ingredient. So if that’s the case, do you really need to take vitamins and supplements?
What exactly IS a vitamin or mineral, and why might you need supplements?
Vitamin: any of the organic compounds which are essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by the body.
Mineral: an inorganic element that comes from the soil and water and is absorbed by plants or eaten by animals. Your body needs adequate amounts of minerals to grow and stay healthy.
This means we need to get our vitamins and minerals from our food or water. So could you be vitamin and mineral deficient? One shocking statistic is that upwards of 90% of Americans are subclinically deficient in at least one micronutrient or vitamin.(3)(4) According to research data: (5)(6)(7)(8)
- 95% of adults and 98% of teens have an inadequate vitamin D intake
- 62% Americans are deficient in magnesium
- 40% of Americans are deficient in vitamin B-12
- 32% of Americans have insufficient vitamin B6 intake
- 23% of Americans are low in Iron
90% of Americans are subclinically deficient in at least one micronutrient or vitamin.
What does it mean to be subclinically nutrient deficient?
Subclinical nutrient deficiency indicates biochemical changes at an unstable state which, if untreated, will develop to clinical malnutrition.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are often used as biomarkers to detect other health ailments. So you can think of vitamin or mineral deficiencies as early warning signs that something in your body is out of balance. And there are multiple reasons for someone to have subclinical nutrient deficiencies.
For example, subclinical magnesium deficiency is a principal cause of A-Fib and cardiovascular disease. Magnesium plays a significant role in over 300 enzymatic processes including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, and preventing seizures. And that’s just one nutrient…
Many vitamins and minerals also work in concert with each other… calcium needs Vitamin D3 and K2-7 to be absorbed into bones and teeth.
Many vitamins and minerals also work in concert with each other. For example, calcium needs Vitamin D3 and K2-7 to be absorbed into bones and teeth. If you’re low in either of those, it can lead to osteoporosis or osteopenia not matter how much calcium you take. In fact, if you’re taking calcium supplements and are low in D3, or K2-7 that calcium could even be doing you more harm than good. If it doesn’t have the other needed nutrients to get it into the bones the body will store excess calcium in your soft tissues, like your arteries, for example, leading to arterial clarification (hardening of the arteries).
As another example, plant foods typically contain more copper than we need. Zinc and copper compete for the same receptors, so a diet high in copper (think vegans and vegetarians) can cause zinc deficiency (very common).
Zinc deficiency can present as impaired immune function, hair loss, and eye lesions to name a few symptoms. And just like with magnesium, zinc is a co-factor with enzymes creating a number of biochemical processes in our body. Without sufficient zinc, many other things can go haywire. But everything needs to be in perfect balance. Too much zinc can deplete copper and cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. No bueno!
Bothered by frequent charley horses? This can be an indication of a mineral deficiency or an imbalance of electrolytes including magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium.
Symptoms of Common Nutrient Deficiencies
- A ~ dermatitis, any eye inflammation, poor night vision, dry or scaly or itchy skin
- B6 ~ anxiety, depression, fatigue, trigger finger, carpal tunnel, elevated homocysteine/hypertension, symptoms of estrogen dominance
- B12 ~ numbness and tingling in the hands and feet (neuropathy), depression, dementia, and fatigue
- CoQ10 ~ congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, angina, mitral valve prolapse, fatigue, and gingivitis, (and by the way, statin drugs deplete CoQ10!)
- D ~ excessive sweating, low immune function, osteoporosis, poor calcium absorption, bone tenderness, and thyroid issues
- Folate ~ anemia, low immune function, low white blood count, fatigue, insomnia, hair loss, high homocysteine, cardiovascular disease
- Iron ~ anemia, fatigue/lethargy, usually cold, poor extremity circulation, poor T4 to T3 thyroid conversion
- K2-7 ~ osteoporosis, osteopenia, and calcified arteries
- Magnesium ~ all over tightness/tension, charley horse, headache, anxiety, constipation, GERD, muscle spasms, frequent cough, arrhythmia, insulin resistance, and craving chocolate
- Potassium ~ hypertension and muscle cramps (especially “charley horse”)
So when you look at all of the vitamins and minerals our body needs to function properly, and all of the chemical processes each one is involved in, it’s truly amazing that we’re functioning as well as we are. But just because you might have a symptom of some vitamin or mineral deficiency, or you’ve read the latest article on some hot new supplement, doesn’t mean you should start taking them. Just like Rx prescriptions can be hard on the liver, so can taking a ton of supplements.
“Our foods are hybridized, genetically-modified, sprayed, processed, refined, irradiated, oxidized, homogenized, stripped, bleached, charred, and served with fries.”
—Tracy Harrison, School of Applied Functional Medicine
So Why Might We Be Nutrient Deficient?
As you can see, there’s a pretty good chance that you may be subclinically deficient in at least one supplement. And there are several reasons for this as we’ll learn here.
- Our produce contains fewer nutrients than it used to. In fact, the average produce today (whether organic or not) contains 50% fewer nutrients than it did in 1975!(11) This factoid left me gobsmacked because that’s in my lifetime. I was eleven in 1975. This lowered nutrient value of produce is due to poor farming practices, including not rotating crops which leaves our soils devoid of nutrients and spraying with toxins like glyphosate that persists in our soils for many years. Today (compared to 1975):
- Apples have 41% less Vitamin A
- Bell peppers have 31% less Vitamin C
- Watercress has 88% less Iron
- Broccoli has 50% less Vitamin C and 50% less Calcium
- Collard greens have 60% less Potassium and 85% less Magnesium
- Cauliflower has 48% less Vitamin B1 and 47% less Vitamin B2
- Most American’s eat the Standard American Diet (S.A.D), processed foods full of toxins, artificial ingredients, and minimal nutrients. In fact, 37% of American adults eat at least one junk food meal a day. Not only are we not taking in the nutrients we need in most meals, but eating toxic foods actually demands more nutrients to digest, further depleting our vital nutrients.
- Many people over age 50 have low stomach acid and/or low digestive enzymes. This can be due to a variety of gut dysbiosis factors from poor eating habits to H.pylori to leaky gut and more. So when we can’t properly digest our food, even if we’re eating totally healthy, we’re likely not absorbing and assimilating the nutrients that are in our food.
- And for the same reasons mentioned above, if we aren’t digesting/absorbing/assimilating nutrients from our food, we also aren’t likely to be digesting/absorbing/assimilating them from our supplements ether, making for some very expensive urine.
Not All Supplements are Created Equally
If you’ve ever shopped for vitamins and supplements you’ve seen a wide variety of brands, and a wide variety of prices too. I used to wonder why my Naturopath always recommended high-end professional brands of supplements. Was it just so she could make money on selling them to me? Turns out that’s not why at all. And now I’m grateful that I know the difference.
As we learned above, many vitamins and supplements are made from inferior ingredients or contain forms of minerals and vitamins that are not easily absorbed. For example, there are multiple forms of magnesium. But only a couple of forms that we can actually absorb well and utilize. But guess what? Most inexpensive supplements contain the types we can’t easily absorb.
Likewise, many kinds of cereal and processed foods (including milk) are fortified with vitamins. But guess what? They use vitamin D2, the form we don’t readily utilize, instead of D3, the type we need more of. That’s because D2 is much cheaper to use. And guess what else? D2 and D3 uptake in the same receptors, so if you’re filling your receptors with D2, there won’t be any room for the D3 to uptake, and you may become Vitamin D deficient even though you may be taking supplements.
Professional vs Non-professional Brands
And as the old adage goes “you get what you pay for.” Just like with top-shelf brands of alcohol, paying a little extra for quality, professional brands that your body actually needs and can readily absorb can go a long way to promoting your health. However, there are also some quality non-professional brands.
I’m frequently asked which brands I recommend. As you likely know, I always personally vet anything I recommend. So here are a few of my favorite brands. And while I am minimally compensated for selling some of these brands I take them myself and can vouch for them 100%. And my readers save 20% when shopping my online professional brand dispensaries.
Professional Brands (save 20% on all orders):
- Thorne (zero fillers/binders which is great if you have allergies/food sensitivities)
- Microbiome Labs (great supplements for Leaky Gut and other gut issues)
- Metagenics (food supplements, vitamins, and CBD products)
- Vital Nutrients (bioavailable forms of minerals)
- Jarrow (great choice for low-cost and easy availability, but not always the best forms of nutrients)
- Garden of Life (raw, whole-food-based supplements, recently acquired by Nestlé so not sure if their quality will change)
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Another thing to keep in mind is RDA (recommended daily allowance). Science has only recently begun to understand what many of these nutrients actually DO in our body (like that vitamin D isn’t actually a vitamin at all, but a “pre-hormone” that interacts with all our other hormones!) However, the RDA was established in 1941 and have hardly been updated since. Plus the RDA is based on an “average” 150lb male and gives the bare minimum amount of nutrients needed to survive, not to thrive. So how many of you are actually a 150lb male? Yep, didn’t think so…
Reference Ranges for Vitamins and Supplements
Reference ranges are used to determine optimal biomarker values in blood labs. Functional Medicine is typically more conservative when it comes to “optimal” reference ranges than allopathic medicine might be, (meaning FM optimal RR usually has higher lows and lower highs). This is because research has shown that you’re much more likely to catch things that might be going astray in your body earlier when you use more conservative ranges.(9)
For example, the normal allopathic medicine reference range for Vitamin D is between 25-80 ng/mL, but for Functional Medicine, it’s between 50-80. Generally, it’s been shown that having your vitamin D at least 50 ng/mL will go a long way towards keeping your immune system healthy (this has also been shown in some recent COVID-19 studies)(10). While values above 80 can start to suppress your immune system (this can actually be helpful if you have an auto-immune disease.)
As you can see there is a lot of room for bio-individuality here. Every BODY is different. (That’s why functional medicine focuses on the individual person with dis-ease, rather than what disease the person has.) So you need to work with your health practitioner to determine what is best for your unique individual body.
“In a perfect world, no one would need supplements. Given the stress of our modern life, the poor quality of our food supply, and the high load of toxins on our brains and bodies, most of us need a basic daily supply of the key, raw materials for all our enzymes and biochemistry to run as designed.”
— Dr. Mark Hyman, MD
Vitamins and Supplements: Do You Need Them?
While it would be ideal to get all of our nutrients from real, whole foods, sadly, that’s virtually impossible these days. So how can you really know if you need vitamins and supplements or not? And more importantly which ones you need?
It’s a good idea to work with your health care practitioner to get a baseline blood test done to show your vitamin and mineral levels. Keep in mind that many health insurance companies won’t cover this, which is unfortunate given that it could lead to stopping or reversing something like type 2 diabetes long before it’s typically caught. I personally feel it’s worth the extra cost to have peace-of-mind over my own health destiny.
Then you can work with your health care practitioner from there to see where you’re low or high, and which supplements might work best for you given your unique body. If your health care practitioner is not willing to test you, check out SpectraCell.com. They can connect you with a referring practitioner.
Please leave a comment to let us know your biggest “ah-ha!” take on vitamins and supplements. Thanks for reading, and sharing with your friends and family to help them stay well too!