There is so much hype, commercialism, bad information, and even deception about supplements that each of us needs to take a look at what we are taking. By considering the whole picture of what your body needs and then analyzing what you are taking, you can decide which ones are the best for you.
The products which are available to us number in the hundreds in most supplement catalogs. We see articles in the newspaper that tell us, for example, that Vitamins C and E and zinc may provide protection from prostate cancer and that cruciferous vegetables with their high level of Indole-3- Carbinol reduce onset and growth of breast cancer. There are hundreds of these anecdotal pieces of information. Some of these anecdotes may be partially or completely true, but the benefits of these supplements may depend on how long you have taken them, what the rest of your diet is like, how much you eat, your genetic coding, and even what blood type you are.
As a surgeon who wants to get the best results for patients and to have those results last a long time, I try to always pay attention to and analyze my patients’ nutrition and supplement pattern as well as their exercise pattern and body weight. You can often tell by briefly looking at someone what his or her nutrition and life style habits are. Most everyone I see has the common goals of wanting to look her best, stay healthy, enjoy a long life while maintaining independence. The question is, can supplements help us achieve these goals?
Just as many things in life, the answer is not simple. We know of the results of vitamin defiencies, which can be severe and even deadly if not treated. Beriberi is a thiamine-deficiency condition which occurs as a result of low or no intake of Vitamin B1. Incidentally, “polishing” rice and cereal grains—removing their minerals and vitamins, which turns them into only starch granules with no nutrient value—is one way processing foods removes healthy nutrients and vitamins, like Vitamin B1.
Pellagra, a vitamin-deficiency disease resulting from insufficient consumption of niacin, or Vitamin B3, has also caused many deaths. In this country it can result from eating corn as a main carbohydrate calorie source, which gives no usable B3 unless mixed with the limewater to release it. This was known for two thousand years and practiced by the Aztecs, but in this country many died from pellagra because the information was not accessible to the ordinary citizen, and only to researchers since 1951.
Dr. Casimir Funk discovered niacin (Vitamin B3) in 1912 and named it a vitamin (from vital amines), which implies that it is a protein substance vital for life. He also postulated the existence of vitamins B1, B2, C, and D. He originally isolated the anti-pellagra and anti-beriberi factors (B3 & B1) from the husks of rice which is polished. “Pandemic vitamin deficencies” is a term which describes the lack of the five most crucial vitamins, a problem seen worldwide in areas of poverty and malnutrion.
Having seen that the relation of vitamins to good health is very definite, what other supplements are important or even necessary to good health? Enclosed in this category are herbs, spices, various phytochemicals, amino acids, special foods, and a variety of oils. The common denomination in all these products is that they may furnish one or more components which bolster the immune system, enhance heart health, improve mental clarity, help build muscles, and enhance vision. Many other body functions such as enzyme systems, hormone production, maintenance of good skin and hair, endurance, and staying energetic are dependent on these nutrients.
With all this information we should be able to know everything about maintaining health, but following all the advice of many experts would have us all taking maybe a hundred or more vitamins and supplements a day. Yet we also read that the only single pathway which has lengthened life span has been reduced food intake with a highly nutrient diet.
Luigi Cornaro (1462-1564) lived to 102 years and predicted this in his seventies by eating a various diet of 12 ounces of solid food a day (which is not very much) accompanied by 14 ounces of “new” wine as well. Cornaro never exercised, took a supplement, drank tonic, or had an EKG. He was aware that his food had to be real food and used no table sugar, corn, potatoes, or vegetable oil—common sources of empty calories today. If you do over eat and include these items, you are taking too much bulk for your intestines to digest even if you take supplements. Adding brown rice to your diet may furnish the B vitamins but when taken as a chemical supplement in the presence of too much food, this supplement may not be absorbed.
When you consider that you should eat less and that you can’t really eat what you “like” and that supplements at best are “insurance” against vitamin deficiency, what should you do? This is where compliance plays a large role. If you choose to eat too much food with too many empty calories, then you may develop diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and arthritis. No supplements can counter the effects of those things. If you choose to eat small quantities of good nutrient-laden foods and choose not to take supplements, you will probably do well as far as overall health and degenerative disease is concerned.
If you eat half as much as everyone else, understand about empty calories, nutrient density, bad fats, and learn which foods have the highest antioxidant (ORAC) values, you will probably stay healthy and have a longer life. You can also take supplements, such as multivitamins, as an additional protection to your health.
Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS. Call 757-557-0300 for more information.