Supplements: Beyond the Mystique

Supplements: Beyond the Mystique

Apparently at least half of American adults take a dietary supplement or two (or more).  The supplement market raked in north of 35 billion dollars last year.  So, it can be useful to find out if there are good reasons to be taking them.  Is it worth it? What are the potential benefits?  Are there any downsides? 

Often people figure that the foods they eat are not adequate for keeping them healthy.  Or, they may feel a bit sluggish and wonder if something can give them a boost, either mentally or physically.  It could be they are seeking well-being, a healthier life, or even a longer life.  Others may feel that it is possible to cure a disease by taking the right supplement.  Still others may take them in order to not eat in general, or to not have to eat healthy foods.

On the other hand, some of us have heard that taking supplements is a waste of money, that they often go right through us without being absorbed.  Is there some sort of middle ground?  Are some better than others?  If so, why?

What are the issues to consider?

To get this off the ground, let’s talk a bit about what happens when we ingest regular food.    

The saliva in your mouth starts to break down the food.  Your stomach then hits it with various substances that break it down even more, and may change the nature of it as well.  Then your small intestine goes to work, changing the ingredients into forms that can be transported around your body and absorbed by cells to be used for cell function.  Your large intestine picks up the waste, and does several other things as well.

Many of the nutrients in food cannot be absorbed unless other nutrients are with it.  As a simplistic example, the vitamin A in carrots is absorbed better if it is accompanied by some fat.  That’s because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, along with D, E and K. 

For a more spectacular example, let’s take look at fruits and vegetables.  These days science is finding more and more about what’s in them that makes them good for us.  The broad term for the good things in there is phytochemicals.  Without going into the categories and sub-categories, let’s just say this:  Phytochemicals do all sort of things in our bodies that benefit us.  They are protective against many of our major chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, and brain problems), sometimes by boosting our immune systems, and sometimes by cutting down inflammation in our bodies. 

So far, scientists have identified over 5000 flavonoids (which is just one subset of phytochemicals).  What’s important is to know that one serving of fruit, vegetable, or even nuts or whole grains can contain hundreds or maybe even thousands of different phytochemicals. 

So, you may think that apple you just ate was a boring snack, but far from it!  It is virtually bursting with great stuff for you and your health and well-being!  Let’s take a moment for appreciation! 

Back to the topic at hand.  The question is:  can you get all of these things from a supplement?  It should be pretty clear by now that you can’t even come close. 

Issues with supplements

Here I am going to take a bit of a detour and give an example of something that is marketed for brain health.  That is because this example can help to flush out some issues, and give some insight into what can go on when a supplement is marketed.   

Perhaps you have seen ads on TV for Prevagen, which is supposed to help with memory issues and cognitive function, especially as we get older.  Prevagen has patented the active ingredient, apoaequorin, which comes from a luminous jelly fish.  They now have isolated that compound and manufacture it without having to deal with the jellyfish. 

There are some problems.  Turns out that apoaequorin is digested in the stomach, and may never get to the brain.  Some of you may know that the brain is picky.  It has a pretty vigorous blood-brain-barrier that, thankfully, keeps all sorts of potentially toxic things from getting to our precious neurons.  Research has shown that IF the apoaequorin could indeed get past that barrier, there would not be much of it left after the pill goes through our digestive track.  At the doses available, at best there would be negligible effects. 

The Prevagen website refers to four studies to back up their claims.  Three of them are related to safety.  In other words, it’s not going to hurt you.  One has to do with whether it actually works, and that was done by the company that produces it.  Plus, it was a small study that did not show much at all.  It required a real stretch to conclude that it did anything.  On top of that, it is not FDA approved, just as it is with every other over-the-counter supplement.  Now, the FDA is not always on the straight and narrow, but it does at least vigorously review the evidence for or against a drug.  Vigorous standards are not applied to supplements.  

In short, nutritional supplements do not have to have standards.  They may or may not actually have the active ingredients in them, and those ingredients may or may not actually do anything of value. 

Most of them are isolated compounds that will not be used by the body when taken in isolation.  Sometimes, they can be toxic if taken in large amounts (this is not a case where more is better). 

Is any supplement worth taking?

This has been a real skip-through of the issue.  But, if there is ONE THING that you could take away from this, it is this:

Your body is complex, it needs a lot of complex nutrients and other chemicals to keep it healthy.  Most of them cannot work well in isolation.  They need each other in order for your body to be able to use them.  On top of that, a component presented in a supplement may behave quite differently by itself than when it is in a whole food.  Science is just beginning to understand the thousands and thousands of substances that are necessary to be used in concert with each other to keep us up and running.    

If you take a supplement, it is probably not going to help you unless you have a deficiency. Mostly, that can be vitamin D, Omega-3’s, and vitamin B complex and zinc as we get older because we don’t synthesize these as well.  That’s about it! 

Basically, you can’t go wrong with real, whole foods.  Do your best to seek them out as often as possible.  Most supplements on the market are not worth the money, and can get expensive!  Better to spend that money on real food. 


© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: JPC-PROD | iStock

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