Nutritional Supplementation: Is it Necessary?

Nutritional Supplementation: Is it Necessary?
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Nutrition is so important for the way that our body works. So where is the place for nutritional supplementation? How does a consumer know if a nutritional supplement is “good,” and if it will work to benefit his or her health? Who do you trust for nutrition facts?

Do we need to be taking so many supplements? And if so, does the type and brand of supplements really matter?

I think that all of these questions have merit. Let’s address them.

First, we need to ask whether we actually need supplements. In an ideal world, we probably wouldn’t need to be supplementing our diet. We should be able to get all of the dietary essentials from our foods.

An animal in nature generally doesn’t require nutritional supplementation. Birds don’t need supplemental nutrition; neither do bugs, fish, bacteria, trees… the list goes on.

We need to recognize that the human animal is far removed from the natural environment for which our body was designed.

Our body was built to utilize a wide array of foods, which likely changed over the course of the year. We have 24-hour groceries, and fresh produce shipped in from Mexico or Chile at all months of the year, This has removed us from the natural cycling of foods.

In this context, we have lowered the diversity of foods that we obtain in our diet. We are known to be hunter-gatherers. We don’t really do either, these days.

Prior to the “modern age” we were subject to periods of feast and famine, with seasonal variations. We consumed foods that were grown in fertile soils.

The times they are a’changing.

Our relationship with food changed.  We don’t fast or forage anymore. The quality of our food is different as well. In the pre-industrial years, a plant had to be pretty hardy to survive. A plant’s (or animal’s) genetics allowed it to respond to stressors, survive and reproduce. The metabolic potential found in biological molecules was by design passed up to the next rung of the food chain.

We have always been one of the last rungs on the ladder. We either ate the plant, or ate the animal that ate the plant. Either way essential nutrients were taken into our bodies and were applied to our biological functions.

Today, agribusiness has developed specialized seeds with genetic modifications. These GMO’s allow the plants to bypass the natural biological processes. Plants no longer need to collect nutrients from the soil to flourish. They don’t need to make their own chemicals to prevent pest invasion. Genes have been spliced into the genetic material of the plants that have changed them.

Is it possible that these genetic modifications are also changing us? 

GMOs are changing our nutritional state

Many of the plants offered for consumption in our country have been biologically modified in some respect. We like to think that we are consuming the same plant as would be found in nature. But we’re not.

In our past, we ate more nutritious foods. These foods generally contained the essential vitamins, nutrients and minerals that our body requires to really function well.

But now out physiology is being assaulted on several fronts, resulting in relative nutritional deficiencies.  I use the term relative because even when nutritionally stressed, our bodies still continue to perform pretty well.

We read of nutritional “deserts” where it becomes geographically impossible to find fresh food. A surprising number of people around the world survive on purely processed foods. We were designed for pure foods. Amazingly we can survive on a diet of Doritos, Slim Jim’s and Coca-Cola. 

Measure your nutritional state; manage your health

When we utilize laboratory measurements to quantify our deficiencies (or excesses), we can begin to see the degree to which this influences our physiology. Our cellular machinery utilizes nutrients to turn the wheels, stoke the fires, and simply make things work. It should be no surprise that when these biological systems are deprived of the parts needed to work, they don’t work well.

The other factor significantly influencing our nutritional status is the condition of our gut. In other blogs, I outline the delicate nature and architecture of the gut. It is a remarkable organ, serving as both a vehicle to digest and absorb food, and as an interface with our natural environment. It is also crucial for detoxification and regulating our neurotransmitters and hormones.

The gut’s surface area, stretched out flat, is as big as a doubles’ tennis court.  It separates our sterile interior from 100 trillion microbes across a single, semi-porous cell layer. The gut is both a diplomat and a distributor. It guards our borders along with our immune system.  It also ensures that every morsel of valuable energy, every nutrient, is absorbed along its length.

The gut needs to simultaneously be both a barrier and a sieve.

Several factors work to weaken this tenuous barrier. Common toxins, such as alcohol and non-steroidal pain medications damage this lining, contributing to leakiness. Additionally gluten and other natural molecules such as dietary lectins promote gut leakiness.

Stress is well known to divert blood from the gut in exchange for more pressing needs, such as running from a tiger. We are willing to trade escape for digestion in the heat of the battle.

If we can’t outrun the tiger, it may be the one that benefits from our last meal.

A vicious circle ensues. As our gut functions less well, and we deplete our nutrients attending to other needs, the gut becomes less capable of repairing itself. The lining of the gut reshapes itself every three to five days. Stress diverts blood from the gut. Nutritional deficiencies slow cellular division, and environmental toxins directly damage our cells. As a result, many of us have nutritional deficiencies.

Why the gut itself needs to be nutritionally sound

When the gut architecture off, the balance of its microbial inhabitants soon follows.

With an ongoing exposure to environmental stressors, chemicals and toxins, antibiotics, and medications the microbial balance has become disrupted. The bacterial balance in our gut is continually challenged, This challenge starts at birth with a pacifier instead of a breast, and continues to our deathbed.

These bacteria are crucial for processing of our foods and nutrients. They make vitamins, and contribute to the health (or disability) of the single-cell membrane that separates our human cells from the outside world.

We are moving away for the “us” versus “them” mentality. Consequently we have begun to reexamine our relationship with the bacterial world that lives within us.  We are much more of a “we”. Gut bacteria interact with our biochemistry, instruct our immune system, and build our neurotransmitters.  

With the government sponsored Human Microbiome Project, we are learning of the vast extent of influence that our microbial species have over our health (and over the health of our future generations.)

A few fun facts from this project:

  • There are more than 100 trillion bacteria that live in the gut and on our skin. A human body has only 10 trillion cells, so cell-for-cell we are about 1/10 human and 9/10 bacteria. A bacterial cell is generally much smaller than a human cell, but numerically they outnumber our own cells.
  • There are several hundred species of bacteria that live in our gut, and this population is dynamic. A change from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to an organic one leaning heavily on vegetable matter can dramatically shift the bacterial balance in a matter of days.
  • There are some 2-5 million bacterial genes at work in our body. These genes make proteins for the microbes’ needs. Consequently these proteins have the capacity to interface with our own biology. We are just scratching the surface of understanding these relationships.
  • The human genome contains only about 22,000 genes. Using this metric, our body contains about 1% human genes, and 99% bacterial.  Just sayin…
  • The bacteria in our gut contribute significantly to our immune function.

With alterations in our diet, microbial balance, and unending environmental toxins, many of us find the need to supplement our diets.  It seems like there are so many supplement companies, and so many “calls to action” that assault us through the Internet daily. How to choose?

Here are my recommendations:

  • First:  You can’t manage what you can’t measure.  Before undertaking a course of supplementation, be sure to know what your status is.  There is no need to spend the time and money using supplements if you don’t need them.  Work with a provider who can direct you to the appropriate testing that will allow you to know where you are good, and what needs improvement. Read here to better understand nutrition, and how to measure your nutritional status.
  • Second:  Use a supplement company that follows some basic tenets of good business practices.  As a physician, I recommend that my patients obtain their supplements from companies that follow three practices:
    • Look for companies that are GMP certified.  This stands for good manufacturing practices and ensures a degree of quality.
    • Next, I recommend that patients utilize companies that source their raw materials.  Did the supplement manufacturer just receive a vat of something from China and just repackage it? This happens daily. Many supplements can be adulterated, or simply don’t contain what is shown on the label.  I’ll recommend the companies that I like and use at the end of the post.
    • Are they a reputable company?  Are they American or European? Do they source their raw materials? Factor these questions into your decision to supplement.
  • Be an active steward in your health care decisions.

Maybe an ideal world would have us obtaining all that we need from our diets exclusively.  As a result of the reasons above, we can often find ourselves in a depleted state. This nutritionally-deficient state can put the brakes on, or just break our biology.

You may need supplementation.  With a focused and educated approach, we can make the choices to really modify, and improve our health and wellness.

Recommended supplement companies:

  • Throne (my primary go-to for most everything)
  • Metagenics (great probiotics and medical foods)
  • Designs for Health (solid science and products)
  • Douglas Labs (my first choice for standardized herbals)


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