Along with the many people I encounter in my medical practice and my lectures, you may wonder, “Why do I need to take supplements?” Many people think, and some conservative nutritionists would agree with them, that eating a balanced diet provides all the vitamins they need. This is simply not so. Everyone’s idea of a balanced diet, even among experts, is different, and it may vary greatly from the scientifically based recommendations of a contemporary nutritionist or nutritionally oriented physician. In order to answer the question, we need to explore a number of different but equally important personal and ecological considerations: genetics, environment, agriculture, stress and health history, and of course, your desire for a vigorous and lively health future.
The Important Role of Genetics
Throughout all species there is wide variation in genetic makeup. This variation includes differing abilities to survive in a given nutritional environment. In other words, to survive well, one animal may require much more or less of particular nutrients than another animal. Dr. Roger Williams has shown in experiments with rats that after five generations of inbreeding, litter mates, which are very close genetically, can vary in nutrient needs up to 40 times for particular nutrients. In other words, one may need 2.5 mg of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and another may need 100 mg for the same level of vitality, physical endurance and life span. There is an even greater variation in human beings, as we have a greater genetic diversity than other species.
In the natural course of events, species develop (or evolve) when those animals with greater nutritional needs fail to survive or to reproduce as well as those with lesser needs. Except in a few known genetic disorders, we cannot determine subtle variations in nutritional needs for human beings. It is therefore wise to make sure that our internal environment (including all cells, tissues and organs) is abundantly supplied with all the nutrients. Biochemical individuality is Dr Williams’ term for the basic principle of varied individual needs.
In tissue cultures (cells growing in laboratories) the culture medium is made quite rich in all the required nutrients. If the cells were only given minimum requirements, some cells would not thrive and researchers would risk losing the cell line. In human beings the blood plasma provides nourishment for the cells, and needs a constant and abundant supply of all the nutrients. This requires both a healthy diet and supplements.
Supplements enhance a healthy diet; they are not a substitute for it. Some antagonists to the use of dietary supplements have said that people will get a false sense of security if they use supplements, and as a result they will not seek out the healthiest foods. It is my experience, on the contrary, that the people who elect to use supplements are usually the ones who also eat a healthier diet. These antagonists are usually the same people who defend the highly processed, westernized, or “industrial” diet that is a prime cause of degenerative disease and chronic health problems.
Our Risky Environment
Another reason you will benefit from dietary supplements is the poor quality of the environment in which we live. Whether it is toxins in food, water, and air or other exposures such as mercury in dental fillings or aluminum in cookware and antiperspirants, our bodies have an excessive burden to overcome. This environmental burden taxes our detoxification capacity and may lead to many health problems.
You already know that the air is polluted. Everybody is subjected to toxic exposure from a wide variety of pollutants in the air they breathe. Among the many toxins in the air are:
1. Carbon monoxide and lead from fuel exhaust (most of the lead has been reduced in the United States, but it is still found elsewhere).
2. Hydrocarbon pollutants from industrial waste.
3. By-products from the burning of fossil fuels.
4. Radiation leakage from nuclear power plants and radon in the home. Radiation, like radon gas, is a contaminant that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted and is therefore more insidious than some of the more familiar pollutants.
Tap water, unfortunately, contains more than water. It is often contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead or cadmium or with fluoride (associated with an increased risk of cancer, digestive disorders and kidney disease). Often, industrial chemicals and wastes, pesticides and other farm chemicals have seeped through the soil to contaminate the water table. Volatile chemicals (those hydrocarbons that readily vaporize) can combine with chlorine to form even more toxic products.
You may be familiar with the toxic chemical water contamination in Woburn, Massachusetts, which led to increases in childhood leukemia. Other examples abound. (I recommend a solid carbon-block water filter, or spring water, for all drinking and cooking needs.) Unfortunately, in spite of home filtration or spring water for personal use, there is always some exposure to tap water, such as when you eat at restaurants or buy prepared foods, or when you shower and breathe the vaporized volatile chemicals. (At one water testing lab, the joke about their municipal water was that it was “safe” to drink, but for goodness sake don’t smoke in the shower!)
Cigarette smoke exposure in smokers and nonsmokers (sidestream smokeÑthe uninhaled pollutants from the end of the cigaretteÑand secondhand smoke are also highly toxic) creates further health risks. This and most pollutants lead to an increase of high-energy molecular fragments known as free radicals. These free radicals can severely damage tissues, destroy nutrients, and lead to premature aging, heart disease and cancer. All of these environmental problems increase your need for nutrients, and many supplements can help control the damage of toxic exposures.
The Damage from Free Radicals
In the normal course of metabolism, your body produces small, high-energy particles that have a single electron in their outer shell (such molecules are unstable because electrons prefer to be paired). These are called free radicals, and they can be very damaging in their search for another electron. Free radicals derived from oxygen are the most abundant and damaging of the species.
These free radicals are normally channeled into energy production. In some cells they may be used as the weapons to kill viruses and bacteria. Unfortunately, if too many of them are produced, their extremely high energy can also be damaging to normal tissues. Free radicals disrupt the normal production of DNA, the genetic material, and alter the lipids (fats) in cell membranes. They also affect the blood vessels and the production of prostaglandins. (Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that regulate many physiological functions, and their production is very sensitive to many metabolic influences.)
We are also exposed to free radicals that are found in the environment or generated by exposure to environmental chemicals. There are many sources of excess free-radical exposure, including cigarette smoke; air pollution; some highly processed foods and food additives; ultraviolet sunlight and radiation; processed oils such as commercial vegetable oils, margarines and shortenings; charcoal-broiled foods and any charred or burned foods; heavy metals (lead, cadmium, aluminum, and mercury) found in processed foods; excessive iron; pesticides; and some prescription medications. Many of the chemicals found in municipal water supplies are toxic because they generate free radicals. It is good to drink a lot of water but to avoid tap water as much as possible.
Recently, it has been confirmed that excessive accumulation of iron, common in meat-eating populations, may be a highly significant risk factor in the development of heart disease, although not as important as smoking. This is probably due to this transition metal being a generator of free radicals. Therefore, it is also a probable risk factor for cancer. Unless you have a demonstrated need for iron, it is a good idea to avoid supplements that contain it, although these studies were not done with iron supplements.
By careful lifestyle choices some of these free-radical sources can be avoided and others can be counteracted. By making these choices for yourself you can slow down the aging process, decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease and promote high energy and a vital, healthy feeling of well-being. One way to protect yourself from free-radical damage is to take dietary supplements. The chapters on the individual supplements contain more specific information.
We need extra supplies of those nutrients destroyed by toxins and those that help to prevent the harmful effects of these foreign chemicals. Specifically, vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene; the trace minerals selenium and zinc; and accessory food factors, such as bioflavonoids and coenzyme Q10, all help to scavenge free radicals through antioxidant activity. They help prevent cancer, heart disease, premature aging and tissue degeneration. Many herbs also help in the fight against excess free radicals.
Destructive Agricultural Practices
Modern agricultural practices have adversely affected the quality of our food supply. Growing foods with methods designed to increase quantity, or to facilitate transportation and storage (such as the development of sturdy, square tomatoes) is often detrimental to their nutritional value. Nutritional value is rarely considered when developers play with the genetics of plants or soil modifications.
Soil quality has been degraded through modern farming methods. Most chemical fertilizers do not replace all of the minerals needed for human nutrition. Organic foods have been shown to have a higher nutritional value than conventionally grown foods. They are also free of the pesticides, herbicides and thousands of other risky chemicals that are added to foods during processing. There is also wide variation in the natural mineral content of the soil. For example, in northeastern states (and elsewhere) the soil has a very low selenium content. Selenium is important for protection from heart disease and cancer. In spite of a diet that includes foods from many geographic areas, research has shown that people living in regions with low soil selenium have a higher risk of cancer. Although selenium, as well as chromium and iodine, are essential for human nutrition, they are not required for growing healthy plants. They are rarely added to the soil for agricultural purposes.
Foods are often picked before they are ripe and allowed to ripen in transit, at the market or during home storage. They do not acquire their full complement of minerals and vitamins, which frequently increase greatly during the later stages of growth. In addition, transportation and storage of foods, whether in the market or at home, allows time for nutrients to deteriorate. Fruits and vegetables can lose significant amounts of vitamin C after 3 days in cold storage, and even more at room temperature. Dried fruits can also lose vitamins A, C and E if exposed to oxygen and light. This is not to say that stored foods are of no value, but the lower nutrient content increases the importance of taking supplements.
You can overcome some of these problems if you grow your own food or buy organically grown fruits and vegetables (which are generally fresher because they cannot be stored as long). Commercial fruits and vegetables are frequently sprayed with toxic chemicals. Many of these substances are harmful, and they accumulate in body fat, with deleterious health effects over the years. A good example is DDT, which is still present in human fat tissue although its use was banned years ago.
Many of the pesticides prohibited in the United States have been freely sold to third world countries, which then export foods to the US. Controls on the use of pesticides and other chemicals are not strict in many of these countries. The workers who apply these chemicals frequently have diseases that are the result of their high exposures. Certain nutritional supplements can help counter the ill effects of many of these poisons. They include vitamins C, E and B complex, carotenes, bioflavonoids, and others. Of course, it is also wise to choose untreated foods as much as possible.
Stress Increases Needs
Although we seem to live in a time of great stress, I believe that this is not unique to our age. There have always been many stressors that have adversely influenced human health. Earlier generations did not have the advantage of high-dose nutrients to help diminish the toll of these stressors in their lives.
Stress, whether emotional or physical or due to injury or illness, depletes the body of nutrients, especially vitamin C, the B complex and zinc. Vitamin B6 and pantothenic acid are also particularly important in times of stress. Vitamins C and E and zinc promote the healing process. A comprehensive approach to good health includes practices that aid in stress management, regular exercise and proper diet. Diet and nutritional supplements provide the building blocks to form a healthier, more vital organism.
You may have heard of someone’s grandparent who lived to a ripe old age with little attention to diet or nutritional supplements. This is quite possible. However, it is important to realize that potential human life span is well over 100 years. Living to 80 or 90 years may result from growing up with cleaner air and water, fresher food, fewer chemical exposures and lesser availability of highly processed foods. Also, many people who survive a long time have numerous health problems. In spite of these occasional reports of decadent oldsters, we are seeing more frequent and earlier degenerative diseases. Remember, the quality of life is more important than the quantity. Dietary supplements can promote what most of us would preferÑgood health and vigor in all stages of life, including later years.
There is great individual genetic variation. You may have inherited a strong constitution, but is it really wise to wait 40 or 50 years to find out? Nutritional supplements help people who have greater genetically determined needs to remain vigorous and active well into old age. Many poor health habits, such as consumption of sweets, alcohol, caffeine, highly processed foods and artificial food additives, lack of exercise and high stress, increase nutrient needs. The typical American diet is a sad joke. It would be hard to design a diet that could do more harm to health than the one most Americans eat every day.
Stress reduction and relaxation techniques, body therapies and exercise programs are part of good health, but nutritional supplementation is extremely important to the comprehensive approach to health care and preventive medicine. Specific chronic and acute illnesses can be treated with large doses of nutrient supplements. They can usually reduce or eliminate the need for drugs or surgery.
Your Health Future
After considering all these issues, the last and perhaps most important point is that your future health depends on a number of your current health practicesÑwhich you have the power to change. Taking dietary supplements of any kind will almost certainly help you overcome many of your current health problems and enhance your energy. And they will protect you from disease and degeneration well into a vital, vigorous, and healthy future.
A Note on the RDAs
The Recommended Dietary Allowances are established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council, National Academy of Science. These nutrient levels are supposed to prevent deficiency diseases in most healthy people. Unfortunately, the values have been heavily influenced by the food industry, economic considerations and politics, not just by science.
Many researchers question the value of the RDAs. They make the highly processed American food supply look more nutritious than it is, and they appear to be influenced by the food industry. The RDAs are not useful in establishing optimal health. You are at little risk of developing the deficiency diseases–pellagra, scurvy, or beriberi. Our modern problems are not deficiency diseases but degenerative diseases. Nutrients play an important role in preventing these conditions. The RDAs cannot be used in evaluating the therapeutic and preventive value of large doses of dietary supplements.
The sad truth is, if you look around, you will see many people who do manage to get the RDA levels of most nutrients, but they still go on to develop early heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes. They have frequent viral
infections (colds, the flu, herpes), they are overweight, and they lose their teeth to decay and gum disease. In terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and health care costs, Americans are not in the most favorable position in world statistics. Average Americans have a lower life expectancy than citizens of some third world countries.
In this regard, it is not good to be averageÑthe average American will die early of heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer. You can do many things to improve your health and reduce your risk of developing the health problems of the rest of the population. Taking dietary supplements is one of them. And it is an important one. Let’s explore what nutrients may do for your health, energy and general sense of vitality and well-being.