Supplementation: Is It Necessary?

By Keri Marshall , MS, ND

Supplementation: Is It Necessary?

By Keri Marshall , MS, ND

Your need to supplement or fortify your diet depends on many factors. If everyone ate a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, organic dairy products and cold-water fish every day, there may not be a need to supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals. If everyone got plenty of exercise outside with regular exposure to sunlight, there may not be a need to supplement the diet. Unfortunately, this just isn't the case. Our busy lives prevent us from eating the diet we wish we could and from getting exercise outside, often leaving us depleted of vital nutrients.

Keeping your immune system strong and resilient by maintaining a proper diet, nutrition and exercise can be hard for any massage therapist, as well as for their clients. For those whose dietary needs are not being met, supplementation can be of great support to maintain optimal health. If your health is compromised or your vitality is depleted by stress or illness, then you may also be able to benefit from specific supplements.

The question is, just how many people are using dietary supplements regularly to maintain health? According to an October 2012 survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), 68% of American adults now take dietary supplements, with multivitamins being the most popular. Forty-nine percent of all adults report taking multivitamins, with 71% of supplement users reporting that they take a multivitamin in general, and 53% report taking a multivitamin daily. While the majority of supplement users take a multivitamin, at least 23% are taking a fish oil supplement.

What Do We Really Need?

Our bodies require essential nutrients and vitamins every day in order to function normally. Without them, our bodies begin to accumulate molecular and biochemical byproducts, such as free radicals, that may cause damage to our cells. The human body is hardwired with innate mechanisms to repair itself and return to homeostasis if fed a variety of nutrients to keep the engine running. Giving the body the nutrition it needs to carry out these functions can have a significant impact on delaying the aging process and achieving a longer, healthier and happier life.

One of the most important things you can do for your health is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. In fact, you should aim for between seven to nine servings a day. But ... not everyone eats even close to this amount of healthy plant matter and, as a result, may have difficulty obtaining all of the vitamins and minerals they need to maintain optimal health.

Many of us have heard the cliché that we should eat from the rainbow, but may not really understand what it means. Fruits and vegetables come in a wide range of colors and each of those individually colored foods has a unique phytochemical profile with an array of nutrients. For example, blue and purple foods are rich in an antioxidant nutrient called anthocyanins, which help support heart health and optimize immune function. Orange fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids, which help the eyes, heart, mucous membranes and promote healthy joints.

Most Americans are not getting enough fruits and veggies and follow more of what we call "The Western Diet," which is high in "bad" fats, sugar, white flour products and fried foods. It does not provide a variety of foods nor does it provide nutritionally dense foods. And, for some with lactose intolerance or other food intolerances, vital nutrients may be limited unless there is dietary supplementation.

Conventionally grown foods today are also to blame for providing fewer nutrients than they used to due to poor soils and growing processes. So, you may be trying to eat all the right things, yet still come up short because the foods are not as nutrient-dense as you might assume.

Even more worrisome is 100% of the vitamins and minerals we eat, either through food or supplementation, are not absorbed by the body. The excess gets removed via urine and other means of excretion. Because of all of these factors combined, I would absolutely recommend to my patients that they take a daily multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.

What About Fat?

The typical Western diet is highly deficient in omega-3s, or healthy fats, in large part because people choose to eat foods — often unknowingly — that are concentrated with omega-6 fats. And omega-3 rich foods are often difficult to find. Refined and processed foods, many cooking oils, dressings and overconsumption of corn and soy are the main culprits for increased levels of omega-6 fats in the diet. In and of themselves, omega-6s are not unhealthy, they're just over-consumed, and omega-3s, found primarily in cold-water fish, are under-consumed.

Omega-3s are considered "essential" because they are required for optimal health but cannot be produced by our bodies and, therefore, must be consumed daily through diet or supplementation. All fatty acids we consume reside in our cell membranes, where they impact every biological process in our bodies — such as cell division, circulation and blood pressure. Omega-3s are clinically proven to support the body's natural anti-inflammatory response, which in turn optimizes heart, brain, metabolic, joint and tissue health. With adequate intake of omega-3s, cells function properly, and overall health is supported.

Achieving balanced intake of these fats is important because omega-6s are pro-inflammatory and omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. It is vitally important to ensure balanced intake by limiting omega-6 foods and taking a quality omega-3 fish oil supplement, along with eating a healthy diet including fish. The typical Western diet works against this goal and, as a result, most people do not obtain the suggested daily minimum of 500 mg eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Consumers are searching for a solution to correct this deficiency and purified fish oil supplements are a safe and effective source of these essential omega-3s.

Key to the success of any delivery system for supplementation is palatability. Fishy smell, taste or aftertaste are common deterrents to continued daily use. Research shows that fish oils only smell unpleasant when oxidation has started to degrade the oils' lipids, causing rancidity. Rancid lipids may also contain free radicals that can damage proteins, DNA, and ultimately the cells in the body. Utilization of oxygen-free processing methods, such as the patented systems used by some high-quality companies, protects the oils from oxidation and guarantees an exceptionally fresh product that tastes great and will encourage continued use.

Vitamin D is another nutrient that many people lack, in part because of excessive use of sunscreen, but also because people tend to spend less time outdoors than they used to. Most people can make enough vitamin D by spending at least 15 minutes a day outside, without sunscreen, with a good amount of skin exposed. What this means in practical terms is going for a walk outdoors in shorts and a T-shirt or tank top, without first applying sunscreen. Not everyone can do this for a variety of reasons, although with the exception of seasons and inclement weather, everyone should try to spend at least 15 minutes a day outdoors, weather permitting. The fresh air and bonus of getting exercise are also vitally key to optimal health.

The reality, though, is many of us live in places where we cannot wear shorts year round. For people who live in the beautiful Northwest, sometimes the sun does not shine for weeks on end. In cases such as this, Vitamin D can be a very important nutrient to supplement. I recommend getting a baseline test done by your primary care physician before beginning supplementation, because you then have a baseline number to track for progress. A baseline number also allows you to determine how much you may need to supplement. A recent CRN survey indicates that up to 22% of people take Vitamin D supplements daily to fortify their diet.

How To Choose

But, more than anything, people are easily confused as to how to choose the best quality dietary supplement. Products that are third-party tested are superior to those that aren't. When taking a supplement, you want to be assured that what it says on the label is, in fact, what is in the supplement. Be sure that the company is adhering to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to ensure compliance with industry quality standards and required testing.

Finally, review the ingredients. With a small amount of education, you can spot which are quality products and which are not. Avoid unnecessary binders, fillers, preservatives and additives. Most company websites will help you discern if they have gone out of their way to produce a superior product and if you don't see it, don't be afraid to ask the company for proof of quality. Quality and absorption are key to making sure you get your money's worth to optimize your health!