Last year, the U.S. dietary supplement industry was valued at roughly $24 billion dollars. That’s a multi-billion dollar testament to our collective desire to be healthy. Not bad. However, I wonder how much healthier we’d be if we spent $24 billion dollars on vegetables rather than “nutritional” supplements.
Nutritional Deficiencies and Detoxification Programs
I don’t subscribe to the need for vitamin and mineral supplements, except in rare cases of severe deficiencies or for detox programs. Severe nutritional deficiencies can come from malabsorption syndromes caused by celiac disease, short bowel syndrome or genetics, among other scenarios.
Detox programs can lead to a surge of toxins in the bloodstream as they rapidly shed from their storage sites, i.e. fat cells. (La Merrill, 2013) Toxins can then circulate and affect various tissues throughout the body. In this case, vitamin supplements can meet the extra demand for anti-oxidants as well as aid the liver in its detoxification process. Mineral supplements can provide the needed buffers when the pH balance of the bloodstream is challenged by a detoxification regimen.
My reservation about supplements extends to the use of nutraceuticals – the current buzzword to imply that supplements are scientifically engineered like drugs, but without the side effects. Sneaky. Granted, nutraceuticals may testify to greater quality-control and standardization for a uniform product. However, strict quality-control standards do not answer the question of whether the products are needed in the first place.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are isolated nutrients, sometimes even synthetic. They sell the idea of extracting the essential “active ingredients” from food. This is a short-sighted disregard of the relationship between the “active ingredients” and the other natural food chemicals. It’s difficult to predict how the active ingredients will behave without their compadres. And they are separated from their compadres during the isolation process.
Just think, do you behave the exact same way no matter who you’re surrounded by? If so, then it’s a pleasure to meet you Buddha. But for most of us, I think the environment we’re immersed in dictates our behavior. Food is the same way. And the active ingredients in food may attribute their healing properties to the strong support network of the other chemicals in the food.
Like produce, herbs are whole natural sources of healthy phytochemicals. As medicine or supplements, they are often powdered, or extracted via water or alcohol.
Herbal extracts are not the same as isolated active ingredients. In contrast to isolation, the extraction process draws out most of the herbal ingredients—whether identified as active or not.
Herbs and herbal formulas can be considered medicine rather than supplements when treating specific health problems. As supplements, like vitamins and minerals, herbs do not necessarily add value when taken for “maintenance purposes”.
However, like other whole foods that provide daily nutrition, many herbs can be taken regularly as part of a healthy diet. Just be aware that many herbs sold as supplements can be substituted with common kitchen spices. For example, turmeric is not only spicy and aromatic but also an anti-inflammatory that invigorates blood and alleviates pain.
Amino Acid, L-arganine
Another good kitchen ingredient—though not a spice—is raw cacao, taken as a draft (i.e. in a little bit of warm or hot water). It benefits our levels of nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels to enhance circulation. L-arganine is an amino acid sold as a supplement for the same purpose, commonly for men’s health to aid men’s special circulatory requirements. You know, for those special occasions.
Our bodies convert L-arganine into nitric oxide. But studies hint that we may be inefficient at this conversion, via kidney metabolism. Try raw cacao instead.
Food that comes from nature is already nutritionally balanced. Call it natural design. It’s ironic that the science we apply to creating isolated supplements is irrational. Does it really make sense to think we can build food from a collection of isolated chemicals? It’s possible. But it may take generations of trial and error, whereas nature has already figured it out.
Reference [updated 1-25-18]
La Merrill M, Emond C, et. al.: Toxicological Function of Adipose Tissue: Focus on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Environmental Health Perspectives 2013 Feb, 121(2): 162-169.