In an ideal world, we would all eat well balanced meals made from fresh whole foods grown organically in mineral rich soil. We would all come from a long line of healthy people who lived to be 90-100 years old when they peacefully died of old age. Our lives would be relatively low stress; we would exercise moderately four times a week in our pollution-free environment, and never suffer injuries. We would rarely get sick, and at those times we would recover quickly.
Very few people enjoy such lives. Vitamin and mineral supplements will not make up for a marginal or poor diet, nor will they get rid of stress (Stress Tabs), nor will they make you live until you're 90. While I believe that some nutritional supplements may enhance the quality of your life and help reduce your risk for some degenerative diseases, I feel that it is important to be reminded of certain phenomena:
The placebo effect.
Classic studies on the effectiveness of a drug or any other treatment have shown that if a group of people with a particular problem are given a "sugar pill" and are led to believe it will help their condition, about one third of them will get well. This is not necessarily bad. If you can take something that has no adverse side-effects and you feel better, who cares if it was the substance or the placebo?
Who is the person advocating a certain supplement and what are their motives/background?
Is this person someone with a degree in nutrition (registered dietitian), a chiropractor (we have 2 semesters of biochemistry and 3 of nutrition), a naturopathic doctor (heavy emphasis on nutrition in their schooling), a sales person in a health food store (?background, maybe self-taught), a medical doctor (maybe self-taught, nutrition is not a required subject in any medical school, some schools offer it as an elective), or someone in the locker room?
Are the ingredients listed with quantities such as mg, mcg, IU, or comparable measurements? Or are they simply listed with no particular amounts? Do you or someone you trust know what all of the ingredients really are?
Beware of the Media.
The press tends to sensationalize. Just because some research results end up in the news, does not necessarily make the results valid. Remember cold fusion?
So given these words of caution, why do I think most of us could benefit from some basic nutritional supplements?
Vitamins and minerals are essentially micronutrients. The average American is not going to suffer from gross vitamin deficiencies such as scurvy and beri-beri. while we are all human beings with some basic nutritional needs in common, we also differ in how we process food. Many of us tend to gain weight, others find it difficult to gain weight. Some of us crave sugar, some salt, others fatty foods. Some of us have food allergies or intolerance. Some people may be suffering from subclinical (or not easily detected) deficiencies. These may manifest in terms of lack of energy, poor recovery from work-outs, easy bruising, or other signs.
Genetics are probably one of the most important deterrninants, or detriments, of one's health. However many, if not most, diseases are multifactorial in origin. As an example: your father has a heart attack (myocardial infarction) at age 40. You (especially if you are male) are at an increased risk of having the same thing happen to you. However, maybe your father was a smoker, ate a high fat diet, and rarely exercised. You, on the other hand, don't smoke, eat a very low fat diet, and exercise moderately and consistently. The quality of your life will be greatly improved, and chances are good that you will live well beyond 40. Given a particular genetic background, you may be inclined to alter your diet some what and add some nutritional supplements.
The food we eat: Most of us living in the city, buying food in the supermarkets, have little control over the soil the vegetables were grown in (high in mineral content or depleted soil), pesticide use, how long ago the vegetable/fruit was picked and how long it has been sitting on a shelf. Once picked, many vegetables rapidly lose vitamin potency. Vegetables bought at different markets may vary in their vitamin content. Next to growing your own vegetables, buying fresh certified organic produce at a farmer's market and eating it within a few days is your best bet.Pollution Pollution has been shown to adversely affect the cells in the body. Populations living in regions with high air pollution experience more upper respiratory problems. 1 will devote an article to antioxidants in a future issue of Swimmer's Source
What will nutritional supplements do for me now?
If you have an abundance of energy, no health problems, and recover rapidly from exercise, chances are you will not notice a difference when you take supplements. Your reason for taking them would be for the long-term effects. On the other hand, those who do not feel well may take specific supplements and notice changes, such as an increase in energy, less pain and inflammation, fewer food cravings, better recovery from exercise, or others, depending on their original problems.
Why should I take nutritional supplelements when I feel fine now?
Your concerns are for the future. You may take nutritional supplements as a form of insurance for later in life. Fish oils and or flaxseed oils may not have a noticeable effect on your body now, but may protect you from cardiovascular disease later in life. Calcium, magnesium, and manganese supplementation now may not change your life today, but along with weight-bearing exercise, may diminish the effects of osteoporosis when you're 60 years old. A high fiber diet's protective effect on your colon may keep you from having colon cancer. We are not given the luxury of living our lives one way, turning around and living it another way and then being allowed to compare the two.
Dr. Seaton is a chiropractic orthopedist practicing in West Los Angeles. She swims with West Hollywood Aquatics. Feel free to call her with any questions or to make appointment at (310) 470-0282.