We have become a population in which health consciousness is now mainstream. Vitamins and nutritional supplements remain the largest health and beauty category among consumer product goods.
But many don’t understand the delicate art of supplementation. We think that if something is “natural” it must be good and won’t do harm, and that if it’s good for us, more must be even better. These are misconceptions.
Before we swallow any capsule, we should be asking important questions: Can this harm me? What dose should I take? What source did this supplement come from?
In spite of conflicting research, most experts agree that there is a place for vitamin and mineral supplements in our diets. But, importantly, experts also agree that supplements are meant to be exactly that—supplemental—not a replacement for food.
While supplements can plug gaps in our diet, the “power still lies on the plate, not in a pill,” according to Roberta Anding, a former spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
However, you may have read an article that explains the symptoms of imbalances, convincing you that you need to supplement your diet in a specific way. Or, you may be on pharmaceutical drugs that cause known particular nutrient depletion (many do). And then you may try to make up for the lack through adding the particular missing vitamin or mineral.
And, even when we know which specific supplement our body is asking for, it’s not always so easy to determine dosage. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation.
RDAs and Megadosing
One way of determining dosage can be based on weight. A standard adult dosage, the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance), is based on a 150-pound person. To calculate the recommended dose based on weight, you have only to divide the weight of the person by 150. For instance, a 75-pound child weighs half of a “standard” 150-pound adult, and this child would take half of the standard dosage. A 300-pound adult would take double the recommended dose.
For people who are inactive—the elderly, chronically ill, or physically disabled—it is usually best to take a lower dosage, two-thirds the RDA. Due to their inactivity, these people’s bodies will take a longer time to utilize the material of the supplement.
However, while following the RDA will most likely not get anyone in trouble (unless there is an allergy), it may also not help. The RDA for vitamins and minerals is typically below what most people need, especially when there is an acute illness situation.
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm for wanting to help ourselves, we resort to megadosing, taking a dosage that is many times higher than the RDA.
When the specific supplement is water-soluble, this practice doesn’t create a problem. Water-soluble vitamins are carried to the body’s tissues but are not stored in the body. Your body uses what it needs and sends the rest to your kidneys, which then purge it from your body.
But supplementation with fat-soluble vitamins can create difficulties. In this situation, your body uses some of material and stores the rest for future use. Over time, you may be storing toxic levels of these vitamins, putting you at risk for later associated health problems. For instance, overdosing on vitamin A can lead to liver damage; too much vitamin D can lead to kidney damage as well as upper respiratory infections; high dosage of niacin gives an increased risk of diabetes.
Whole Versus Fragmented
In order to make a megadose of any substance, laboratories need to fragment out the desired ingredient. This creates a very different product than a whole food supplement.
Taking a specific vitamin or mineral can be useful, as we know from the sailors with Christopher Columbus who all died on his second trip from scurvy. Had they simply had vitamin C available (or lemons or oranges), they could have lived a long life in their new world.
But it is important to understand the implications of removing one part of a food from the whole. The difference between a fragmented supplement and a whole food supplement can be seen as the difference between a potato and a potato chip: One is a food grown from the earth; the other is a man-made manufactured product with little or no nutritional value.
A vitamin, as it exists in nature, is never a single chemical; rather, it is a group of interdependent compounds that work synergistically. These compounds form what Royal Lee (the founder of Standard Process, one of the first whole foods supplement companies) called a “nutrient complex,” so intricate that only a living cell can create it.
Whole food supplements are not fragmented. They are created by simply dehydrating foods, which is then turned into a pill or a powder.
Fragmented supplements lose the synergy and value of the sum of all the parts of being a whole food. When too much of a specific, isolated material is taken into the body, it can upset the balance of the overall metabolism. A compensatory deficiency of other vitamins can ensue. For instance, calcium interferes with zinc absorption. Too much of a specific form of a B vitamin can cause an imbalance in other B vitamins.
When you ingest a high concentration of any material, you are asking that your body rise to the occasion of a physiologic jolt. Megadosing, even with natural materials, resembles an effect that is closer to a pharmaceutical drug than a true nutritional supplement. If your body doesn’t need this amount of the material, taking the supplement at the high dose adds biological stress rather than reducing it.
Next week’s Part 2 will be on synthetic and natural supplements.
Jane G. Goldberg, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and owner of La Casa Spa, a holistic wellness center specializing in natural cleansing therapies and energy medicine therapies, located in the Gramercy Park, New York City, area. Jane is the author of eight books, a regular blogger for Huffington Post, and has her own blog, “Musings from 20th Street.” LaCasaSpa.com