Do you take vitamins? Do they “work”?
Most often, when I ask these questions of my patients, they can’t tell me if they feel any better or different when taking vitamin supplements. In fact, there is good evidence that the vast majority of commercially available vitamin products have little to no effect. In some cases, they can even be harmful. Does this mean you don’t need supplemental nutrition and should abandon the idea altogether? Well, it’s not that simple; it rarely is.
In nature, vitamins occur in what’s called a “complex”; vitamin C complex, vitamin A complex, etc. This means that true vitamin C in your orange is a perfectly and naturally constructed group of nutrients, trace minerals, cofactors, enzymes, and other known and unknown constituents. They serve many essential functions once ingested and absorbed by the human body. The readily available vitamin C product from your local health food store differs significantly from this complex. In their infinite wisdom, the vitamin scientists decided that the most abundant fraction or main ingredient of any complex must be the active or functional part. Thus, all that is necessary. In our vitamin C example, they decided that “ascorbic acid” is the valuable part. Ascorbic acid is inexpensively synthesized in a lab (using petroleum-based raw materials such as coal tar). This “vitamin” is called a “synthetic fractionated” vitamin. Looking at the label, you’ll see chemical names like “vitamin C as ascorbic acid” and “vitamin B1 as thiamine”.
As you can see, it is completely disconnected from the food realm, and as you may imagine, it does not function the same. The body looks at these synthetics and doesn’t know what to do. The cofactors that have been disregarded and overlooked are absolutely essential for nutrient absorption, utilization, and function. The well-meaning consumer takes these vitamins, but they don’t get absorbed and flush out in the urine, causing what I call “Expensive Urine Syndrome.” So, best-case scenario… these vitamins are useless and not worth the plastic they come in. If one takes large doses of these synthetics, it becomes even more complicated. In its constant and powerful drive for health & balance, the body can actually attempt to build the complex that it’s used to seeing accompanying the fraction. In other words, if you take large enough amounts of ascorbic acid, the body can try to piece together the vitamin C complex. It does so by drawing on its own stores of those other nutrients, thus creating deficiencies. Not good!
A Quick Analogy
The best way to sum this up is with an analogy. For your watch to work, you need a minute hand, a second hand, a wrist band, gears, a battery, a face-plate, and so on. They all work together in perfect synergy. You can have 100-second hands or 1000 gears, but without the rest of the parts to play their role, it will not tell you the time.
Should I even bother taking supplements?
After that explanation, you might assume I don’t recommend vitamin supplementation. Not at all. There’s another side to this story. Our modern diet is grossly and dangerously deficient in many essential nutrients. This leaves our bodies weakened and constantly struggling to keep up with the business of healing, detoxification, hormone production, and cell regeneration. In fact, many experts will point to this phenomenon as a significant contributing factor to our rapidly declining national health.
The body has incredible & redundant systems to make up for deficiencies of nutrients and damage done by our short-sighted lifestyle choices. Unfortunately, it can only do so much and will inevitably be unable to keep up. This is when the “person” becomes the “patient.” What to do? Working on food choices and revamping dietary habits is best, but these changes can take time to learn and implement. Nutritional “whole-food” based supplements come to the rescue. Unlike the vitamins described above, this lesser-known class of vitamin supplements is made from nutrient-dense food constituents. It presents the vitamin complexes with all their naturally ordained complexity, beauty & effectiveness. A look at the label will reveal easily recognizable albeit not readily or easily eaten foods. Matched appropriately with an individual’s specific circumstances, these get readily absorbed and utilized, allowing for some fantastic healing. We’re simply empowering the body’s innate & miraculous ability to heal itself by flooding it with the raw materials it’s been so sorely lacking for so long.
One more analogy: If you ask a carpenter to build a house but only allow him 1/3 of the lumber, nails, spackle, and other materials, he will do the best he can. He will cut corners by spreading out the beams and using fewer nails than he usually would. The final product will not be structurally sound and more prone to leaks, draftiness, damage, and collapse than the house next door built to code. Starting to make sense?