If you’ve ever visited a nutritionist, naturopath, chiropractor, or other alternative health practitioner, you probably left their office with an armful of bottles of pills, powders, and liquids with a declaration that they’d help you feel better. Unlike pharmaceuticals, though, the cost for those supplements is usually all out of pocket, so you also might have walked out their door wondering whether or not your hard-earned money had just gone to waste.
As much as we’d love to believe that those pretty little bottles of well-marketed vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and other nutrients will be the key to our health success, the truth is that that’s not usually the case. Sorry, guys – it’s just not that easy.
Doctors sling pharmaceuticals, and alternative health practitioners monger supplements, and they’re all for the most part selling you the tip of the iceberg. They’re up-selling you the full carbon version of your road bike, the nitrous oxide of your BMW M3. They’re giving you the extras when you already have the tools you need to get where you’re going. Often those extras don’t even win you the race.
Did I go too far with that analogy? Let me explain. For instance… they’re selling you (no sexa) Celexa or vitamin B supplements for your depression when they should be telling you that sugar and grains inhibit your ability to create happy-making neurotransmitters. They’re selling you Fosamax or ridiculous doses of calcium for your bone density when they should be telling you to eat Paleo and do load bearing exercise instead. And they’re instructing you to take insulin or chromium to help regulate your high blood sugar when they should just be teaching you to lay off the sugar, grains, and caffeine. I could go on and on… and on, but suffice it to say that a pill is a pill, no matter who it comes from.
Supplements are a money-making jackpot for a lot of practitioners, and they do it because they can. Because we want to believe that if we take an arsenal of pills and powders every day that it will make us healthy. But does it? How many times have you taken a pill for more than a month, not changed anything else about your life and actually noticed a difference in the way you feel? How long have you been taking those 2000 mg of calcium every day… and is your bone density actually increasing?
I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. I was looking for some salt yesterday in one of my cabinets and noticed that I reached past about $300 worth of supplements to get to it. Some of them were never even opened. I used to buy them on impulse if I was having some symptom or another, hoping and believing with gusto that if I took that pill diligently and daily, I would no longer have my symptom.
I’ve been taking supplements for 10 years and I can tell you that outside of a certain few instances, I haven’t noticed any difference in my health from taking them. However, I have noticed a LOT of improvements when I’ve switched up my diet.
Having said all that from atop my soap box, I’ll tell you when I think supplementation is appropriate and perhaps even good, and what to look for in a high quality supplement.
I think that most people do well on a Paleo or Paleo-ish diet, and that after a while, many maladies will disappear if you take out grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. I’ve seen it happen too many times to not wholeheartedly say that. There are complicated cases out there that need some special attention, though.
Some involve food sensitivities where people’s guts are just destroyed from years of abuse. There are also people whose levels of certain nutrients are so low after a lifetime of eating nutrient-depleted foods that they will have a very hard time getting them back up to par with just food. They need to supplement with specific nutrients after being tested for what they’re deficient in.
And I knew you would ask about the low quality of our soil nowadays, and therefore the low nutrient density of our foods. Don’t we all need a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral to make up for that?
Let’s start with that one. Yes, our conventional soil is depleted. Compared with 100 years ago, the soil that is used in conventional (not organic) farming contains around 85% fewer minerals. However, organic produce contains anywhere from 15-50% more nutrients than conventional produce. Right there, you make up for some of that loss over the last 100 years without popping any pills.
For those people (myself included) who spent most of their lives eating pasteurized dairy, refined grains and refined sugar and are paying for it now, they may need a little help healing their gut. First, you start by taking out common food offenders, which, if you’re Paleo you’ve already done. If that doesn’t work and you’re still having gas, heartburn, pains in your intestines, or other symptoms like headaches, acne or fatigue, you might want to look at food sensitivities. Get tested or start experimenting. If that fails, you’ll want to look at things like digestive enzymes, the amino acid l-glutamine, and hydrochloric acid.
Digestive Enzymes come in handy when you’ve done so much damage to your digestion that you are no longer producing enough, or the right kind of, enzymes to digest your food. Get a full spectrum of enzymes, including protease (for digesting protein), amylase (for carbs), and lipase (for fats), which can all come in one pill. Whatever brand you buy at your health food store, make sure it doesn’t have any corn (“dext-“) or other weird ingredients in it. Just the necessaries.
A lot of people look at me with surprise when I suggest they take hydrochloric acid, but it can be really helpful. Yes, it’s acid and yes, it’s corrosive and that’s the whole point. It’s what we use to start breaking down protein in our stomachs, and if you don’t have it you can get gas, intestinal pain, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue after meals, you name it. It’s an integral part of our digestive process and it absolutely blows my mind that doctors are consistently handing out purple pills to make it go away. It’s usually not the overabundance of HCl that makes you have heartburn: it’s the lack of it, which can be caused by eating (and overeating) certain foods over a lifetime. Here’s a really good article on how and why to take hydrochloric acid.
This doesn’t work for everyone, and definitely don’t do it if you’re currently taking an antacid, but it has worked for me and many of my clients. I like taking hydrochloric acid in conjunction with digestive enzymes because it’s not a long term protocol. If you take them for even a week, it can potentially be helpful. Taking them reminds your body how to make HCl and digestive enzymes on its own while giving it a break for a while. Take the enzymes with meals and take the HCl as the article describes.
Glutamine has been shown to be one of the most effective gut healers out there. It’s an amino acid – you’d find it naturally in many protein foods – and it helps to maintain the tight junctions of the gut barrier. That means it helps to keep the walls of your small intestine from becoming “leaky”. Personally, I’ve used glutamine over the last couple of years, sometimes pretty intensively, and I attribute my diminished food sensitivity symptoms at least partly to it.
Glutamine is a white powder with a slightly sweet taste that dissolves in water. You can take a total of about 12 grams per day split up between meals. That means you’d take 2 to 4 grams between breakfast and lunch, 2 to 4 between lunch and dinner and 2 to 4 before bed. Try to have it about 30 or 40 minutes away from eating. This can be a long term thing – I’d say you could be on it for 6 months to a year, or more depending on your situation. Try it for a month and see how you feel. Stop taking it and see how you feel. Most of the time it’s going to be subtle, though – you may not notice that you feel immediately better upon ingesting it, although some people do. Over time, though, you may not get the same symptoms after eating certain foods that you used to, and you may feel better overall.
After taking tests with your nutritionist, holistic MD, or naturopath that allow you to see which nutrients your specific body is low in, you will want to supplement with those. That could be anything from vitamin B6 to magnesium to vitamin D.
Vitamin D is definitely worth mentioning here, since so many people are deficient in it (perhaps almost 90% of us!). It’s a buzz word in the nutrition and health world right now, and for good reason. Vitamin D has so much to do with bone health, heart health, immune function and brain vitality that if you’re low in it, a lot can go wrong.
Because we’re all wearing SPF like it’s a piece of clothing, we’re not being exposed to the sun, and thus we’re not producing much vitamin D on our own. We’re certainly not eating much cod liver oil, mackerel or sardines, either, which are some of the main food sources of it. And by the way, vitamin D that’s added to milk is NOT the kind that is easily absorbed by us – it’s D2, not D3 – so it’s not doing us much good. It can actually even be toxic…
Taking somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 IU per day of vitamin D is recommended by many holistic practitioners. Get your levels tested to see where you’re at before you start supplementing. You want to be over 60 mg/dL, regardless of what your conventional doc says is good. Their standards of healthy blood lab results are often lower than optimal levels.
If you do end up buying a vitamin D supplement, make sure it’s D3, and make sure it doesn’t have any weird ingredients in it. After starting a supplement, have your levels rechecked after about 3 months to see where you’re at.
So there you have it. Those are the supplements I most often suggest for people. I strongly believe our diet is capable of providing very nicely for us, especially if we vary our diet, eat organic and properly raised foods, and get out in the sun as often as we can (within reason, you bronzy sun worshipers…).
Let us know your experiences with supplements. Have you had any miraculous turn-arounds with certain products? Any words of wisdom for your fellow readers?
Sign up for our Newsletter
Keep up to date with Paleo Plan news, recipes, and blog posts.