What to Look for in a Vitamin

By Dr. Colleen Huber, ND

As a naturopathic physician, I have had patients come to me on their first visit with great concern over why their nutritional supplements don’t seem to be working. Once we start emptying out the big bag of supplements that they’ve brought to the office, the answer quickly becomes apparent.

Many people come in to me with vitamins that they have purchased from the big chain discount stores or drug stores. These are often well-chosen supplements, well-researched by the patient, which often might be helpful for their condition if the quality were adequate.

Unfortunately the problem is they have often chosen the cheaper, synthetic alternative, which generally does not work well in the body for reasons given below. Americans are now spending more than $17 billion per year on nutritional supplements [1] and are usually not getting their money’s worth.

A recent review of 67 studies found “no convincing evidence” that antioxidants reduce risk of death, and that vitamins A and E interfere with the body’s natural defenses. [2] Of course, with pharmaceutical advertising as a necessary support of major media groups, [3] this study eagerly denounced the number one competitor of pharmaceuticals, namely vitamins, and of course made big headlines. But it failed to emphasize the really crucial bit of information at the end of the study. The disclaimer at the end, which would have surprised few naturopathic physicians, read as follows:

“Because we examined the influence of only synthetic antioxidants, our finding should not be translated to potential effects of fruits and vegetables.”

This disclaimer should have gone several steps further: The findings should also not be translated to potential effects of nuts and seeds, meats and dairy, and whole grains. These results should not be translated to the hugely valuable effects of raw foods. These results should also not be translated to the excellent effects of vitamin supplements made from these natural foods.

Synthetic vitamins are usually isolated molecules that create problems for a number of reasons.

First, the body does not recognize isolated molecules and usually does not metabolize them as effectively as from food sources. Such substances are not bio-available, meaning not available for your body’s breakdown and nutrient-harvesting processes. Thus the synthetic nutrients go right through you, and even though they seemed like quite a bargain in the store, they are now making expensive urine and stools.

Second, isolated synthetic chemicals can be destructive to the body because the other constituents of the original food source are not there to buffer or mitigate the more extreme effects. They actually act more like drugs in your body, as they are so distinctly and homogenously one item, that they are forced too fast, violently and destructively down one or another metabolic pathway in your body, which thus risks the destructive and dramatic effect of pharmaceuticals. This becomes evident when we see pharmaceuticals that are made out of medicinal plants and create more new problems and side effects than did the plants.

The most familiar of these today is isolated or highly concentrated caffeine. The high energy drinks that concentrate caffeine have been associated with more anxiety, heart arrhythmias [4] [5] and insomnia than ordinary coffee and tea, leading a number of countries to ban their sale. [6] Coffee and tea, on the other hand, not only provide a more moderate amount of caffeine per serving, but retain the unrefined plant elements from their source, which enables us to enjoy a cup or two without the unpleasant side effects.

We live at a strange crossroads in history. Over the last few decades, the human species has been hypnotized by the temptations offered by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The 1950’s ushered in the “better living through chemicals” age. And we believed, and we bought and swallowed and injected and are still consuming them in massive amounts, and, most recklessly, injecting such chemicals as ethyl mercury (thimerosal, which is still in many vaccines), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), aluminum and formaldehyde into our babies as part of vaccines, without any prior safety testing.

But now with massive chronic disease plaguing our most industrialized populations, autism closely following children’s shots, and more pathology coincident with concentrated chemicals, we are beginning to wake up from our long post-World War II slumber. Now begins the next era when synthetic chemicals are starting to be seen as, however useful in many applications, best kept at a distance from our bodies, our homes, public spaces and wilderness.

The old era of unthinking reliance on a synthetic existence is showing severe disadvantages, just as the urgency to forge new relationships with nature is becoming apparent. Plants and other whole foods are coming into their own new era as naturopathic physicians and other well-informed health practitioners rely on them for their central role in healing. Within our lifetimes, whole food will eclipse pharmaceuticals in medical practice, as the general public awakens to its far superior healing capacity. But the allopathic profession will be the slowest to catch on, just as most physicians of the early 20th century refused to believe that absence of certain nutrients could bring on such horrible diseases as scurvy, pellagra and beriberi. Then as now, allopaths were eager to lay blame for these diseases on microbes, until . . . oops! limes cured the “limey” British sailors of their scurvy, and we saw that Vitamin B3 prevented pellagra, while Vitamin B1 prevented beriberi and Vitamin D prevented rickets. As usual, allopathy corrects itself long after the natural physicians are already healing patients. In fact, evidence now shows that even bubonic plague was more likely to strike those with low garlic intakes. [7]

But what would possess a person to think that food could possibly be medicine? Our first clue is the structure of our intestines. Whatever comes into the mouth later travels through miles of efficient tubing that extracts certain molecules from the food we eat, then converts them to one common molecule, Acetyl Co-A, from which the building blocks of the body are then made: protein, glucose and (healthy-type) fats. The intestines are great little machines, but not omnipotent. That is, they can convert food molecules to Acetyl Co-A, [8] because food has familiar and malleable combinations of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. But it cannot do that with bizarre substances that the body is unfamiliar with, such as petrochemical products and synthetic substances used in pharmaceuticals. Because of the history of our ancestors, from whom we inherited our bodies, the human body has no experience with many of these substances, has little clue what to do with them, and often excretes them, which may explain why placebos so often equal or surpass drugs in clinical trials. More often, though, as the body tries to either detoxify or wall off the offending invader drug, it creates new metabolites, which have multiple pharmaceutical effects, some of which may be quite harmful.

Food, on the other hand, is right at home in the body, since our species (like the others) has always processed it, and we have become quite efficient eating machines as a result. Therefore, we easily break down ingested protein, for example, to its component amino acids. These then in turn get rearranged into the proteins that our genes tell us to make, all of the busy construction that takes place in the womb, and for the rest of us: replacement of lost skin and membrane cells, slightly longer fingernails, hair, scabs over wounds, etc. Carbohydrates and dietary fat get broken down to Acetyl Co-A and rearranged to form the molecules our body needs to function, because this is how our bodies have been handling things for all of our existence as a species. How would the body be able to do that from a pharmaceutical? It can’t. It’s like trying to make your car run on orange juice.

Except for the last century in industrialized society, both humans and animals have almost exclusively relied on plants for their medicine. In fact, it is instructive that, as wild animals are still known to seek plants that are appropriate treatments for whatever illness may be present, rather than also having access to our pharmaceuticals, animals observed in the wild are still free of chronic disease, even when living all the way to their maximum lifespan. Our veterinary and zoo populations, on the other hand, present a very different picture: cancers, arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, constipation and pancreatitis are seen quite commonly among people’s well-loved pets [9] who are subject to a highly processed diet as well as synthetic pharmaceuticals by us, their well-intentioned owners and the pet food industry.

Whether we were created or evolved, we have been so intimately connected to plants for all of our existence as a species that we cannot live without them. We connect with plants and exchange with plants down to our very cells and our smallest molecules. That is why they heal us like nothing else can. Our historical reliance on plants has been an integral part of every human society. Plants and humans resonate on levels that are still beyond our comprehension, including biochemical and physiological levels, and some would say aesthetic and emotional as well. How could humans and plants so closely have shared this earth, one with the other, and not had complementary, multi-faceted relationships with each other? Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” Medicine is what you get when the most appropriate plant is given to an ill person. The plant kingdom does play the major role of all foods in this wonderfully beneficial relationship for us.

So then when your life is so hectic that plants do not seem to cross in front of your fork and dinner plate, you look for whatever will duplicate some of the health-giving success of those natural foods. This is where the food source vitamins come in. At least with these, you are getting some of that nourishing, life-sustaining relationship that our distant ancestors enjoyed with nature. Look for those that say “whole food source” or “whole food multivitamins.”

What to look for in a mineral supplement
All of the above principles apply to minerals, and then some. Mineral balances in our body are usually more delicate, in narrower parameters, than for vitamins. Chemical and electrical processes and transactions are constantly taking place within our bodies, and require high quality, bio-available minerals to enable that.

It is also important to note that especially as we are moving toward summer, and we sweat away many of our minerals, we should keep in mind that an athlete sweats out the same amount of minerals in one day that a couch potato does in two weeks, and we need to be aware of our bodies’ needs for these.

Here also, you are going to better off with food source minerals than with synthetics, and even more urgently, for one reason because cheap, poorly manufactured synthetic mineral supplements are even more subject to contamination by heavy metals than are vitamins.

For that reason, you are better off with a concentrated seawater or inland lake water mineral supplement than with something synthetic. To the extent that our body fluids are a microcosm of the oceans (salty sweat and all), the replacement that we should have for our lost minerals would be best derived from seawater. Human civilization began and flourished in the vicinity of waterways. It was only later on that we attempted to thrive far inland. As early humans found fish and seaweed [10] and other food from the sea to be adequate for our mineral requirements, those of us who have moved away or forgotten about such wonderful foods would benefit from a seawater mineral supplement.

Read more articles by Dr. Huber at her web site, www.naturopathyworks.com.

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1. Daniel H. Chong, ND. Real or synthetic? The truth behind whole food supplements. www.mercola.com. January 19, 2005.

2. Goran Bjelakovic, MD, et al. Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention. JAMA. February 28, 2007. 297:8.

3. Mary Ebeling. Beyond advertising: The pharmaceutical industry’s hidden marketing tactics. Center for Media and Democracy. www.prwatch.org. February 21, 2008.

4. Energy drinks jolt blood pressure, study finds. Reuters. Nov. 6, 2007.

5. Man’s heart stops after Red Bull overdose. The Sydney Morning Herald. August 19, 2007.

6. Boy treated after Red Bull binge. BBC News. February 20, 2008.

7. The Herb Research Foundation, Herb information Greenpaper: Garlic. www.herbs.org.

8. Metabolism. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metabolism.

9. Lorie Huston, DVM. Dog Diseases. www.thepetmedsite.com.

10. Seaweed, spirulina, raw. www.nutritiondata.com.