Most people take supplements, whether it is a simple multi-vitamin to a more involved holistic protocol including herbs. And the majority of these supplements are bought at the grocery store or pharmacy. So how do you pick the best supplement?
First, most vitamins available commercially in the store are synthetic. This means they are created in a lab as an isolated molecule. Because the molecular formula for a synthetic vitamin is the same as that of a vitamin found in nature in real food (a whole food vitamin – note, not the brand Whole Foods, but rather a food that is whole, coming from nature and not created in a lab), the labs are able to label it as that vitamin. However, it is not the same and your body knows the difference. Your body cannot use synthetic vitamins in the same way it uses whole food vitamins. Synthetic vitamins are isolated molecules that do not contain the host of co-factors needed to activate them. For example, a tomato contains over 10,000 phytochemicals, many of which we cannot reproduce in a lab. Without these phytochemicals and co-factors, any given nutrient cannot be used.
Further, synthetic vitamins are often by-products of toxic industrial processes. For example, most synthetic B vitamins are coal tar and petroleum by-products. Do you really want to be ingesting a coal tar by-product? Not only do synthetic vitamins do your body no good because they cannot be used properly, but they may even do some harm. They can also lead to other nutrient imbalances because your body will attempt to “complete” any given synthetic nutrient by pulling from your body’s stores of nutrients elsewhere to provide the missing co-factors; however, by pulling nutrients away from other stores, the stage is set for a cascade of nutritional imbalances. Additionally, synthetic vitamins are pro-inflammatory, meaning they raise levels of inflammation in the body.
If you take any form of supplements, even just a daily multi-vitamin, make sure it is from a food source. The bad news is that almost every supplement sold in the grocery or pharmacy is synthetic; usually you have to go through a health care provider to get a whole food supplement. Why? Synthetic vitamins are cheaper to produce (and did you know that even when sold under a different label, all the synthetic supplements sold in the US are sourced by only a few companies? These companies then re-sell their synthetic supplements to the multitude of brands you see in the grocery store and the reality is there is little difference between any brand you buy; it all came from the same place).
A rule of thumb for identifying food source from synthetic source is how the vitamin is listed; for example, the list below is all synthetic (check your bottles; your supplements most likely include this list):
Vitamin C as Ascorbic Acid
Vitamin B12 as Cobalamin (fyi, we should always take the methylcobalamin form of B12, never the cyancobalamin form)
Vitamin A as Acetate and Palmitate
Vitamin B1 as Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
Vitamin B2 as Riboflavin
Pantothenic Acid as Calcium D-Pantothenate
Vitamin B6 as Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
Para-aminobenzoic Acid as Aminobenzoic Acid
Vitamin D as Irradiated Ergosteral, Calciferol
Vitamin E as dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate
For that matter, any “dl” form of a vitamin is synthetic; an easy way to remember this is dl: “does less.”
Regarding mineral supplementation, not all forms are equal. Although there are a few inorganic minerals that our body does use, for the most part, we really need to be ingesting mainly organically bound minerals. Calcium supplements are commonly sold as inorganic calcium carbonate (this is also the form found in TUMS). However, calcium carbonate is a ROCK. Your body cannot easily digest it. The supplement companies can label it as calcium because it is calcium, but it is in a form that is so unusable that you are just wasting your money and not absorbing much of it. Magnesium oxide is another inorganic mineral form commonly sold for magnesium supplements, and once again, it is unusable. What is the point if your body is not absorbing these nutrients? They are cheap to produce but they are doing you no good, and in some cases they are even doing you harm. Additional inorganic minerals the body cannot readily use but which are commonly sold in supplements include: zinc picolinate, zinc sulfate or zinc oxide; potassium chloride, potassium citrate, or potassium gluconate; magnesium sulfate; ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate or ferrous gluconate.
Then we come to herbs. Herbal supplements are often imported. Not all countries enforce the same quality controls so you have to be very careful of the source of any herb. For example, herbal supplements from some countries contain toxic fillers and additives including lead or arsenic. Cheap fillers “puff” up the size of the supplement without providing any therapeutic benefit and if toxic fillers are used, people can become quite sick. My preference is to use herbs sourced from an Australian company whose standards and control are impeccable and who is able to certify the purity and origin of their herbs.
For all these reasons, it is helpful to go through a health care provider when choosing and sourcing your supplements. This is one area in which we specialize and remain at your service to advise on the best supplements for you.