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Vitamin Supplements – Part One

I get asked a lot about supplements.

With all my harping about supplementation of vitamin D, K2 (MK-4: menaquinone-4 or menatetrenone), and omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) it may surprise you to learn that I have for some long time been generally opposed to vitamin supplementation. And here's a pretty decent synopsis of why, by Drucilla Dyess in Health News. I'm not going to quote it at length because, frankly, it's far too much to quote here and there's far too much gold-standard (randomized, controlled, intervention, double-blind) research to quote anyway. Just read it. It's not that long.

Since I began to really understand evolution and its underlying mathematical logic of natural selection, I have understood one thing about biology above all else: biological systems are chemically complex. Really complex. Really interdependently and interrelatedly complex. Chaotically complex (plausibly the underlying reason that, even though we all have the same chemical composition, we nonetheless all respond differently to identical chemical inputs). With that in mind, I'll quote the third to last paragraph of the article I cited.

According to one expert, a vitamin's benefit may become apparent only if people aren't getting enough of it, which could explain why vitamin D has been linked to a reduction in rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Another school of thought is that randomized clinical trials are designed to test only one factor at a time, although vitamins and minerals work together when consumed as part of a healthy diet.

Now, on the first point, this is one expert's view that makes perfect sense. In any hugely complex system, it's far easier to tell that something is wrong and to identify what it is (at least in part) than it is to explain how any single element works in total. And, this goes hand-in-hand with the second point, which is that if you don't control for variables, you can't say for certain what's cause and what's effect, associated with, or ancillary. On the other hand, when you do control for variables (as in: "controlled study") in a hugely complex system, you essentially have the same problem. That doesn't mean that all supplementation, or even drug therapy is automatically guilty or suspect. Rather, it ought to be regarded as a tradeoff. In some cases, it would clearly be better to supplement or drug — potentially making one or more things worse off — if you have good evidence that what's objectively made better is worth the risk. Chemotherapy is a good example. It wreaks havoc to your whole body; but that's often preferable to allowing a cancer to ravish it uncontrollably until you're dead.

However, with regard to chronic prophylactic vitamin supplementation, we may have gotten to the point with so many controlled studies that don't seem to point to any clear benefit to it (there are studies, however, that suggest a detriment), that you can begin to "tease" out some level of confidence. That's where I am on the issue. I'm confident it's unnecessary and potentially a bad tradeoff, with qualifications I'l develop in part three of this series.

In part two I'm going to take a detour to cover some of the background that I believe it at the root of this issue.

Go to Part Two

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

3 Comments

  1. Scott Miller on December 27, 2008 at 09:29

    Vitamins are one thing, but a significant percentage of people take a broad range of supplements that are not vitamins, nor minerals. These supplements including food and plant extracts, like grape seed, resveratrol, fish oil, garlic, pomegranate, cats claw, and so on. These all have proven benefits. Pomegranate extract, for example, is one of the very few methods of reducing vascular plaque, an has been shown to do this in animals and humans.

    Now then, why not take all of these extracts as actual food? Well, because t get enough resveratrol, for example, a person would need to consume dozens of bottles of red wine daily, or 50,000 cals of grapes. Supplementation is a way of getting the beneficial polyphenols from a plant/food without having to consume the associated sugar and cals.

    The supplements I take, for example, deal with issues such as cancer prevention, cardiovascular disease prevention, reducing inflammation, reducing (and ever reversing) glycation, and protecting brain health.

    These benefits go beyond what can be gained by a paleo-only diet. For example, these no escaping the past damage done to our bodies, nor daily toxins and pollution we're exposed to.

    I'm fully in the paleo-diet camp, and at 47 my fitness level is that of an athlete, and people guess my age at 35-ish. Solely relying on a paleo diet will get you far, but not as far as also incorporating a supplements regimen. Nutrition, IF, exercise, supplements — these are all key pillars to extending your healthy, non-feeble lifespan. I use them all.

  2. Richard Nikoley on December 27, 2008 at 12:37

    Scott:

    Thanks. Tell you what, let me address this in Pt 3 (or 4, if things come to that), as I think you make some valid points and I could be wrong. This will be a more valuable discussion if incorporated into a bog entry specifically. I'll probably get Pt3 out Monday morning.

  3. diet supplements on January 3, 2009 at 00:39

    Nice post,good summary.I think we need diet plan to keep our body fit and healthier.

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