By Michael T. Smith

There are so many different nutritional supplements on the market today. Most people are thoroughly confused about what they should or should not take. Many people are taking too many supplements; while some are taking the wrong nutritional supplements, and others may take nothing at all. Do we need to supplement our diet with pills? Why are there so many different supplements on the market and how do we know which ones are beneficial and which are harmful?

If we are consuming a diet that is mostly plant based, of fresh locally grown foods, with lots of variety on a daily basis, we probably do not need to take nutritional supplements. The unfortunate reality is that most of us do not eat a well-balanced diet and are therefore missing out on important nutrients everyday. Unequivocally, the best place to get the nutrients our bodies require is from food. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients that are essential to our health.

What do we do if we are not eating as well as we should? This may be a time to consider supplementation, but which one? Choose a supplement that is actually made from food rather than crafted in a lab. This will ensure the best forms of nutrients in the proper combination. As we have learned through time, it is impossible to replicate nature. Read the labels and look for such quality controls as third-party testing and additive free ingredients.

There have been several studies recently indicating that high potency, single isolate vitamin nutrients are not always helpful and may potentially be harmful. The latest study in the Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA) February, 2007, conducted a meta-analysis of 385 published medical studies, involving over 230,000 participants and concluded that take high-potency multi-vitamins, namely beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality. This is not to say that they cause death, but the analysis conducted showed an increase mortality rate among those who had been taking high amounts of these vitamins in their isolated form.

There is a large difference in taking vitamins in their isolated form versus in foods. We should not be concerned at all with eating carrots or bell peppers because they contain high amounts of beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin C. The forms of these vitamins in food along with the thousands of phyto-nutrients allow our bodies to best absorb and protect our health. Our bodies are extremely complex, more so than we have believed. It is ignorant on our part to believe that a specific vitamin is the answer to better health. Rather, it is the complexity of hundreds or possibly thousands of biochemical reactions that may take place even simultaneously in the body that provide health benefits. Giving single vitamins most certainly can push these biochemical pathways in the body, but are we pushing them in a positive direction? Maybe not?

Another, more alarming study was done with men and prostate cancer that concluded that men taking multi-vitamins had an increased risk of advanced and fatal prostate cancer (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2007).

For those who are taking supplements as well as medications it is extremely important to tell your doctor about everything you are taking. Often people believe that because it is natural, that it must be safe. Although this is true of many things, it is not true for everything. There are various nutrients and herbs that do interact with prescription drugs.

It is a known medical fact that prescription drugs deplete your body of certain nutrients. Birth control pills and other estrogens from hormone replacement can deplete your body of important B6 vitamins. Consider replacing these with sunflower seeds or wheat germ, other good sources include: beans, seeds, nuts or wholegrain products. If you take prescription medication regularly consider replacing lost nutrients with a whole food source that is rich in a combination of nutrients such as dark green leafy vegetables: kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, beet greens, green leaf or red leaf lettuce. Adding more fruits and vegetables can be extremely beneficial and offers minimal to no side effects.

There are several well known interactions between herbal medicines and drugs. One common herb is St. John’s Wort, or Hypericum perforatum. This herb can interact with many prescription drugs, not just those used for depression. When we speak of interactions, what we are referring to is the herb’s ability to either increase or decrease the effectiveness of the drug. Sometimes these interactions may be positive in that they help to support the intended outcome. First and foremost discuss these supplements with a qualified health care professional to discover if there may be interactions causing concern.

There are very few medical practitioners who are trained to understand the indications, contra-indications and interactions of nutritional supplements, herbal medicines, and drugs. Naturopathic physicians however are well trained to address issues in this area. Some pharmacists may be able to help with advice and counsel.

Too often we would rather take a pill instead of take responsibility for our health. Good health begins with good nutrition. That means consuming mostly unpackaged, unprocessed foods such as whole fruits and vegetables. Balanced nutrition is an important key to good health; without which our bodies will struggle to keep disease at bay. If we find the need to enhance the nutrients from whole foods we should always consider a supplement made from food. Remember that word is “supplement” not replacement! By no means does popping a pill take the place of eating a healthy diet.

Michael T. Smith, N.D. is a naturopathic physician who specializes in classical homeopathy and clinical nutrition. He currently practices at Carolinas Natural Health Center in Matthews, NC. For questions about naturopathic medicine or a free consultation, feel free to contact Dr. Smith at (704) 708-4404 or email: DrSmith@CarolinasNaturalHealth.com