by Dr. Scott Saunders
One of the biggest issues over the past hundred years since the discovery that specific nutrient deficiencies can cause disease is whether we should be taking vitamins every day. The word “vitamin” indicates a substance that is essential to life. These are substances we don’t make in our bodies, and therefore need to eat them in order to live – or live well.
In the past, doctors commonly dealt with vitamin deficiencies because people didn’t have access to fresh foods all the time, or their diets were very limited.
- Only eating white rice, for example lead to beriberi, a B vitamin deficiency.
- Sailors on ships had “hard tack” and dried meat, neither of which had vitamin C. Scurvy, as a result, was common aboard ships, sometimes taking the lives of half the sailors on a voyage.
- During the industrial revolution, Rickets became a common illness because people moved their work and play indoors and didn’t spend time in the sun to get vitamin D.
Doctors also treated, unsuccessfully, cases of enlarged thyroid (goiter) with all sorts of concoctions until it was discovered that iodine deficiency was the cause. In 1924, iodine was added to salt to prevent this. However, most of our “designer salts” such as Himalayan salt, sea salt, and kosher salt, as well as the salt used for canning, processing, and cooking in restaurants and packaged food contains no iodine. Goiter, and other iodine deficiency disease are still common in the United States, and in the world.
One comment in The Lancet journal described the problem:
According to WHO, in 2007, nearly 2 billion individuals had insufficient iodine intake, a third being of school age… Thus iodine deficiency, as the single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation, is an important public-health problem. (1)
In modern times, doctors are taught that vitamin deficiencies are rare, and are not taught about diagnosis and treatment. However, we still see lots of “rickets,” but since it is mild and found in older people we have changed the name to “osteoporosis.” It’s extremely common in the modern world, but instead of giving vitamin D as in times past, we use drugs to kill the bone cells. We surgically remove goiters, or irradiate them, when all that is needed is iodine supplements.
Can I take too much vitamins?
The FDA is making a huge effort to keep people from taking vitamins. This comes in two forms:
- Questioning the safety of vitamins.
- Wasting your money on vitamins that don’t help anything.
The safety of vitamins is unquestionable. The 2010 annual report of The Poison Control Centers found not one single death from vitamin overdose, in spite of the fact that well over half the population takes them. (2)
By contrast, there are more than 125,000 deaths per year from properly prescribed drugs; and drug overdose has become the leading cause of death and disability in the United States. (3)
Doctors will also tell you, “You’re just wasting your money buying all those vitamins.” They told us in medical school that taking vitamins just made “expensive urine” because the body gets rid of what it doesn’t need. This has been an effective campaign, but is it true?
It is an important fact just in order to get into the urine, the vitamins have to be absorbed, get into the blood and bathe all the cells first. In other words:
- The cells are able to take what they need, and the kidney will get rid of the leftovers.
- Each cell has mechanisms to take up the nutrients it needs.
- Not all cells need the same vitamins and minerals at the same time, but must be available at the time they are needed.
- Thus, regular use of vitamins is important for your cells to function well.
- Those cells that don’t get what they need can create disease, such as those noted above, as well as cancer.
- In one study, a multivitamin, Centrum Silver (made by Pfizer, a drug company) was shown to decrease cancer by 9% in men.
- Studies on vitamin D have shown up to a 77% decrease in cancer.(4)
- Many other studies on anti-oxidant vitamins have shown remarkable results on cancer and disease prevention.
Even if the statistics were half as good, it would be worth taking vitamins. So, since they aren’t toxic, and they often help, it’s definitely a good idea to take your vitamins.
Which do I need?
Hilda was a spry woman in her eighties who came to me with two shopping bags full of bottles. “I want you to tell me which of these vitamins I need to take.” She was a “member” of an anti-aging group that sent her a catalog of vitamins with articles on why people need them.
Every time she read an article about how important a vitamin was, she bought it. Now, she spent all her time reading about vitamins, organizing her vitamins, taking her vitamins, and buying her vitamins. The problem wasn’t that she was overwhelmed by all the vitamins, it was that she was spending over $300 per month on them, and could no longer afford it. She had a hard time letting go, even after I recommended discarding most of them.
A big question people ask me is, “Which vitamins should I take?” The answer is, [am4show guest_error=’noaccess’ ] “The ones you need!”
Now, it gets a little tricky. There are tests to determine which vitamins may be deficient, but these are not always accessible. I do lots of these tests, and I find most people who eat the American diet have certain nutrient deficiencies, so I always recommend to start supplementing with the common vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin D
Lest you should get overwhelmed, the majority of these are minerals that could be found in any common supplement. Note: Vitamin D is most often under-dosed, so I recommend much more than is found in a multi-vitamin.
What is the best way to get vitamins?
The way we take vitamins, concentrated, in a pill form, may not be the best way to get them. I would cite the clear example of Dr. Terry Wahls, MD who had Multiple Sclerosis, and found that taking vitamins helped, but it wasn’t until she committed herself to getting all those vitamins from her food that she cured her illness.(5)
She states that there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of nutrients in the food that are not found in the vitamin pills.
Much of the problem with nutrition is that we eat so many calories, we cannot get enough anti-oxidants from our food to prevent damage to our mitochondria. Therefore, we are told we must supplement. Well, the truth is, if you eat low-calorie-and-high-nutrient foods, you need less!
The worst foods to eat are:
- Flavored drinks
- Baked goods (cookies, donuts, cake…)
- Breakfast cereal
These contain loads of calories, in sugar, starch, fat, and protein, but very little nutrition. They tear-down the energy-producing mitochondria without providing anything to build them up or protect them from damage.
The chemical reactions that go on in our cells all day long require these vitamins, so if you eat fewer calories, you need less vitamins and are less likely to be deficient.
The best foods to eat are:
Kale and broccoli are singled-out, even though they are green, because they are so nutritious. These two go above-and-beyond the call of duty to protect, preserve, and build your energy supplying mitochondria. Food is clearly the best way to nourish your body. However, it is very hard to get all you need in food. Therefore, it would be wise to supplement.
Less is More
Since nutritionists are taught only about deficiencies, they are rarely aware that one of the best ways to get enough nutrients is to eat less calories. Now that we know how less calories gives us better nutrition, the next part is really incredible!
What few people, except the scientists themselves, know is that less nutrients is beneficial, as well!
We were always taught to take our “daily vitamin,” but few people know that is just a marketing plan, not a health plan. The truth is when we take a vitamin every day, we get resistant to it, we absorb less, and we don’t use it efficiently. Moreover, when we take large amounts of one nutrient, we inhibit others. Here are a few examples:
- Zinc supplements inhibit magnesium and copper from being absorbed. (6)
- Selenium inhibits chromium absorption.
- The absorption of magnesium decreases as you take more supplements. (7)
- Vitamin C in high doses over a long period decreases the action of SOD (superoxide dismutase), an enzyme that protects your mitochondria from damage. (8)
The answer to the vitamin dilemma
We hear so much conflicting information about taking vitamins, how can we be sure we get enough without getting too much? This is a terrible question that is essential to answer, because, as Dr. Wahls found out, if you don’t have your health, it doesn’t matter what else you have.
The answer lies in how the body functions. All of life is in a constant rhythm, or state of flux.
- We need constant variability.
- We need to sleep, and be awake.
- We need to feast, and fast.
- We need hot and cold.
- We need good and evil.
- We need the contrast of all there is in order to function at all.
If everything were the same color, we might as well be blind! If everything made the same sound, we might as well be deaf.
When we get a constant level of any nutrient, our bodies automatically down-regulate the absorption and utilization of it. By the same token, when we are deficient, our bodies increase absorption and use of any nutrient. Therefore, in order to be efficient, and effective, we need periods of having a lot, and then of having none.
Vitamin pills are concentrated, high-dose (relative to food) nutrients that should be taken on an intermittent basis. In other words, if you take your vitamin pill twice per week you may get more out of it!
Now, how many problems does this solve!?
- Lower cost — now you can afford to get a good quality vitamin – and still spend less!
- Avoid nutrient interaction.
- You can have your magnesium, and zinc too!
- You will have enough, but not too much for every nutrient, every time.
In doing this, you put your trust in your body to regulate the nutrients. This is what the digestive system is set up to do. Believe me, it works!
Hilda, the above example, was very worried that she wouldn’t get enough of some vitamins, and wouldn’t throw away any of the ones she had already paid for. So, we came to a great solution! We poured all of her leftover supplements into a large bottle, shook them up, and she takes one per day. She will not get the same supplement every day; the pill she takes on any one day is random! This way she gets all the nutrients she needs, in the most efficient and effective way. There will be no interactions among them.
I don’t think everyone has to do this, but it isn’t a bad idea for those who need lots of different nutrients, and want to get the most out of them.
- Vitamin D3 – 50,000 IU once per week for adults and 20,000 IU for children
- Iodine – 12.5mg once per week for adults and children
- Omega-3 oil – 3 grams twice per week with a meal
- Trace mineral supplement once per week with a meal
I would also add a multivitamin twice per week. You may need to add specific other nutrients, depending on your personal needs, but you should still take them irregularly.
Dr. Scott D. Saunders, M.D. (Ask-an-MD) is a practicing physician, specializing in preventative health care, who utilizes eclectic health care for the whole family, including conventional, orthomolecular and natural medicine. He is also the medical director of The Integrative Medical Center of Santa Barbara in Lompoc, CA. He went to UCLA medical school and is board certified in family medicine. View natural remedies with Dr. Saunders at: http://drsaundersmd.com
(1) “Iodine deficiency—way to go yet”. The Lancet 372 (9633): 88