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Nutritional supplements bridge the gap between adequate and optimal nutrition. And this is what really makes a difference. Today, we’re living longer, and we all want to be active and healthy into our 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Receiving the right amount of nutrients from food sources and nutritional supplements can help everyone achieve this goal.
RDA versus Optimal Nutrition
The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) were first established in 1941 by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB), and have only been updated a few times in the last 60 years. At the time, the board looked at large populations to determine how to prevent diseases due to gross vitamin deficiencies. Based on their studies, the FNB set the RDA for vitamin C at 60 mg—the amount needed every day to prevent scurvy; and determined the RDA for vitamin D to be 400 IUs (international units)—the amount required to prevent rickets.
While it seems obvious that those levels are antiquated by today’s standards, many still hold on to the belief that you can get all the nutrition you need from a healthy diet. Although you were meant to get the nutrients your body needs from what you eat, it’s nearly impossible to do so today—even if you eat a diet of whole foods with lots of organic fruits and vegetables. That’s because over the last 50 years, the soil has been depleted of nutrients—especially minerals—due to overfarming, chemical fertilization, and other practices. As a result, the nutritional value of many foods has declined. In addition, our fruits and vegetables are rarely eaten straight from the garden. Instead, they’re picked, shipped, and stored—losing nutrients along the way.
Nowadays, you’re also exposed to many more environmental hazards, including pollution, pesticides, and chemicals in cleaning products. Your body must detoxify these assaults—and it requires the right nutrients to get the job done properly. Toxins that remain in the body can cause a variety of health problems and lead to DNA damage. When the DNA in your cells is altered, your risk of chronic degenerative diseases (such as heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s) increases significantly. Recent studies have shown that taking the right multinutrients can protect you from this type of cellular damage.2
Although the RDA classifications are still used as the basis for nutritional supplements (not to mention being upheld by many mainstream medical organizations), the emphasis at the FNB has changed over the last few years. They’re now looking at nutrition as a way to reduce the risk of chronic disease, as opposed to just preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Focusing on optimal versus adequate nutrition is a giant step in the right direction, since there can be a huge difference between the two.
Four Basic Categories
A good supplement provides nutritional support in four basic categories: antioxidants, omega-3 fats, B vitamins, and minerals. Providing specific information for every vitamin or mineral on this list would take an entire library, so I decided to just highlight some nutrients, including oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and folic acid. Just recently, we’ve come to understand with greater clarity the role vitamin D plays in keeping us healthy, so I’ve dedicated a section just to the importance of vitamin D.
Sometimes referred to as “antiagers,” antioxidants help protect the body at the cellular level by ridding it of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are released when you eat poorly, you’re under considerable amounts of stress, and you’re exposed to environmental pollutants, as well as through normal body functions. If left unchecked, free radicals can damage DNA, thus accelerating aging and putting your health at risk.
The most common antioxidants are vitamin A, C, and E, although there are many others, including glutathione, coenzyme Q10, and alpha lipoic acid. One of my all-time favorites is OPC. Often called pycnogenol, it’s made from grape seeds or pine bark. Members of my family have taken it successfully to reduce arthritis symptoms because it decreases inflammation in the cartilage of the joints. And since OPC enhances the suppleness of collagen throughout the body, it’s also good for hair, skin, and nails.
Antioxidants work together synergistically—thus OPCs also boost the body’s vitamin E levels, which can thwart free radical damage, such as oxidation of LDL (good) cholesterol. This in turn helps protect the cardiovascular system and boost the immune system.
For those who have inflammation problems, start off with approximately 1 mg of OPC per pound of body weight in divided doses throughout the day. For example: A 140-pound woman would start with about 140 mg of OPC (40–50 mg, 3 times per day with meals) for two weeks to load the tissues. (Tablet size varies, so shoot for a daily loading dose that’s within 20–30 mg of your total weight in pounds.) After that, you can reduce the dose to 30–90 mg per day. Take more or less depending upon the amount your body requires.
Omega-3 fats are essential for the optimal functioning of every cell membrane in the body. As a result, getting enough of this nutrient is highly beneficial to your immune system, cardiovascular system,3 brain, and eyes. It can also halt the metabolic cascade (a series of chemical reactions in the body that leads to inflammation in all tissues and organs) by helping suppress the production of “bad” eicosanoids (evanescent cellular hormones, such as leukotrienes, prostaglandins, and interleukins). Too many “bad” eiconsanoids are what causes menstrual cramps, joint pain, and PMS. (Note: Virtually every pharmaceutical drug on the market, such as Celebrex and Advil [ibuprofen], works in part by suppressing the production of these “bad” eiconsanoids.)
A deficiency in omega-3 fats can lead to dry skin, cracked nails, brittle hair, fatigue, depression, memory problems, hormone imbalances, achy joints, arthritis, and a poor immune system. Omega-3 fats are found in fish, dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed, and sea algae. Truly considered brain food, omega-3 fats—particularly one called DHA (decosahexanoic acid)—support brain function and can stabilize your moods, helping prevent depression. Studies have shown that DHA is extremely important to babies in utero and infants—sufficient amounts of DHA have been linked to higher IQs, while deficiencies have been associated to learning disabilities such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD, ADHD) and dyslexia. DHA deficiencies are also a contributing factor to postpartum depression, preeclampsia, and various postmenopausal conditions.4
The right levels of B vitamins can actually bolster your energy level and stamina. Women who take birth control pills or hormone replacement, are under a lot of stress, or experience hormonal changes, are likely to require additional B vitamins.
The liver needs this nutrient to metabolize hormones. When estrogen isn’t metabolized properly, too much of it stays in the bloodstream, especially in relation to progesterone levels. This type of hormone, in turn, leads to an imbalance of the neurotransmitters—norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine—which makes you prone to anxiety, nervous tension, and PMS symptoms. In addition, B vitamins support the adrenal glands, which are often strained during stressful periods.5
Over the past ten years, we’ve learned a lot about the benefits of folic acid, one of the B vitamins. It can support cardiovascular health by lowering homocysteine levels,6 and it’s also one of the B’s that helps metabolize hormones in the liver. Perhaps more important, 800 mcg a day can help prevent birth defects, such as cleft lip and spina bifida, when taken before conception. Because they work synergistically, it’s important to take folic acid with the other B vitamins. Along this same line, a recent study has shown that taking multivitamins prior to conception significantly reduced the risk of prematurity7.
Minerals, and calcium in particular, are typically associated with bone health, but they’re responsible for so much more. Magnesium, for example, can mitigate neuromuscular pain, lessen the severity and frequency of migraines, and keep your heart healthy. Further, copper and selenium support the immune system; chromium and vanadium can help stabilize blood sugar; and manganese can boost the antioxidant process. Of course, calcium is needed for strong bones, but it doesn’t act effectively on its own. It needs to be taken along with all the bone-building minerals, including magnesium, boron, zinc, manganese, and copper. Enough vitamin D must also be present.
Most menstruating women need iron. Craving ice is a sign of deficiency. I know—I used to have this symptom! The usual amount of iron to take is 30 mg per day, and this is especially important during pregnancy. But there are some individuals who have a family history of hemochromatosis, a genetic iron-storage disease. If you have such a background, taking additional iron is a health risk.
Vitamin D: The Real Story
Vitamin D is both a vitamin and a pro-hormone, and plays an important role in bone maintenance. There’s currently a paradigm shift going on in the medical community as new research reveals a far more expanded role for this nutrient than previously understood. Recent research suggests that higher levels provide protection from diabetes, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, syndrome X (metabolic syndrome), and cancers of the breast and colon. The FNB’s previously defined upper limits (UL) for safe vitamin D intake of 2,000 IU per day was set far too low. The physiologic requirement for adults may be as high as 5,000 IU (less than half the amount of 10,000 IU per day that results from full-body sun exposure). Researchers have shown that supplementation in infants (less than a year old) of 2,000 IU per day reduced the incidence of type 1 diabetes by 80 percent. Experts estimate that adequate exposure to vitamin D, either through sunlight or supplementation, would save more than 23,000 American lives per year by reducing cancer mortality rates. Apparently, “death by sunshine” has been greatly overestimated!8
In fact, Vitamin D toxicity is far less common than previously thought. Induction this condition generally requires one to four months of 40,000 IU per day in infants; adult toxicity requires at least 100,000 IU per day for several months. For information on correct dosage, serum levels, and health issues, visit the Vitamin D Council’s Website at www.cholecalciferol-council.com. The Vitamin D Council is a nonprofit organization working to promote awareness of the adverse effects of vitamin D deficiency.
When starting a supplementation program, a well-rounded approach is best. Some people mistakenly think that vitamins should be taken to treat a medical condition. For example, they read that vitamin E can help reduce the occurrence of breast cysts and their painful symptoms, so they take a bunch of vitamin E. This method equates to conventional medicine’s practice of writing a prescription for a pharmaceutical drug to suppress your symptoms. Instead, start with a good foundation and add other supplements according to your individuals needs. There really isn’t that much difference between the nutritional needs of men and women (except for iron) unless a woman is pregnant or nursing. But take care not to distort the foundation—think of it this way: adding a little extra sugar to a cake may not change it significantly, but adding a whole lot will throw everything else out of proportion. Please understand that optimal supplementation requires at least four to five tablets or capsules per day. In other words, the “one-a-day” mentality is inadequate—you can’t get optimal supplementation from one pill a day. There are two excellent products that I’d recommend: Usana’s Essentials and Verified Quality’s Super Multi-Complex. (For information on how to purchase these products, go to the Health Store at Dr. Northrup’s Website www.drnorthrup.com.)
Once you’ve found a balanced approach, stick with it for at least three months before switching to another product or adding additional supplements. Sometimes the results are dramatic; more often they’re not so remarkable in the first few weeks. But over a period of six weeks to three months (sometimes up to six months), you’ll notice that you’ve had fewer colds and that you just feel better as some of your minor complaints lessen or go away altogether. You may also experience more vitality and a better ability to “go with the flow.”
Often when you’re feeling good, it’s hard to remember how far you’ve come. Here’s a tip for measuring your progress from my sister, Penny: Make a list of your complaints when you start your supplementation program and then review this list every three weeks. This is a great way to chart your advancement.
Tips for Choosing a Supplement
- Pick a high-quality supplement from a manufacturer that follows Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). They use pharmaceutical-grade (as opposed to food-grade) ingredients to ensure quality and efficacy.
- Good supplements cost money. Like organic produce, more expensive products represent the real price of high-quality nutrients.
- Folic acid is an expensive ingredient. If your multivitamin contains 800 mcg of this nutrient (instead of 400 mcg), this is often an indication that the manufacturer isn’t skimping on other ingredients in their product.
- A formula with a combination of antioxidants, such as rutin, bioflavonoids, grape-seed extract, and olive extract, is often more effective than a product containing only one or two antioxidants.
- Make sure that your supplement has both natural vitamin E (d-tocopherol as opposed to dl-tocopherol) and tocotrienols. These are all part of the vitamin E family—and you get the most benefit when they’re all present.
- Always take a vitamin B-complex, as opposed to just one or two of the B’s.
- Chose chelated minerals only. These are wrapped in an amino acid when manufactured to ensure proper absorption.
- If you’re taking a well-balanced formula, you don’t have to worry about megadosing.
In conclusion, please remember that supplements are not a substitute for a diet of whole, organic foods. The quality of the food you eat is still the cornerstone of good health! But more and more, research is clearly showing that a commitment to supplementing, day in and day out for your entire life, can make an amazing difference in your health. And remember the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
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Christiane Northrup, M.D. is a board-certified OB/GYN physician who helps empower women to tune in to their inner wisdom and take charge of their health. Her latest book, Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Emotional and Physical Health explores the mother-daughter relationship. She is also the host of a PBS special on the same topic. Dr. Northrup is the author of two best-selling books, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause and authors a popular monthly e-letter on her website, www.drnorthrup.com, and a print newsletter, The Dr. Christiane Northrup Newsletter: Health Wisdom for Today's Woman.
1. Barringer T. A., et al. 2003. Effect of a multivitamin and mineral supplement on infection and quality of life. Ann Intern Med 138(5):365–71.
2. Villeponteau, B.; Cockrell, R.; Feng, J. 2000. Nutraceutical interventions may delay aging and the age-related diseases. Exp Gerontol 35(9-10):1405–17.
3. Johansen, O. et al. 1999. The effect of supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids on soluble markers of endothelial function in patients with coronary heart disease. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 19:1681–6.
4. Saldeen, P.; Saldeen, T. 2004. Women and omega-3 Fatty acids. Obstet Gynecol Surv 59(10):722–30.
5. Northrup, C. The Wisdom of Menopause. 2001. New York: Bantam Dell.
6. Malinow, M. R., et al. 1997. The effects of folic acid supplementation on plasma total homocysteine are modulated by multivitamin use and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase genotypes. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 17(6):1157–62.
7. Vahratian A., et. al., 2004. Multivitamin use and the risk of preterm birth, Am J Epidemiol 160(9):886-92.
8. Vasquez, A. et al. 2004. The clinical importance of vitamin D (cholecalciferol): A paradigm shift with implications for all healthcare providers. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 10:5 28–36.