About Lynn

lynn jaffeeLynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of the book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health, a clear and concise explanation of Chinese medicine for the lay person. She is co-author of the book, The BodyWise Woman, a personal health manual for physically active women and girls. Read more about Lynn...

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Are Vitamin Supplements Healthy or a Case of Overkill?

For many people, the idea of moderation is a tough one.  For some reason, they seem to think that if a little bit of something is good for you, a lot must be really good.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Take vitamins, for example.  When I ask my patients about the supplements they’re taking, more and more often, I come across people who are taking more stuff than I could carry around in a laundry basket.  We have come to think of vitamins as body insurance; substances that will keep us free from disease. This is only true, however, of diseases related to vitamin deficiencies.

Is this a bad thing?  Well, it’s a serious case of overkill.  Vitamins were initially developed during at a time when deficiencies were common.  However, that is pretty much not the case today (with the possible exception of Vitamin D).  We have better access to a variety of foods, and many of our foods are vitamin-fortified, so deficiencies are much less common today than ever before.

So what happens if you take vitamins that you don’t need?  At the very least, they’re peed out, and you’ve paid a lot of money for substances that are just renting space in your body for a couple of hours.  However, the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, can stick around in your fat, so taking too much of those can produce side-effects and have negative consequences on your health. 

I don’t have much problem with a daily multiple vitamin.  However, it has become a more common practice to select vitamins boutique-style, based on perceived needs.  For example, taking a little selenium because you’ve heard it wards off cancer, adding a daily biotin pill because your hair is thinning, and topping it off with some Ginkgo, because you can’t remember to take your other vitamins. I believe that this selective cherry-picking of vitamins creates imbalances in your body chemistry, which is not a good thing. 

This is a bit like modern drug companies taking a perfectly effective Chinese herb, distilling out the most active ingredient, and turning it into a powerful drug.  So powerful, in fact, that they have to write pages and pages about possible side-effects.  What’s been lost in the process is the synergy between all the components in the original herb that made it effective, yet gentle.

Another issue here is that there is no guarantee that any of the vitamin pills you’re taking are even digested.  Huh?  That’s right, if you’re digestion is a little slow, you just may be flushing all those vitamins right down the toilet, without even the benefit of making your urine turn yellow.  Bummer!

So does this mean you shouldn’t supplement?  Maybe, but maybe not.  If your diet is complete, with lots of colorful vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, some seeds and nuts, and a little protein, you may be just fine without taking vitamins.  If you think your diet is less than optimal, you may want to take a daily multivitamin.  Here are a couple of things to think about:

-Check out vitamins that are made from whole foods.  This means that the vitamins are actually derived from foods and act more like food in your body than synthetic substances.

-Try to find vitamins that are chewable or in liquid form.  Your chances of digesting and absorbing them are greater than pills and capsules.

-Take it easy.  A better strategy than taking a whole boatload of pills would be to eat a variety of foods that are a variety of colors.

-If you’re taking a lot of vitamins, you may have to psychologically wean yourself off of them.  Start decreasing your vitamin intake by taking them every other day, then every couple of days, and then once a week.  You won’t die; you’ll most likely be healthier.

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