Growing up, I took a Centrum multi-vitamin every day. If I was coming down with a cold, I would take supplemental vitamin C. When I first got serious about my health, switching to a vegetarian diet for a couple years, I would take Animal Pak, which had 11 pills per serving.
Currently, the only supplement I take and recommend to everyone is vitamin D.
First, I learned that vitamin supplementation doesn’t prevent the “free radical damage” we once thought. It’s actually the phytochemicals, in fruits in vegetables, joined with vitamins that protect against DNA damage.
Second, the free radical damage that these supplemental vitamins do effectively prevent is produced by exercise. But, it turns out that our body needs free radical signaling post workout to improve. By mega-dosing with vitamins post workout, we are blunting our bodies’ ability to adapt to exercise.
Finally, studies show that high supplementation of vitamins B, C, E, and A (beta-carotene) increase mortality, sometimes by as much as 22%.
So why do I recommend vitamin D?
Vitamin D affects almost every function of the human body. Deficiencies can contribute to literally dozens of different diseases and conditions.
What about doctors or studies suggesting that vitamin D doesn’t affect health?
In all studies, subjects were given 400 – 800 IUs of vitamin D a day. A mere 30 minutes of sunlight provides 20,000 IUs. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a 25th of a natural dose wasn’t able to increase blood levels or affect health changes.
Trace amounts of Vitamin D can be found in certain foods. One egg yolk will contain about 20 IUs while 4 ounces of salmon may have up to 400 IUs.
If you want to be certain whether you need to supplement with vitamin D, get a vitamin D blood test, known as a 25 hydroxy.
Make sure your doctors tell you the actual numbers though! Most doctors won’t show any concern if your levels are between 20 and 55 ng/ml. This is usually enough to prevent rickets or bone softening, but optimal blood levels are in the 50 to 80 ng/ml range.
Depending how low your levels are, you may need to supplement with 5,000 to 20,000 IUs of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) a day.
Keep in mind that vitamin D is fat soluble and converted by cholesterol so it needs to be taken with a fatty meal that contains a healthy amount of dietary cholesterol.
In the summer, I take 2,000 to 5,000 IUs a day. In the winter, I take 5,000 to 10,000 IUs a day. I take it with breakfast, usually consisting of 4 to 6 whole eggs.
These specific recommendations assume that you are already eating a healthy diet (full of local and naturally raised meats, vegetables, and fruits) and avoid, or at least limit, grains and processed foods.
The digestion of carbohydrates, particularly grains, uses a massive amount of B vitamins, found most abundantly in meat. If you diet is too high in the former and too low in the latter, you may need a moderate dose of vitamin B supplements. I still would recommend against mega-dosing though.
There are certain other situations that may require additional supplementation but I’ll discuss those in a different post.
As you can tell, our understanding of supplements has changed greatly over the last decade. It used to seem so simple to merely pop a pill and have 100% of your vitamins and minerals for the day…but we now know that there is no substitute for a natural and varied diet.
Hope all this helps – both in terms of health and saving a few dollars on vitamins!