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A Supplement Ain’t A Supplement Isn’t A Supplement

Supplements occupy an interesting as well as controversial space in the health and wellness world. Many tout (and sell) them to the heavens, others voice concern over efficacy and safety. Either way, they’re here in a big way and they ain’t going anywhere. Right now the supplement market is around 123 billion dollars. In the next six to seven years estimates have it exploding to between 230 and 349 billion.  This rings especially true now in a post-COVID19 world as people flocked to get their hands on vitamin D, zinc and quercetin. It’s clear that supplements sell, making it unsurprising that it’s rare nowadays to find a big- time personality in health and wellness not slinging their own supplement brand.

Supplements are also near and dear to my heart. I’ve just always had an affinity for them. Like some of you, I have (more had) cupboards and boxes of barely used, half used bottles in my efforts to find the next best thing to feel better and perform stronger. Now, I’ve certainly curbed my enthusiasm with time and more knowledge, but I don’t think my curiosity for them will ever end. We’ve just got chemistry. But, when it comes to supplements this is my golden rule

Not all supplements are created equal.


What is a Supplement?

First off – what are we actually talking about? Formally labelled “dietary supplements”, supplements are manufactured products intended to supplement the diet most often taken in oral form. They contain nutrients either extracted from food or created synthetically (or a bit of both) and span a huge range of products – vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fibres, and fatty acids to name the most common. Basically, they’re the hundreds and hundreds of bottles you find in pharmacies and health stores usually in eye-catching packaging that promise to heal or improve some aspect of your health.

Except, they actually can’t “promise”. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise and are not subjected to as rigorous standards and barriers to entry as medicines. Now, far from exalting prescription meds, with their own set of complex and sordid issues, it is important to know that a supplement ain’t a supplement isn’t a supplement. Aka, my golden rule. Because the world of supplements has the air of the Wild West, it is vital to be discerning and sceptical about which you decide to put into your body.


Why Supplement?

Because our diets/lives need to be supplemented. That’s the reality. Sad as it is. The post-industrial, modern world has transformed so much within us and around us that our bodies are bombarded by an enormous amount of stressors. This is especially the case in urbanised living, i.e. lives removed from nature. Now, there are strategies to prevent or minimise these stressors but they are not always available to all of us and they still come with a certain crossing of the fingers.

Food is a prime example. It’s effectively proven that the food we buy at grocery stores is far less nutritious and nutrient dense than the food eaten just two generations ago. They are also far more laden with toxins from fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. We’ve also drastically shrunk (75% drop) the diversity of our food since the turn of the century. In the kind of food market urbanised populations participate in people only eat five proteins and 12 plants. With that narrow spectrum of food consumption people are not getting the diversity of necessary nutrients. And even if you eat organic, not all organic are created equally either, and if one looks into the official regulations and certifications of organic, its still far from natural or wild.

And that’s just the start of why food isn’t the elixir it once was. A similar story of degradation can be told for water and air quality whilst industrialised living has introduced new stressors in the form of relentless chronic stress levels as well as EMF exposure and toxicity in our homes and places of work.

So in a nutshell – the throws of modern urbanised life has overloaded our bodies whilst under providing the building blocks necessary to replenish our bodies. That’s why the theory of supplementation isn’t odd or outlandish. In fact, populations in urbanised areas are chronically nutrient deficient. In the United States, at least half of Americans do not get enough Vitamin C, A, E, D, calcium and magnesium. And that’s at least. When it comes to Vitamin D, 95% of adults are deficient.


Which Supplements?

With the ‘what’ and ‘why’ squared away, let’s get into golden rule territory. Namely, which supplements are appropriate or best to use. And the ‘which’ starts with quality. Aside from the dangers of being reckless with dosage, ensuring that a supplement uses the ingredients it actually advertises, is pure and untainted, is third party tested and comes from reputable/trustworthy source may be the most important step in the process. Not all supplements are created equal, so Vitamin C ain’t just Vitamin C isn’t just Vitamin C. Who manufactures it, where it’s manufactured, what it’s manufactured from, all these are essential components to supplement selection. To become a responsible and proficient supplement user requires an investment in learning to read product labels and investigate suppliers.

Let’s call that paragraph above supplements 101. To step it up a few levels requires an assessment of bioavailability. This is easily the number one most critical aspect of supplementation I encounter the least awareness of. The chemistry of the human body is mind-blowingly intricate. We are genuinely still scratching that surface. Consider magnesium. A very common, and one of the safest, supplements. But magnesium ain’t magnesium isn’t magnesium. There’s magnesium malate, magnesium threonate, magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium chloride, magnesium sulphate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium oratate and magnesium glycinate. Each is somewhat geared to assist different ailments and furthermore, each form affects the bioavailability of the molecule.


Okay, so what is that then? Bioavailability?

In a word – absorbability. In a few more words – bioavailability is a concept concerning how efficiently the body both absorbs and uses a nutrient. And this is really fundamentally where most people go wrong with supplements. Each and every year, like clockwork, a major corporate press outlet will publish a story about the ineffectiveness and pointlessness of vitamins. Now, ignoring the nefarious motives pharmaceutical companies have in convincing people of vitamin’s futility as well as the fact that most people are vitamin and mineral deprived thanks to our broken food systems, the reason so many of the vitamins or supplements people take aren’t effective is because they’re taking them wrong, and therefore because they aren’t bioavailable.


But what constitutes bioavailability?

Again, let’s break it down into simple slices – what, when, how and with what.

‘What’ is basically circling back around to quality/purity. Most simply, the purer the supplement, or the more of the actual supplement in the supplement, the higher likelihood it will be absorbed. This is rudimentary statistics. Let’s say a specific nutrient is on average absorbed at a rate of 50%. If there are only 10 units of said nutrient, you’re going to get 5 of them. But if the supplement is purer or more concentrated and has 100 units, now you’re getting 50. This is important because a lot of low quality supplements are mixed with fillers, carriers, anti-caking agents and all sorts of other junk. To reiterate, read the label.

The other key aspect to what is the molecular form. We touched on that already with the varieties of magnesium. Not only does each molecular structure better assist different health issues, some molecular forms are simply better absorbed than others. To illustrate, zinc oxide has a 10% lower bioavailability compared to zinc citrate or zinc gluconate. Then, there is the matter of metabolic stage. From the time food is ingested to the moment its molecular goodness is used intercellularly, the atoms will undergo many processing interactions and iterations. As an example, collagen in the body is formed from smaller building block amino acids (such as glycine and proline). Therefore, one can buy collagen supplements that are hydrolysed, meaning already broken down into the base amino acids so that our body is more easily able to absorb and deploy them.

The ‘when’ when it comes to supplements is the other aspect I believe is least understood and most under appreciated. To play in concert with the body’s natural circadian rhythm it is necessary to use some supplements in the morning and others when winding down for sleep. This makes sense. The body follows a daily cycle of waking up to falling asleep in conjunction with the rising and setting of the sun. That cycle includes the timing of production and reduction of specific bodily functions, and therefore utilisation of specific nutrients and specific hormones. Slotting supplements into the right time slot therefore can work with the cycle or against it. To briefly illustrate, the B vitamins are involved in the creation of energy. Logically, taking your B vitamin supplement in the morning makes better sense so that one can exploit the energy production throughout the day versus taking it in the evening and having this contrast of energy production fighting the body’s natural process of slowing down for sleep.

Furthermore, and this is vital, the when is a function of when you eat, aka on a full or on an empty stomach. This once again reverts back to bioavailability. Whether there is food in your stomach or not, that the supplement mixes with, can determine whether or not that supplement is absorbed. More of that later in the with what section. But as a general rule of thumb, it’s safer to take supplements with food. There are however, like always, notable exceptions. Probiotics are best taken on an empty stomach (as well as just before bed). Iron is another one where bioavailability is best on an empty stomach. Iron should also be taken in isolation, given that other minerals and vitamins interfere with its absorption, including calcium and vitamin E. Just a quick note here. Supplementation is most safely and responsibly done with the oversight of a health care practitioner or health coach. Iron, for example, when taken on an empty stomach leaves many individuals feeling nauseas (myself included). Therefore, the advice and guidance of a health care practitioner is best in order to navigate such issues.

[You may have noticed yet another consideration above – nutrient synergy. This is at the higher echelons of supplement usage and as noted above is where working with a learnt caretaker like a health coach has huge advantages.]

Alright, we’re at the ‘how’ now. Or put into different language, what is the vehicle or vessel the supplement comes as. This is an interesting junction because it’s relatively new. Supplements have traditionally been in pills and capsules as well as powders. But that’s rapidly changing. There has been a big boom of spray supplements, orally/sublingually, nasally and transdermally. Why? In the quest for bioavailability. Pills, powders and capsules still have to pass through the gut to be activated. That can be problematic due to the high acidity of the stomach or gut absorption issues. Sprays are alleged to circumvent those hurdles, and be absorbed into the blood stream more effectively. Sprays are additionally found to be more pleasant by many users. Finally, there is intravenous, so via needle directly into the blood stream. This is the highest-end biohack, both in terms of experience and cost, but also arguable the most powerful and bioavailable. Vitamin C, for example, when administered intravenously is 30 to 70 times more concentrated (bioavailable) than when taken in the same quantities orally`.

Finally, ‘with what’. Meaning, with water or with fat. Which is effectively with or without food, aka full or empty stomach. This is important because vitamins and minerals are either water or fat soluble. Meaning, vitamins and minerals are either transported (absorbed) into the body by catching a lift on water or fat molecules. “Vitamins don’t work, you just pee them out”. Heard that before? I sure have. And that comes down to whether it’s been absorbed or not. So for instance, vitamin D is a fat-soluble molecule, so if you’re taking that on an empty stomach just with water, then yes, it won’t be absorbed and you’ll just pee it out. But if taken at breakfast, with some good fatty food (like avocado, yoghurt or nut butter), problem solved. So, as a general rule here, when it doubt take supplements with food, particularly fat rich food. There is better chance they will be absorbed and a lower chance they’ll make you feel sick. But this is a general rule, not a one size fits all. Do your research and empower yourself before swallowing or spraying anything.


“Let food be thy medicine”

And after ALL that, you should still do your utmost to get what you need from real food sources, and ideally ethical, local, organic and non-toxic. Modern human beings have fallen into the trap of believing their technologically manipulated or created molecules are better than nature’s. As we see so often, this is arrogance, hubris and foolhardiness at its best. The human body has undergone millions of years of evolution to convert food into life. In a healthy human gut, food will always be better utilised by the body than synthetic or isolated molecules. There is a magical symbiosis between food and nutrients that supplements cannot mimic. It’s like drinking fruit juice versus eating fruit. One is a concentrated isolate that overwhelms the body’s glucose response whilst the other is a combination of fibres, carbs, proteins and enzymes that is both gentler on the glucose response and improves digestion and bioavailability.

There are other reasons to prefer food to supplements too. One, it’s far easier to hurt the body by over supplementing than over eating good, real food. Two, all those synthetic varieties of molecules could interact in the complexity of the human bodies in unpredictable and unforeseen ways. And thirdly, as much as we do our best to ensure high quality supplements, we are always taking a leap of faith that the sourcing and manufacturing are done responsibly and reliably.


To Summarise on Supplements

Rather, to put this supplement sermon to rest – using supplements should be done responsibly and never willy-nilly. Do your research. Work with a health coach. Listen to your body. Do not just grab bottles and bottles off the shelf and shovel them down.

Alas, we do not live in an ideal world, and thus what once was provided by nature in abundance now often does necessitate a supplement. But so much factors into if, what and how much – genetics, epigenetics, health status, gut health, where you live, the time of the year, etc – that it will always require the individual to remember that not all supplements are created equal. Ensuring perfection is impossible, but the more diligent and educated one’s approach to supplements are the better the likelihood they are doing what you want them to do, which is to supplement aka augment and enhance the way one feels, performs and lives.

Just remember, a supplement ain’t a supplement isn’t a supplement. They’re not a panacea either. Whilst often useful and powerful, supplements are neither a supplement nor substitute for the basics. They are what they say they are – a supplement, over and above.

They do not and never will replace eating well, sleeping well and moving your body.

But they can help. When utilised correctly and consciously.


If you need help on your wellness journey consider the benefits of a Health Coach, and connect with one of our Thrivists for coaching sessions to guide you on this journey.

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