Is a multivitamin essential for optimal health?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
The simple answer is no, but sometimes yes. Read on . . .
I've been puzzling over this question since I was enrolled in naturopathic medical school. This is a hot issue. Conflicting research hasn't helped matters. Here's a look at some of the arguments.
Taking a multivitamin seems sensible
Our foods have lower amounts of nutrients due to depleted agricultural soils. Our body requires additional vitamins to detoxify chemical toxins. Many people have difficulty digesting and absorbing nutrients, as is the case for people with celiac or Crohn's disease. Higher nutritional demands may be required following certain circumstances, such as after surgery or after a sporting event. Children shying away from the dreaded broccoli may also require additional nutrients. A multivitamin may be a start in addressing some of these concerns. But multivitamins cannot by themselves make up for poor eating habits or counteract chronic health conditions.
Synthetic or natural?
While studying biochemistry, I was amazed at the array of molecules that exist in whole foods and in herbal medicines. There are differences between these natural forms of nutrients vs. man-made synthetic nutrients. Sometimes the action of the nutrient is based on the differences in its biochemical structure. For example, is there a difference between the vitamin E found in almonds vs the vitamin E found in a multivitamin? We now know that whole food sources contain vitamin E as mixed alpha and beta tocopherols, while multivitamins usually only contains alpha tocopherol. It appears that the whole spectrum of tocopherols are important for our health. In other cases, it's in the synergistic effect when compounds work together in the body to create a healing response. These may be the reasons why some research studies show that nutritional supplement therapy fall short.
New nutrients found . . . again
Biochemists continue to discover new nutrients in food that are of value to human health. As new research unfolds, I continuously re-examine how I treat my patients. What will be the next antioxidant discovery? Thanks to research we now know that tomatoes are loaded with lycopene. Broccoli contains indole-3-carbinole. Red grapes contain high amounts of resveratrol. Therefore, if we rely solely on our multivitamin, we may very well miss nutrients that haven't yet been packaged into a pill.
Single or multiple nutrient therapy
I should be clear: I am not against the use of supplements. In conjunction with lifestyle changes, specific vitamins or minerals in medicinal doses can be administered for appropriate conditions. High dose, single, synthetic nutrients are sometimes required when there is a specific biochemical need. Most Canadians, for example, require additional vitamin D during the winter since it is difficult to eat enough fatty fish and expose ourselves to enough sunshine to achieve the general recommendation of 1000 IU per day.
What about organic foods?
New studies in 2007 and 2008 have shown that buying organic foods may be worth the extra costs. After analyzing 100 peer-reviewed studies and articles, Dr. Charles Benbrook and colleagues at the Organic Center, concluded that in general, organically grown foods contains 25 per cent higher levels of nutrients than conventional produce. Meanwhile, a four-year European project coordinated by Professor Carlo Leifert indicated that organic fruits and vegetables contained as much as 40 per cent more antioxidants.
OK, so where do we find organic foods in Moncton and the surrounding communities? Meat, eggs, cheese, yogurt and grain products that are free of synthetic chemicals can be found year round at our local markets. During winter, however, fresh organic fruits and vegetables are harder to find. Local grocery stores do carry some, but it appears to hit the shelves only on certain days of the week. Buyers beware: nutrient density also depends on freshness. How the food looks and smells is our best indicator and is likely more important than whether the food is organic or not. Summer is a completely different story. Fruits, vegetables that are locally grown without the use of pesticides are easily found. Spend a Saturday at our local markets!
In summary, multivitamins can be an important addition to health maintenance programs, can make up for seasonal deficiencies, and can be used effectively in the treatment of certain health conditions. The best approach is ensuring that we individualize the most appropriate dose and spectrum (single vs. multiple nutrients) for each patient. We can't go wrong however by encouraging you to eat more whole foods especially fruits and vegetables. Study after study show that fruits and vegetables reduce our risk of heart disease and cancer. As simply stated in his book 'In Defense of Food' author Michael Pollan suggests to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday February 4th, 2009 in Times & Transcript.
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