“How are you going to get your vitamins?” they ask, a concerned look on their faces like I’m nuts for even considering something so crazy. It’s like they just don’t believe that you really can get everything you need from the food you eat. But I don’t blame their concern. The multi-billion dollar supplement industry has done an amazing job of twisting studies and research, data that typically applies to small sections of the population in limited circumstances. Supplement companies have used what they’ve learned from one or two good results, or from subsections of the population who don’t have access to good nutrition, to market the idea that we’re all deficient in something, that they have the miracle cure, and/or that they have just what it will take to make us live longer and stronger. They’re clever, but I now believe that most of the time, they’re wrong.
Something changed for me when I had my daughter. And in hindsight, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to WAKE UP!
Let me tell you my story.
For a decade, I suffered with chronic pain because of a condition called endometriosis. If you’re not familiar with endometriosis, it is a debilitating disease that causes a woman’s menstrual cells to grow in places it shouldn’t, for example, on a woman’s fallopian tubes or her intestines. Shedding these cells each month during the menstrual period can cause a great deal of pain, vomiting, and intestinal distress for the effected woman. It can also contribute to, or cause, infertility. For me, it took years and years of suffering, missing work (not to mention embarrassing pain episodes on the job), emergency room visits, doctors’ appointments, and hundreds of dollars and desperate attempts via supplements, to finally get the help I needed: surgery. As a result of said surgery and the care of a highly trained, licensed Chinese Medicine doctor, combined with a little extra help from Western medicine, I was finally able to conceive my beautiful daughter Daphne.
What wasn’t helping, however? My poor diet and the abundance of weird vitamin concoctions I was willing to take in my attempts to ease the pain.
First of all, I was a vegetarian for 15-years, subsisting entirely on processed soy products. This was mistake numero uno. Like millions of others, I bought into the marketing hype that soy was “heart healthy” and “good for you.” I didn’t learn until years later that excess amounts of soy, particularly genetically modified versions, and I was eating or drinking Soy products several times a day, can interfere with estrogen levels. Excess estrogen can throw a person’s hormones way out of-wack, and in my case I believe all of the soy I was eating was literally feeding my endometriosis. Not only that, the processed “meat alternatives” I was consuming several times a day contained ingredient lists paragraphs long! There is a healthier way to eat vegetarian, and I wasn’t doing it. (Though I do believe that meat and eggs are superfoods).
All the while, I was over dosing myself on vitamins. After one desperate doctor visit, I left with a prescription for 2,500 IU of Vitamin E, far above the Upper Limit of 1,500. Studies have found that, “Prooxidant action [may occur] when [Vitamin E is] taken in high doses, shifting balance with other important natural antioxidants, their displacement (substitution), [and] interference with the natural defense mechanisms.” Deciphered: there CAN BE too much of a good thing.
Here’s another doozy for you: “Beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E [supplementation] may increase mortality. Some recent large observational studies now support these findings.” Friends, these are just TWO studies (I’ll be providing links to these studies in future posts). There are hundreds more available, and more to come as science continues to delve deeper into the relatively new study of nutritional science.
And my story gets worse, nutritionally speaking.
I was working for an energy drink company at the time consuming several energy drinks a day on top of those supplements. I too fell into the trap that more vitamins must be better. How could I possibly be harming myself, weren’t B vitamins supposed to give me energy? Well, I felt like crap. So back to the doctor I went, complaining of tingling and numbness in my upper body, along with debilitating menstrual pain. The doctor didn’t ask about my energy drink consumption, oh no, instead, he proscribed Prozac! Because he couldn’t help me, because he didn’t know what was causing these weird symptoms, he shrugged me off as a head case.
I now believe that the massive quantities of B vitamins I was consuming may have been causing temporary nerve damage. I don’t drink energy drinks anymore. And I don’t have the weird tingling and numbness either. Go figure.
Now let me be clear, I don’t dispute that vitamin supplements CAN address vitamin deficiencies. There are parts of the world, take Southeast Asia for example, where Vitamin A deficiency is an epidemic and synthetic vitamins can save lives. There, and in other places where beautiful grocery stores don’t sit on every corner like here in the US, Vitamin supplements can close gaps in very poor diets. Even still, there is no long term research on what happens when humans get most of the essential micronutrients from supplements alone. If you look at the United States, and the rise in diseases like autism and diabetes that correspond with the rise in processed foods and their enrichment with synthetic vitamins, you might start to wonder like I have. We already know that processed food is bad for us. But could we be making a bad situation worse by putting vitamins where they don’t belong? And by getting far more synthetic vitamins than we need to begin with?
The Tipping Point.
A few months after my daughter was born, when she was about to start solid foods, her doctor began trying to convince me that she needed iron and Vitamin D drops. My doctor said that at 9-months we’d test my daughter’s blood to see if she was iron deficient. This confused me. I was being asked to give her supplements even before we knew if she was lacking in something? This seemed backwards, so I did my own research. I found that as long as I was getting adequate iron in my diet (I breastfeed almost exclusively) and as long as I started her on iron rich foods like sweet potato, black beans, and meat, that we shouldn’t have a problem. And I was right. Her iron test at 9-months old came back totally normal, WITHOUT SUPPLEMENTS.
Then there was the issue of Vitamin D. My husband, daughter, and I have very fair skin. We’re from a long line of European mutts the lot of us (fairer skinned people need less sun exposure to produce Vitamin D). And we live in Southern California. So why would my baby girl need Vitamin D drops? Well, the doc had a good point about too much sun exposure. But, I assured her I wasn’t taking my baby girl tanning. I started researching safe sun, and found that 10 minutes a day of direct sun exposure would probably give us both all we needed, with minimal skin damage risk. I also made it a point to eat mushrooms often and salmon once a week so that naturally bioavailable vitamins would transfer to her through my breast milk. And when I asked my doctor for a blood test for Vitamin D, she said that no deficiency levels in infants had been established. Say what? No levels have been established, but you want me to put concentrated synthetic vitamins in my baby’s body? No way.
And then one day, when I didn’t have room on my pantry shelf for my olive oil, because my supplement bin was taking up too much space, something clicked. I was so reluctant to expose my child to anything foreign, and only stocked organic fruits and veggies, but yet I was willing to dose myself in B vitamins because a drink company said they’d give me energy. I was willing to take extra folic acid just in case I had the MTHFR gene mutation (one that inhibits a small percentage of the population from adequately absorbing Folic Acid) and because some “expert” somewhere said I should. I was willing to take 5 pills of cranberry extract, and the thousands of milligrams of Vitamin C that came with it, because cranberry juice supposedly prevents bladder infections (but what of the plastic coated pills I was eating like candy?). I had always been so leery of pharmaceuticals, and the pills doctors would push, but weren’t vitamins and supplements pills too?
So I started to research and read. And I’ve found hundreds of studies that find that supplements, multivitamins included, can be harmful at worst, and useless at best, ESPECIALLY for a well-nourished person like myself. I have nutritional needs. So do you. These needs are what make us human. We’re not characters from a cartoon where everyone drives flying cars and eats pills for breakfast. Our needs are best met with the thing science DOES know for sure is good for us, food. And so I started wondering, can I get all the vitamins I need from food and food alone? I think I can. I think you can. And I think that if we start paying attention, we’ll realize that we don’t need supplements, OF ANY KIND, at all.
For three months, my husband and I will be breaking up with our pills, potions, and protein powders. We’ll undertake the 90-Day No Supplement Challenge, where we’ll strive to literally make our meals our multivitamin. Curious about how you too can break up with the supplement industry? Get Started here.