For most of these questions, my immediate answer is usually the same: it depends.
It depends on multiple factors such as your lifestyle factors, your current underlying health concerns and dietary habits. I then continue to explain that all of this information combined is what helps me make the right recommendations for my patients. With my patients, I have the privilege of being able to evaluate their needs and then choose exactly what supplements they will need to take and for how long. Some maybe necessary for a short while to help recover from acute symptoms but some may need to be taken for much longer in order to resolve nutrient deficiencies or correct an underlying functional disruption. With friends and new acquaintances, I do my best to educate them about the need for such a complete evaluation to accurately assess the right supplements that would benefit them.
However, I recently realized that when someone asks ‘what should I take for …..?’, the explanation for need for evaluation aggravates rather than helps the person asking the question (I have been there!). This is the reason that I spent a some time thinking about how I could answer these supplement related questions. The first question that I asked myself was: Are there any supplements that I could potentially recommend to anyone without an elaborate history? The answer is yes!
I realized that there are three supplements – or categories of supplements- that I usually prescribe with specific dose and brand recommendations for my patients (who have had a formal evaluation) and these can also be recommended at a maintenance dose to family, friends and general acquaintances, after obtaining just a few details. These 3 types of supplements are often a part of many of my patients’ long term disease prevention and optimal living health plans. Since optimal health begins in the gut, it is no surprise that 2 of these 3 supplements support the digestive system.
This is the one supplement group from which almost everyone can benefit. Probiotics are available in capsule, powdered and even in health drink forms and all have different combinations of bacterial strains. These are the strains of bacteria present naturally in our intestinal tract and science is just beginning to understand the complete impact of our symbionts or ‘house guests’.
For many reasons including super-clean environments, liberal use of antibiotics and chronic stress, most people have either low levels of these beneficial strains or an unhealthy gut environment that allows foreign, disease causing strains to grow rapidly compared to the healthy strains. A proper balance of these microbes, can help with keeping the immune system up to speed, having healthy skin, improving allergy symptoms, alleviating IBS symptoms (irritable bowel syndrome) and in general, in optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients. This ecosystem of microbes in our gut is very dynamic and can change depending on the person’s diet, lifestyle, medication intake, stress and environmental exposures.
How do you choose one that is right for you? Assuming you do not have any major diseases relating to the digestive system (parasites, bacterial overgrowth, infectious diarrhea), choose a probiotic supplement that is appropriate for your age, gender and mild symptoms like constipation or gas. If taken correctly, symptom relief is observed in two weeks to a month, usually with many ‘side-benefits.
Two commonly used the phrases: ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ define how our body reacts to internal and external stimuli. These are evolutionary mechanisms that are designed to help our body focus on the task at hand when necessary or relax and enjoy our meals. Our busy lifestyles demand that we fit more and more in our daily schedules and balance various responsibilities, rarely allowing us to be free of stress and in the rest-digest mode. When we are under stress constantly, our digestive system and reproductive systems are ‘put on a back burner’ and priority is given to ensuring a rapid heartbeat and blood supply to the brain, lungs and organs vital for a good stress response. Chronic stress therefore, can lead to sub-optimal function of our digestive system and taking digestive enzymes with meals, while simultaneously working on stress management and incorporating a good lifestyle, can help prevent nutrient deficiencies and other diseases.
Choosing an enzyme is more work than probiotics, however, start with a combination that contains enzymes that help with digesting different food groups like carbohydrates (lactase, amylase), proteins (proteases) and fats (lipases).
The recommendation of this supplement is related to the stress response mentioned above. I often recommend a B-complex over a multivitamin because the vitamins in the B group (B1,B2,B3,B5,B6,B12) tend to be rapidly utilized by our fight or flight system, physiologically known as the sympathetic nervous system. Taking Vitamin B’s in their active form is important for proper absorption and assimilation to feel their benefits. Women who are on birth control pills and people with acid reflux that have been on acid-suppressing medications (proton-pump inhibitors such as Prevacid) tend to lose B-vitamins rapidly and a proper repletion will prevent some of the side-effects of these medications. Additionally, B-vitamins are water soluble and are readily discarded from the body when an excess is detected, making them highly unlikely to accumulate in tissues and cause negative effects.
For choosing a B-complex, speak with your doctor first, especially if you are on any prescription medications, to ensure there are no interactions.
Many of you are probably thinking: why is a multivitamin not mentioned in the above supplements?
There are many reasons for this but I will mention some that are most critical:
- In my opinion, a multivitamin by itself does not have great benefits on it own and we have seen this in the scientific literature over and over again. If you have an unhealthy diet, lifestyle and an improperly functioning gut, taking a multivitamin is not going to reverse the ill effects or correct your deficiencies. You will benefit multifold if you focus on changing your diet, lifestyle and maximizing your nutrient absorption from food daily by balancing your gut flora and optimizing digestion with enzymes.
- A multivitamin formula often contains minerals too. These should not be picked randomly as some of the components can be harmful rather than helpful depending on each person – again a statement for individualizing supplements. For example, post menopausal women and men need to ensure their multivitamins are iron-free; patients recovering from cancer should not take any supplements with copper in them.
- Multivitamins for long-term use need to be carefully chosen for each patient and should be a part of and not a replacement for a well designed nutrition and lifestyle program.
If you would like to know more about what a health evaluation involves and would like specific guidance with your health, you are always welcome to request a free consult through our website or call my office: 408.724.1486.
Wishing you good health!