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Supplements - What you need and what you don't when it comes to Vitamins and Minerals

The definition of the word supplement is "something that completes or enhances." That's how I, as a nutritionist, view the use of supplements: as something that completes or enhances a healthy, balanced diet. Vitamins, minerals and herbs are all natural compounds that are found in our foods, dirt and forests, that our bodies use to support proper functions.

I think the biggest myth about supplements is that you have to take 10 different kinds, 3 times a day, for the rest of your life! That's definitely not the approach I take and I don't recommend to clients. Let me tell you why...

People reach out to me because they aren't feeling their best. They've just been diagnosed with an ailment or disease, they have been reacting poorly to certain foods or just want to clean up their nutrition. Overall though, they don't feel great. When I examine their food intake, I look for gaps where key nutrients, that may help to address their concerns, are missing. If we can't fill these gaps with whole foods, I will recommend a supplement. I don't force, I recommend. Between the hundred's of medical studies, years of working in the field and personal experience, I can speak to how well the supplement will enhance or complete your nutrition but you know your body best. There are other ways to try and support your needs like whole foods, exercise and other modalities.

There is definitely two camps on the use of supplements. I have clients who appreciate why they are recommended and readily use them and clients who are skeptical and don't believe they're needed. But when you're not feeling your best, and may not have been for a long time, most people will consider using them to bridge their nutrition.

There are MLLIONS of supplements on the market. Entire stores dedicated to them! Sorted by type, brand, size, price. You can wander the aisles for hours reading dosages, ingredients and asking sales clerks questions about the difference between calcium citrate and calcium lactate. There are multi-vitamins that have a little bit of everything. Single vitamins like D, C, E and A. Minerals such as magnesium and calcium and oils like Omega-3's. Herbs that you probably have never seen before like Ashwagandha and Maca root. Not to mention the varying prices and dosages. 50 mg here, 1000 iu there. It can be very overwhelming!

So how do you know what to buy, what to take and if you even need them!?!

If you're not sure where to start, it's best to speak with a professional. That's where a nutritionist comes in! First, a complete review of your diet should be done; this identifies gaps in your nutrition. Then, a review of symptoms or concerns. Supplements can often alleviate issues in our body, like lack of sleep, without having to turn to pharmaceuticals. A health care professional can recommend the right vitamin, mineral compound or herb for your needs. There are many different types of each of these and our bodies use them differently so it's best not to guess.

How long should you take a supplement for? Here's the reason, again, they're called supplements. They are intended to supplement the gaps in your nutrition until you start feeling great again. Many of the supplements that I recommend can be found in most whole foods, but if you haven't been incorporating these foods into your diet for a long time, or have been using a lot of your body's processes to heal itself, then you are most likely depleted of these nutrients and need a boost. People find they often need a supplement for a few weeks to a few months. Then, they can wean it down to only as needed, like if they know their nutrition hasn't been stellar or they start to feel not-so-great again. I will first and foremost promote whole foods and a plant-heavy diet - this is where you will get a variety of vitamins and minerals from and important other things you can't get from a little pill, like fibre, chlorophyll and flavour!

So how do you know which ones to buy? Unfortunately, because the supplement business is so lucrative, there are a lot of low quality products on the market. That's not to say that you have to purchase the most expensive one to get the highest quality either. There are a lot of honest companies out there, producing high quality supplements for a great price. So how do you know which one's those are? There's a couple of ways - first, check out their website. You are looking for a 2 of things here - who owns them is first. Yep, you heard me - do they own themselves or do they have a parent company? If they do have a parent company, who is it? Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies have been purchasing the smaller guys and sometimes quality goes down the drain, not to mention, supporting the little guy is ALWAYS the way to go. I also like to check where head office is. I try to support local companies, or at least on the same continent as me. Rarely do I look for a product that has been imported from over seas. Second, read the ingredient list on the side of the bottle. You're looking for as few ingredients as possible. If I am purchasing vitamin C, I want as few other ingredients to get that vitamin C into my body. Capsules should be made of vegetable based ingredients and contain little starches and sugars. Gummies and chews are acceptable, but read the nutritionals to ensure they don't have as much sugar as candy - they can and that's not cool!

Key takeaways for the use of supplements:

  1. Meet with a professional to understand what you actually need

  2. Take the recommendation as a recommendation - you know your body best

  3. Choose wisely at the store

  4. Eat a whole food diet with a variety of colourful plants - supplements, by their very name, do not replace a bad diet

  5. You don't have to take a supplement forever and ever

Still feeling like you want to incorporate a few supplements? I'm going to share my go-to recommendations, that most people find they need to incorporate:

  • Magnesium - this element plays many crucial roles in the body, such as supporting muscle and nerve function. In the right dose, it can reduce chronic headaches and migraines and relieve occasional constipation. Low magnesium levels usually don't cause symptoms. However, chronically low levels can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Magnesium plays a key role in our sleep by helping our muscles to relax for the night. Magnesium can be naturally found in pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach and cashews but it takes A LOT of each of these foods to get a dose high enough to feel the effects on a daily basis. It's best to have a reasonable serving of those foods throughout the week and then supplement with a Magnesium Bis-Glycinate. I recommend 400 mg before bed if you are someone who has trouble sleeping even after you have turned screens off an hour before bed and have implemented a good bedtime routine. If you do not have trouble going to sleep, 200 mg daily, for a few weeks can help you boost low levels.

  • Vitamin D - this fat-soluble vitamin that has long been known to help the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus; both are critical for building bone. Also, laboratory studies show that vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth, help control infections and reduce inflammation. A good way to supplement with vitamin D is with a liquid version. An oil or emulsified product can be easily absorbed by the body. We can get vitamin D from both the sun and food. Our body regulates those well. To get a good amount from the sun, it is important to get early morning sun, for at least 15-20 minutes daily. This is only effective by being outside, say by going for a walk. Many of us, in the busy-ness of everyday life, don't get outside nearly enough and tend to only see the sun through windows. Foods that offer vitamin D are sardines, salmon, tuna and fortified dairy and non-dairy products. I recommend 4 drops on the tongue daily, and increase to 6 drops in the winter, where the sun is even less available to us.

Overall, supplements have their place in our kitchens and medicine cabinets. It's how we use them that's important.

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