There are four factors I think about when it comes to nutritional status in a person’s body. I want to talk about them now just to convey a more holistic perspective on nutrition, an insight into its complexity, and why supplementation should be used cautiously (if at all). When you isolate and concentrate a single chemical/nutrient from a food, how different is this really from prescribed medications/drugs? We don’t understand enough yet about synergism and ratios between nutrients, nor between whole plants and human physiology, to safely mess around with what nature has already worked out over aeons of co-evolution between plants and animals.
Eg foods, herbs, supplements, sunlight etc. More isn’t always better. Do you have too much calcium in your tissues, perhaps because you are constantly supplementing and have a slow metabolism? You could be at risk of viral infections. Are you eating a high protein diet loaded with saturated fat? You could be compromising your calcium levels, especially if you also drink alcohol and coffee.
When we source nutrients from whole foods, our body can recognise the natural form the nutrient is provided in, and the context within which it is provided (accompanying co-factors or nutrients from the rest of the whole-food). With natural foods, our body can assess and monitor existing levels and adjust absorption rates accordingly. When we use supplements, our body isn’t able to do this so easily and we can easily get flooded with a nutrient we don’t really need.
Some nutrients block the absorption of others. Taking zinc, calcium or magnesium? Hmmm, I wonder how your iron levels are going? Supplements seem so friendly and straightforward on the surface of it, but this is an art best left in the hands of nature (whole foods).
Then there are medications…. did you know that antibiotics and a wide range of pain-releif medication can decrease your iron absorption?
The state of our digestive system is equally important here: you can provide bucket-loads of a specific nutrient, but if your digestion is faulty, you aren’t necessarily going to absorb more of it. Digestive organs and function can be supported and toned with specific foods, herbs, exercises and behavioural changes.
Intimately tied in with digestion is stress. When we are stressed we don’t chew our food well and we don’t slow down to eat. Blood is directed away from the digestive system into muscles in case we need to ‘flight, flight or freeze’. Relaxation ensures good digestion.
TRANSPORT and UTILISATION
How well is a specific nutrient being transported and used? We can recycle and reuse some nutrients if our bowel and liver are healthy, which then reduces our need for more of that nutrient in our diets. And what are the activities or medical conditions that might increase your body’s demand for a nutrient? Gallbladder disease, for example, can affect your vitamin K status, smog exposure can affect your vitamin D levels, and smoking increases your need for vitamin C.
Common everyday medications can be notorious nutrient robbers. Did you know that oral contraceptives decrease blood zinc levels (only one of many nutrients they compromise) and antibiotics can reduce your ability to create B vitamins? Reduce stress, again, and you will use up less nutrients, and hence require less in your diet.
Avoid unnecessary prescribed medications and supplement use and you will again be protecting the nutrients you do have, rather than using them up, or disturbing delicate balancing ratios between one nutrient and another. A high calcium to magnesium ratio, for example, results in an increase in muscle aches and pains. This is why synergism, the incredible interlocking relationships between a multitude of nutrients and phyto-chemicals in a whole food, is so important. A good example of a drug interfering with nutrient transport and utilisation is corticosteroid medication, which can decrease cellular uptake of Vitamin C in certain tissues.
You may be getting plenty of a nutrient in your diet, but perhaps it’s being drained by a lifestyle behaviour or a prescribed medication. Many diuretics increase the excretion of magnesium, and salicylates like aspirin increase urinary secretion of folate.
We need to be able to excrete excess when we have too much of a nutrient, and this process generally functions beautifully within the body when the nutrients it’s dealing with are natural (i.e. from whole foods). If we consume magnesium in our food for example, we simply flush out whatever we don’t need (so long as our kidneys are healthy). But if we are using a strong magnesium supplement we might end up with diarrhoea, nausea, and cramping. If we really overdo it, we can end up with symptoms of confusion, dry mouth, low blood pressure, sedation, muscle weakness and thirst. Supplements most definitely aren’t lollies.