Do I need to take supplements? And for the rest of my life?
There are a lot of misconceptions about supplements. Not in the least from governments, various MDs and health experts.
Let’s start by saying that supplements are a complex matter. Ignorance and oversimplification are one important reason why there is so much conflicting advice.
We believe it’s necessary to take supplements, and this for the rest of our lives.
Scientifically speaking, there are strong arguments for this:
Human bodies are not very well made by nature (evolution) to get all the nutrients they need for optimal long health. For example, compared to fish, plants and most animals, humans are very bad at absorbing iron – iron deficiency has plagued humanity since its dawn. Humans are one of the very few animals that cannot make vitamin C themselves, and need to get it from their diet. Throughout evolution, our species have been plagued by deficiencies in many nutrients and minerals. Likely, our bodies are not well made to absorb all nutrients we need. This makes sense, given evolution mostly creates suboptimal, “made-do” designs, not optimal ones.
Today, we eat in a completely different way than our ancestors, meaning our diets are that much more deficient in nutrients. Prehistoric, pre-agricultural diets were much richer in many vitamins and minerals (but not in all – often, these diets could still lead to substantial deficiencies in specific nutrients, like iron or iodine, as we discussed before), compared to a typical western diet today, consisting of grains, meat and a bit of vegetables at best.
Our current lifestyles are also considerably different compared to prehistoric times: we live much more indoors, so we don’t get enough exposure to the sun to produce vitamin D, for example. Alcohol consumption depletes levels of magnesium and B vitamins, smoking depletes antioxidants, stress depletes B vitamins and vitamin C, allergies and infections deplete vitamin A and zinc, etc. This requires us to have a higher intake of critical vitamins and minerals.
Current methods of agriculture and shipment (long-term storage) of foods leads to much lower amounts of vitamins and minerals in our food (especially magnesium, selenium, copper, vitamin E, etc), even compared to fifty years ago.
The recommended intakes of most governments are in many cases (way) too low. They are based on suboptimal studies that last only for a short time to “detect” detrimental health effects, and do not look at required amounts for a long, optimal life.
Even when consuming the recommended doses of their government, or consuming a “healthy diet”, people do not reach the levels needed for a long, healthy life.
When we get older, our bodies become worse in taking up sufficient amounts of ingredients. Less gastric acid, aged skin, an aged gut, etc., cause less uptake and conversion of essential nutrients.
Nature (evolution) is not really interested in us having a long lifespan. It’s interested in getting us to reproduce as quickly and much as possible. We, as humans, on the other hand, want to live as long and as healthy as possible. So we need to take matters in our own hands and make sure we take in sufficient amounts of nutrients for an optimal lifespan.
What further complicates this discussion, is that both proponents and detractors of supplements are wrong (and right).
The detractors will claim that many studies show that supplements don’t improve health. The problem, however, is that many studies do not last long enough to detect an effect (for example, many studies only last a few months or years while Alzheimer’s or heart disease take decades to arise). Additionally, in many studies researchers use too low doses of nutrients (e.g. 100 mg of magnesium instead of 500 mg of magnesium per day), or the wrong form (e.g. magnesium oxide instead of magnesium malate), or the wrong combination (magnesium needs calcium, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids to function properly), etc.
They will also say that if you eat healthy, you don’t need supplements, but we explain here why this is not the case. Even if you eat healthy, it’s very difficult to get adequate levels of magnesium, iodine or vitamin D for example, let alone high enough levels for optimal health.
The proponents of supplements on the other hand often look at supplements in a too simplistic way: they believe that taking magnesium or B vitamins will solve a lot of health problems, but often it’s not that simple: people are often deficient in many other vitamins, minerals and micronutrients (like omega-3 fatty acids or flavonoids), and taking some extra vitamins and minerals will often not really solve the problem, which also need to be tackled via a healthy diet, improving the microbiome, etc.
Additionally, supplement science is very complex: you need to take the right form, combination, dose, etc., of each nutrient. Often, the wrong form, dose or combination is advised.
In general, we do believe that it’s important to take supplements, and this for your entire life. There are good scientific reasons for this. Deficiencies in important nutrients are rampant in society, reducing quality of life, eroding people’s health in the long term, and accelerating aging.
However, governments and others oversimplify nutrients, often basing themselves on suboptimal studies and short-term data, which leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstandings – all at the expense of our long-term health!