Strange supplements

When someone comes to see me, I always ask what supplements they are taking. The world of ‘nutraceuticals’ is huge, and growing all the time, fed by people’s vulnerability and the sense that, whatever we do to look after ourselves, it’s never quite good enough.
These days, we know a huge amount about nutrients and micronutrients, and other things necessary for assimilating them: enzymes and co-enzymes, bioflora, and so on and so forth. What we don’t know so much about is how they all work together, out here in the real world. It’s not in anyone’s financial interest – except perhaps ours – to do the research, and in any case, it’s very difficult to get reliable, replicable results working with actual people who are living their lives. So quite often, when I ask the question, I’m presented with a carrier bag full of half-used bottles of this and that. How can we possibly know what’s doing what?
The simple answer is that we can’t. And actually, it’s the wrong question to ask. We have to go back to basics, to the physiological mechanisms by which we absorb nutrients; the way we’ve evolved to do it over millennia. When we eat a carrot, say, or a bowl of porridge, or even a three-course dinner, our bodies know what to do with it. It’s food. Parts of it are more digestible than others, but the whole package is instantly recognisable, and we’re well equipped to deal with it.
When we take an isolated nutrient, or one constituent of a herb – like hypericin from St Johns Wort, or curcumin from Turmeric – or a pharmaceutical drug, it’s not food. Things behave differently in isolation; calcium, for example, is very poorly absorbed when it doesn’t come as part of a food matrix. Sometimes things clash – iron and zinc inhibit each other’s absorption if you take them at the same time – and sometimes, as with the B vitamins, taking a large amount of one will upset the balance of the others. I could go on, but the point is that whatever else it is, it’s not natural.
And when it comes to things that human beings have never eaten as part of a natural diet, like krill oil or green algae, the ground is pretty shaky too. Omnivores we may be, but unfamiliar foods can sit heavy in our systems, because the well-worn pathways for absorption are not there.
So if you’re feeling tired, or your hair is dry, or your joints are aching, or whatever else it may be, think again before you buy a supplement. If you go looking online for answers, that’s where you’ll end up, because there are people out there with products to sell. But the answers may lie much closer to home, in the foods you’re eating and the way you eat, in your stress management, in your lifestyle. Things that are much simpler, but can be much harder to confront.

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