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5 Things Everyone Should Know About Dietary Supplements

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This article is excerpted from our newest report, “Top 7 Supplements for Lifetime Vitality.” To read the entire report, click here for your free copy.

When it comes to dietary supplements, there is plenty of skepticism and misinformation out there. So we wanted to help clear the air by providing you with five simple truths:

Truth #1: We Are the Masters of Our Own Fate

donut vs. appleBelieve it or not, there are two simple and undisputable reasons for the premature death of two out of every three U.S. adults each year: nutrient deficiency and inadequate physical activity.

In fact, five of the top six causes of adult deaths in the United States — heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and stroke — are strongly correlated with these two risk factors/lifestyle choices. Nutrient deficiency and physical inactivity conspire to lower our immune defenses, and that’s where the rubber meets the road in the development of chronic health conditions and premature death.

Truth be told, our immune systems spend an inordinate amount of our precious energy and resources each day in a desperate and losing battle to simply counter the effects of these two lifestyle choices. The various cells and molecules in our immune systems exert so much effort in this daily battle that eventually they are overrun and two very bad things happen:

1. The lining of our vital pathways (blood vessels, intestines, airways) are breached, and once breached, our underlying cells are exposed to dangerous toxins for which they have no natural defenses.

2. Once these toxins exact their toll on our underlying cells, these underlying cells seem to forget their original purpose and fail to perform their assigned jobs. And, voilà, the stage is set for chronic diseases to develop.

It would take pages upon pages to provide you with a comprehensive explanation of how this happens in the body. However, you can trust that the path to ruin is nearly identical in the five major diseases listed above, even though the specific protagonists and antagonists might be different in each disease.

The takeaway is this: We can make a meaningful difference in how we feel, how our bodies age, and how long we live by improving the quality of the nutrients we consume and the amount of daily physical activity in which we engage. And, in our opinion, dietary supplements have an important role to play in supporting both endeavors.

Truth #2: Think Robin, Not Batman

diet and exerciseIf you’re serious about reducing the risk of developing one or more of the five leading chronic diseases mentioned above, it is of high value to increase daily physical activity, substitute healthy foods for unhealthy ones, and complement both actions by adding targeted dietary supplements to provide your body with extra support.

And that’s really the purpose of dietary supplements — to complement taking the right steps to manage your health, i.e., improving diet and exercise habits. Supplements are not magic bullets, cures or substitutes for prescription drugs (at least in most cases). Alone, dietary supplements can make some difference, but to make a long-term course-correcting alteration in how you feel, it is crucial to also adopt healthier diet and exercise habits.

In other words, dietary supplements are Robin to diet and exercise’s Batman. All are caped crusaders fighting for justice in your body, but diet and exercise are the real heroes with the superpowers to fell evildoers. Dietary supplements, like Robin, are there to drive the car, send for additional help, and step in to deal with an unexpected or unseen foe while Batman has his back turned to confront the main enemies.

This is especially true if you have already been diagnosed with one or more of the five major diseases listed above. With each and every one of these conditions, changing your diet and exercise habits alone can substantially lower your mortality risk and improve your quality of life, but certain dietary supplements can make the work of diet and exercise easier to accomplish.

Truth #3: Zero-Hour Conversions

doctor with pillsIn a popular book about the D-Day invasion, the author recounted a story that reminds me of the skepticism doctors often display toward dietary supplements. Picture this scene: A group of soldiers boarding a landing craft on their way to storm the beach. On the dock, a chaplain is bestowing God’s blessing on the troops for a successful campaign and a safe return. As one soldier bows his head to receive the blessing, he notices one of his mates doing the same. Puzzled, the soldier exclaims, “Hey, I thought you said you didn’t believe in God.” In perfect deadpan, the mate replies, “I don’t, but I figure just in case I’m wrong it can’t hurt.”

Such is the truth behind the disparity of actions and words spoken by many doctors. According to a recent research paper published in the Journal of Nutrition, approximately 70 percent of U.S. adults are at least occasional consumers of one or more dietary supplements.[1] But despite the widespread use and growing interest in dietary supplements, many physicians and medical researchers remain skeptical of the benefits associated with supplemental vitamins, minerals, antioxidant compounds and herbal preparations.

Why the skepticism? A large dose comes from the scarce amount of independent, peer-reviewed, published studies that the scientific community deems convincing, i.e., double-blind, randomized control studies using well-characterized, large groups of live humans that prove beyond a shadow of doubt the efficacy of supplemental dietary ingredients and that have been confirmed by similarly constructed follow-on studies.  

You see, most of the published dietary supplement research has been conducted on laboratory animals and human tissue samples. This is because it is easier and less expensive to control the variables that might affect the outcome of a research investigation by using a homogeneous population in a controlled environment. While the results of many of these studies have been compelling, follow-on studies using live human subjects have not consistently shown the same effects. Further, even if researchers were convinced by the results of lab animal and/or tissue studies, these studies don’t provide much in the way of guidance in terms of effective dosage recommendations for humans.

What’s more, some dietary supplement marketers do themselves further harm in physicians’ and scientists’ eyes by making wild, unfounded claims about the effectiveness of their products that are not supported by research at all be it live human, live animal, tissue or otherwise.

These are legitimate concerns, and we’re not trying to paint traditional medical practitioners as unreasonable in their reservations about the usefulness of dietary supplements. But did you know that a Nutrition Journal study found that approximately 68 percent of specialist physicians participating in their study use dietary supplements at least occasionally, with a significant majority of this group regularly consuming dietary supplements.[2] Further, the same research team reported that 72 percent of doctors and 89 percent of nurses participating in a separate 2009 study were at least occasional consumers of dietary supplements.[3]

The attentive reader will notice that medical practitioners therefore consume dietary supplements at nearly the same level, if not higher, than the rest of us! Now why would they do this if they thought dietary supplements offered no redeeming value?

The simple answer is this: Despite sometimes conflicting and incomplete scientific evidence in dietary supplement studies, there is enough convincing research to warrant taking them “just in case.”

So, while there is an undercurrent of scientific skepticism regarding dietary supplement use and differing views on dosage recommendations, the scientific evidence for many dietary ingredients is strong enough that physicians and nurses themselves utilize supplements in much the same way as the rest of us.

Truth #4: Diet and Exercise Alone May Not be Enough

puzzle pieceEngaging in regular physical activity and consistently consuming a nutrient-rich diet are two obvious steps any person can take to receive significant protective health benefits. Many research studies have shown that those who exercise at a moderate intensity 30 minutes per day, five days a week, have a substantially lower risk of developing chronic disease and lower mortality rates than those who exercise less than three days a week. In fact, one recent study reported finding an approximately 19 percent lower mortality risk from a moderate exercise program.[4]

Similarly, many research studies have shown that consuming a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish/seafood, olive oil and red wine, commonly referred to as a “Mediterranean diet,” results in substantially lower incidences of chronic disease and a 50 percent lower mortality rate than a Western-style diet, i.e., one that consists of large amounts of red meat, sugar/salt-laden processed foods, and foods with high saturated fat content.[5]

This Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to substantially lower incidences of heart disease, stroke, lung disease and diabetes in the populations of the southern Mediterranean countries of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and France, in comparison to other developed countries including the United States. Further, these countries, with the exception of Italy and France, have slightly lower cancer incidence compared with other developed countries. Researchers point to the Mediterranean diet and declare, “Aha! Following a Mediterranean diet will help to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.” And there is good reason to make this declaration when one considers that among European nations, the populations of the southern Mediterranean countries are the least physically active. For those interested, there is an interesting graphical presentation of disease risk by country as determined by the World Health Organization, which you can view by clicking here.

But are diet and exercise enough? Many physicians would say, “Yes, these two steps alone are more than adequate to protect your long-term health.” This certainly seems like a reasonable conclusion based on research evidence if you’ve followed both recommendations for most of your life. But many people (OK, most people) haven’t been so devout with their exercise and diet habits over their lifetime. For those of us in this category, adopting healthier exercise and diet habits are surely helpful, but we’ve likely already inflicted damage from unhealthy lifestyle behaviors over time that suggest we need to take some extra steps beyond dietary and exercise changes. This is especially true for those unwilling or unable to adopt and sustain healthier exercise and dietary habits, and those who’ve already developed chronic health conditions.

To wit, many research studies have found profound nutrient deficiencies among people who have already developed chronic health conditions. Take vitamin D, for example. A 2010 study of smokers and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) showed 31 percent of smokers in the study with normal lung function were considered deficient in vitamin D, and up to 77 percent of participating severe COPD patients were vitamin D deficient.[6] In a 2011 study of patients who’d suffered heart attacks, 75 percent were found to be vitamin D deficient.[7] Further still, 34 percent of type-2 diabetes patients participating in a separate 2011 study were shown to be vitamin D deficient.[8] Finally, in a recent study examining vitamin D status in 224 breast cancer patients, researchers found 67 percent were deficient in this vital nutrient.[9]

Looking at vitamin C deficiency, a 2005 study of Americans with advanced cancer showed 30 percent were deficient in vitamin C.[10] In a 2000 study of non-smoking American adults, researchers found a 57 percent higher risk of death from heart attack and a 62 percent higher risk of death from cancer among men who had the lowest plasma concentrations of vitamin C.[11] We could go on with more study citations detailing core nutrient deficiencies in various populations, but we think you get the point.

So while the deficiency percentages vary by nutrient for different chronic health conditions, and not all nutrients are found to be deficient in all chronic health conditions, there is enough research evidence to suggest a connection between the development of chronic disease and nutrient deficiency.

Knowing that many people will not or cannot adapt their exercise and dietary habits to address these deficiencies, scientists turned to the study of dietary supplements to help fill the gap. Many studies have shown promise in supplementing key nutrients in various chronic health conditions, although, to be fair and balanced, study results for a number of nutrients have been mixed. Yet scientists continue to invest time and energy into dietary supplement research given the intuitive link between nutritional deficiencies and the underlying mechanisms of inflammation and oxidative stress. In the meantime, 70 percent-plus of practicing physicians are taking dietary supplements themselves … just in case.

Truth #5: It’s Never Too Late

push-upsSometimes we get down on ourselves and feel like it’s too late to make a change. Maybe you’ve already developed heart disease. Maybe you’ve been overweight for so long that you can’t see yourself ever being thin again. Or maybe you’ve convinced yourself that at your age it doesn’t seem worth it to try to change.

Please don’t resign yourself to this point of view. The human body is remarkable in its innate desire to heal. If you provide the right combination of inputs, your body will perk up, take notice and respond. It doesn’t necessarily mean that disease is stopped or reversed overnight, because the health habits that lead to chronic disease don’t happen overnight either. That said, every step you take in the right direction to improve your diet and exercise habits is indeed recognized and acted upon quite quickly in your body.

For example, in studies examining the impact of exercise programs on people with severe lung disease, heart disease and cancer, multiple studies have shown pronounced improvements in basic physical functioning and reported quality of life among participants. As a case in point, a recent research study examining the effects of pulmonary rehabilitation among COPD patients with varying disease severity found that even the most severe COPD patients experienced improved respiratory symptoms and reported higher quality of life.[12]

The same type of effect has been observed in people with chronic disease conditions who adopt healthier diets. For example, a 2010 study explored the impact of adopting a Mediterranean-style diet among patients who had survived a heart attack. The researchers found that patients who adopted more daily components of the Mediterranean-style diet saw their cardiovascular inflammation risk markers (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6) fall significantly in comparison to heart attack survivors who did not.[13]

In our opinion, dietary supplements combined with a healthier diet and regular physical activity program can help stir these processes into action, facilitate the body’s ability to utilize higher quality nutrients, and boost the benefits of your exercise program.

If you’d like to learn more about dietary supplements, including which ones can help you ward off the nutritional deficiencies linked with heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes & stroke, click here to request a copy of our latest Special Report: “Top 7 Supplements for Lifetime Vitality.”

[1] Bailey RL, et al. Journal of Nutrition. 2011 February ; 141(2):261-266.
[2] Dickinson A, et al. Nutrition Journal. 2011 March 3; 10:20.
[3] Dickinson A, et al. Nutrition Journal. 2009; 8:29.
[4] Woodcock J, et al. Intl Journal of Epidemiology. 2011 February; 40 (1): 121-138.
[5] Knoops KT, et al. JAMA. 2004 September 22; 292(12): 1433-1439.
[6] Janssens W, et al. Thorax. 2010 March; 656(3): 215-220.
[7] Lee JH, et al. American Journal of Cardiology. 2011 March 23 (epub ahead of print).
[8] Yiu YF, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 February 16 (epub ahead of print).
[9] Peppone LJ, et al. Breast Cancer Research Treatments. 2011 May; 127(1): 171-177.
[10] Mayland CR, et al. Palliative Medicine. 2005 January; 19(1): 17-20.
[11] Loria CM, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000 July; 72(1): 139-145.
[12] Beaumont M, et al. Rev Mal Respir. 2011 March; 28(3): 297-305.
[13] Panagiotakos DB, et al. Intl Journal of Epidemiology. 2009 June; 38(3): 856-866.

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