By Steph Sinclair, Contributing Writer
When COVID first hit, I admit that I panicked. The whole country shut down, so I think everyone panicked at least a bit, right? Yet, I didn’t run out to buy mega-packs of toilet paper. (Although I did barter for some and pulled out all the cloth baby wipes as a backup). My panic was mostly channeled into long nights of research.
I wanted to be on the offense by supporting our immune systems. What did the peer-reviewed studies say? Were there any nutrients that might help protect my family?
By the early summer of 2020, I had a kitchen cabinet full of vitamin bottles based on the findings of my research (you can find the studies in this free Shedding Tool Guide download). My sick kit was ready to go including multiple bottles of zinc picolinate, vitamin D, B-complex, and quercetin complex (among lots of other stuff).
Then I questioned—now what? I knew if my family started taking loads of isolated zinc supplements, as a preventive measure, that we could cause issues without the proper amounts of copper. Years ago, I lived through copper overload. This included severe insomnia, headaches, nausea, fatigue, brain fog, and a long list of other issues that no one wants! While I certainly value the role of zinc in correcting my copper overload…I wasn’t going to tip the scales by now loading up with too much zinc!
With vitamins and minerals – BALANCE is key. The cofactors for each nutrient need to be available to maintain that balance. Every vitamin and mineral has synergistic nutrients that work together in a delicate ratio for proper absorption and function. On the flip side, antagonistic nutrients can block absorption altogether (and cause other issues too. This paper goes in depth on the subject but I’ll also discuss it a bit further in the next section.
So, that brings me to why you shouldn’t mega-dose nutrients (usually) and what you can do instead.
Why You Shouldn’t Mega-dose Nutrients (Usually)
Reason #1: Your Body Can’t Absorb So Much At Once
Have you ever really studied the back of a vitamin supplement bottle? The RDA (recommended daily allowance) numbers are often pretty high. The B-vitamin complex I purchased for my stash had these RDA numbers—Thiamin – 400%, Riboflavin – 385%, vitamin B6 – 294%, Biotin – 1,000%, and here’s the real kicker—vitamin B12 came in at 10,417%.
What?! 10,000% of the recommended daily value…. WHY? Being a water-soluble vitamin, high doses of B12 are generally thought to be safe but they can cause nausea, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable symptoms. High doses of vitamins aren’t efficiently absorbed as the body can only use so much at once.
In fact, it’s reported that in a 500-mcg supplement, only 10 mcg of B12 is even actually absorbed (source)! Yet supplements (and fortified foods and drinks) often contain huge unnecessary amounts of individual vitamins. Watch for that bright-yellow urine – that’s a sure sign you’re just excreting nutrients rather than utilizing them.
So, if we can’t use them all…why take them all?
Reason #2: Isolates Contain Fillers and Additives
My first pregnancy/birth was very mainstream. I’ll never forget the stack of prenatal vitamin samples my OB doctor gave to me during my first appointment. They were giant horse pill sized vitamins in bright blue and bright pink.
For me, severe morning sickness kicked in fast. Those doc-provider prenatals didn’t help at all. They made me so incredibly nauseated. At some point, I really looked at the ingredient list to figure out what was in those things.
That’s when I realized they contained: FD&C Blue 1 Lake, FD&C Red 40 Lake, FD&C Yellow 6 Lake, Gelatin, Maltodextrin, Mannitol, Titanium Dioxide, Soy Lecithin, and other STUFF that I couldn’t pronounce!
Back then I didn’t know much about natural living, but I did know that food dyes often gave me headaches. I must have tried five or six different prenatals after that including gummies. Those were easier to swallow but contained tons of sugar. If your kids take gummy vitamins, check them for sugar content! It can be pretty high.
It took quite a bit of trial and error, but I finally found a whole-food prenatal that was more gentle on my stomach. I just recently welcomed my fourth baby, and wow– this pregnancy was different (actually, the last three)! Those stories could be an entire post in itself but the short story – I didn’t need any traditional mainstream prenatal supplements, and my pregnant stomach was happy for the switch! (Check out this e-book).
If you’re trying to avoid food dyes, sugar, and additive ingredients – carefully look over those vitamin supplements before you buy. Learn more about why it’s smart to watch out for these ingredients in this post.
Reason #3: Synergy Matters – Isolates Cause Side Effects
When it comes to isolated nutrient compounds, like those in mainstream vitamin supplements, the process of isolating the vitamin compounds is literally how pharmaceutical drugs are made. Isolates come with risks in use, because in high doses they can cause side effects and toxic reactions (source), even if they are naturally derived.
A study determined high-dose supplements of vitamins A, E, D, C, and folic acid were not only ineffective for disease prevention, but some of them actually increased risks of serious disease (source). Curiously, vitamin D supplementation is often pushed in the natural community yet we really should be asking more questions. (Learn more about vitamin D here).
A main factor to consider is the fact that nutrient synergy matters. As mentioned earlier, each vitamin and mineral has agonists/antagonists. These duos and trios work together for proper absorption and enzyme activation. This is called nutrient synergy.
Key Vitamin Synergies:
- Vitamin C and Iron: vitamin C helps the body absorb and properly utilize iron.
- Vitamin D and Magnesium: vitamin D isn’t actually a “vitamin.” D is a hormone and your own body can make it via direct sunlight (but also get it from food and supplementation). Magnesium is required to actually activate vitamin D.
- Calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin K: vitamin D is required for calcium absorption while vitamin K is required to direct calcium to the bones.
These nutrient relationships are intricate. There are mineral to mineral synergists, mineral to vitamin synergists, and vitamin to vitamin synergists.
There’s no way I could ever remember them all or know exactly how much of every nutrient to supplement to maintain the proper ratios. That’s just me. Although, I did find a printable chart of key vitamin-mineral interactions here if you want to learn more.
But I do know that every nutrient impacts other nutrients and either enables or blocks proper functions. For instance, supplementing vitamin D needs to be done along with magnesium supplementation or a magnesium deficiency can set in (source).
Since I don’t use isolate supplements on a regular basis, I really don’t worry about this issue too much. That’s not to say – you should never use isolate mega-dose supplements…they are certainly useful in certain situations.
The Exceptions: When Mega-Dosing Makes Sense
There are times and places for these supplements. When something’s really going on (like if a severe respiratory virus hits), then my kitchen cabinet stash is ready to go.
Three situations when mega-dosing makes sense:
- During severe illness: when severe illness hits a short-term high dose of specific nutrients can have beneficial effects. For example, research shows Covid patients can benefit from supplementation with vitamin D and vitamin C (source, source). Vitamin C status and supplementation is also linked to pneumonia and sepsis (source).
- For treatment of chronic disease: research shows that high doses of intravenous (IV) vitamin C supports cancer treatment (source, source). Vitamin C in combination with other antioxidants has also been studied for treatment of chronic hepatitis (source). Those are just a few examples.
- For severe vitamin deficiencies: with testing and professional treatment, sometimes severe nutrient deficiencies are discovered. Severe vitamin C deficiency is called scurvy and requires special treatment. Hypomagnesemia can lead to hypocalcemia (low magnesium and low calcium levels) which require more aggressive supplementation to correct. Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency can cause confusion, ataxia (nervous system degeneration), nystagmus (uncontrolled, repetitive eye movements), diminished reflexes, seizures, and short-term memory loss among other issues that require high dose supplementation to correct (source).
So, again there’s a time and place for mega-dosing isolated vitamins and minerals. Because of the delicate balance and synergies of nutrients, I personally don’t feel comfortable using isolated (and synthetic) supplements for daily support. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t use nutritional supplements. I certainly do, and here’s why.
5 Reasons to Use Nutritional Supplements for Daily Support
As word got out about my sick kit supplement stash, I found myself sharing more and more with friends that I was focusing on food first. More RDA value isn’t necessarily better. And with the risks of side effects and imbalances, synthetic isolate vitamin supplements really are not the right option for daily use.
However, key nutritional supplements can boost your family’s overall nutrition. There are valid reasons you might want nutritional supplementation for your family (on a regular basis). In this case, I don’t mean using single-vitamin or multivitamin complex supplementation all the time. Real food supplementation is the difference here.
Let’s talk about five reasons you might want extra daily support (or at least frequently throughout your week, as needed).
- During mild illness and recuperation: for most respiratory viruses and common colds, that extra boost of vitamin C, magnesium, and quercetin (think elderberry!) can go a long way to fight off a nasty bug. Yet, even in these instances, mega-doses really are not necessary. Key herbs and foods can make all the difference. (Read more of my late-night research collection on nutrients to use when illness strikes in this free Back to School Survival Guide.)
- Concerns about Mineral Depletion in Soil & Water: conventional farming practices tend to contribute to poor soil quality which leads to lower nutrient quantity in produce products. And produce often travels far and wide to get to grocery stores. It’s often picked weeks to months in advance of reaching stores. But, eating farm-to-table isn’t always feasible. (Curious how nutrient synergy might impact your garden? Check out this Mulder’s Chart).
How can we possibly know just how much magnesium made it into those leafy greens? We don’t and can’t know! So, adding supplemental fruits and veggies here and there may make sense for your family.
- Life stages: certain times of life require extra nutrients. For instance, during growth spurts kids may need extra magnesium for those achy growing pains. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, there’s no doubt that extra nutrients are required to support both mama and baby. Herbs and superfoods can help meet those needs for extra nutrients without the risks of mega-dosing. As mentioned earlier, this approach is what saved my stomach from severe nausea during my horrible enough bouts of morning sickness! (Learn more about nutrition while breastfeeding in this free guide.)
- Activity levels: exercise is great for the body but so are the essential nutrients needed for proper energy production and recovery, especially after a muscle injury! Vitamin C and zinc, for example, help the body heal and repair.
- Filling the Gaps: let’s face it; we don’t always eat a super varied diet. And if your family is on dietary restrictions…or maybe your child is going through a very picky eating stage, nutritional supplements can help fill those gaps.
Healthy eating with nutrient dense foods is our foundation for daily nutritional and immune support. I want to be clear here – nutritional supplements are not a substitute for healthy eating. (Check out this printable vitamins & minerals chart. It features what the specific nutrients do and food-sources for each).
Keeping this “food first” mantra in mind, I stay stocked up on real-food sourced nutritional supplements for daily support (and special circumstances).
We take herbal vitamins daily. With herbal multivitamins, our bodies have access to rich sources of vitamins and minerals in their natural (bio-available) forms that we can actually absorb! This is especially important if any of your family members have MTHFR gene mutations (learn more here).
I also keep a wide variety of real-food powder blends on hand to help cover any nutritional gaps. My kids tend to eat their favorite foods in spurts (and color themes come to think of it). One week it’s green apples and green grapes, then next week they want carrots, mangoes, and papayas. And I can’t say they always eat super healthy or with a wide variety of foods (especially when we travel).
Berry blend powder, vitamin C food powder, greens powder, mushrooms, and even a cocoa blend make their way into smoothies, baked goods, soups, and other foods throughout our days. I feel better knowing we’re filling the gaps in a way that our bodies can best utilize…without running the risks of side effects from synthetic isolate vitamins.
For an in depth look at superfoods, check out the post here.