why vitamins aren’t “just” vitamins

Last week, I talked about the importance of organic food with regard to nutrition.  This study showed that there is an inverse relationship between crop yields and nutritional content.  That is, as our food continues to be grown with synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, overuse of farming land, and aggressive modification methods, the benefit we are getting from eating say, a tomato, is diminished. A comprehensive study of 43 crops showed nutrient loss of up to 38% since the 1950s.

It would seem that the logical thing to do in order to maintain adequate vitamin, mineral and hormone levels is to supplement.  Indeed, the fortification of food has historically been applied in order to overcome large scale deficiencies in targeted populations.  Many of our foods are fortified.  Cereals, bread and other grains have iron and essential vitamins and minerals, milk in the US has added vitamin D, table salt can be bought with added iodine.  The overall goal of synthetic fortification is to lower incidence of disease and increase the overall health of the people.

But has it worked? Many studies of people in both developed and developing countries show that despite mass fortification efforts, deficiencies are still a problem.  The most widespread is iron deficiency, which is an issue for over 30% of the world population, according to WHO.  How is it that 30% of the population is deficient in the most abundant element on Earth by mass?

Why Synthetic Fortification Doesn’t Work
The reason is simple: synthetic fortification doesn’t work for long term maintenance of optimal or sustainable mineral and vitamin levels.  This comes down to several mechanisms that are embedded in how our bodies work.  Our bodies are clever and know the real deal from the junk.  Unfortunately, society doesn’t know real from synthetic.  Medical professionals use the terms for the real or synthetic version of a supplement interchangeably, and often say something is natural when it was created in a lab.  This presents a huge problem and a lot of confusion for people trying to use supplements as a way to improve their health.  In many cases, we are actually creating a bigger problem by supplementing with synthetic vitamins.

  • Our bodies don’t process synthetic vitamins in the same way as natural sources.  Take folate as a prime example.  Folate is a type of B vitamin which is vital for cell production, heart health, and is recommended for pregnant women, especially in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy to prevent birth defects.  The synthetic form of folate is folic acid.  Unfortunately, a huge percentage (30-50%) of the population cannot convert folic acid into a usable form.  These people have a genetic mutation called MTHFR or methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase.  MTHFR is responsible for adding a methyl group to folic acid to make it usable.  When we are short methyl groups and we are ingesting an unusable form of a crucial vitamin, this can lead to deficiencies, chronic illness, inflammation, and many of health issues.
  • Vitamins normally work in pairs (or more) whereas we tend to take synthetic vitamins in isolation.  For example, synthetic vitamin D needs to be taken with vitamin K2.  In isolation, vitamin D can cause arterial calcification.  When getting vitamin D from a food source, like egg yolks, cheese, organ meats and fatty fish, those same food sources also have vitamin K2.  Nature has designed many of our foods or food pairings in ways that give us a complete vitamin and mineral panel.  Any time we ingest a synthetic source of vitamins, we are causing an imbalance in our bodies that will lead to issues in the future.
  • Synthetic vitamins aren’t absorbed or retained efficiently.  Going back to the vitamin D example, it takes a lot of vitamin D to get your levels up, but as soon as you stop supplementing, your levels will decrease again rapidly.  This is because in general, synthetic vitamins lack the efficacy and absorbability of naturally derived ones.  As an example, just 15 minutes in the sun gives you 10,000ui of vitamin D.  That’s the equivalent vitamin D content in 25 multivitamins!
  • Synthetic vitamins tend to cause overload, whereas our bodies put in natural stop mechanisms in place when we acquire them naturally.  I’m using vitamin D as an example again, but there are plenty of vitamins and minerals where this applies.  The natural upper limit of vitamin D in our bodies is around 45ng/ml.  This means that no matter how much sun exposure we have or how many more foods with vitamin D we eat, we would never naturally achieve levels higher than this.  This is our body’s stop mechanism, and prevents us from having toxicity.  However, synthetic supplementation can cause hypervitaminosis and toxicity which can make our health issues worse.  This is the case with vitamin A in pregnancy.  The studies that show that vitamin A causes birth defects were done with people that were supplementing synthetically.  These results have not been replicated in people that get vitamin A naturally (like from liver) and the lack of liver in our diets causes a lot of problems for us (more on that later).
  • Synthetic vitamins contain fillers and other chemicals that disrupt body chemistry.  This includes food colouring, hormone disruptors, trans fats, GMO food byproducts and even carcinogens.

How to Increase Vitamin & Mineral Levels Naturally
Although commercial farming has depleted vitamin and mineral levels in foods, there are ways to increase and maintain optimal levels naturally:

  • Avoid synthetically fortified foods.  Check labels and ensure that the vitamins and minerals in your foods are coming from natural sources and not merely added to the food.
  • Eat organic.  Organic food is grown with more nutrient rich soil, and will not have pesticides, herbicides or other toxic chemicals that will disrupt the body.
  • Eat real food as much as possible. Avoid processed foods, sugar, hormone disrupting foods like soy, and limit your intake of grains and caffeine, which leech vitamins and minerals from your body.
  • Detox your liver.  One of the purposes of the liver is to store vitamins and minerals and deliver them to the body.  Think of it like your body’s war chest.  When our livers are taxed, they aren’t able to transport stores efficiently, and will show deficiencies even if we have enough storage.  Using a product like , and following the steps above, especially eating real food and avoiding synthetic fortification, will help the liver function efficiently.
  • Increase magnesium.  Magnesium is needed for over 200 processes in the body, and we don’t and can never get enough of it from food alone.  I would recommend a magnesium supplement like , which doubles as a liver detox, or my personal favourite is this , which supports liver health, cardiovascular health, and helps with sleep, anxiety and energy levels.
  • Get vitamins from natural sources instead.  Look for foods that are high in specific vitamins and minerals.  contains B vitamins, is high in natural vitamin A and D, avocados (my favourite food) are high in vitamin A, B6, B9 (folate) C, E, K, magnesium, potassium, and other essential trace minerals like boron, calcium and iodine.  Consuming super foods like this that are high in nutritional value go a long way in eliminating deficiencies.  Other super foods include liver, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, dark chocolate, and tree nuts.
  • Stop drinking tap and distilled water.  Drinking water has two purposes: hydration and providing trace minerals which are naturally acquired as the water travels down stream. Trace minerals include magnesium, calcium, boron, and many others. Tap and distilled water are processed to have no health benefits.  I have a filter at home, which I use to filter out the nasties in my tap water, and then my water with concentrated mineral drops.  These come from a natural source in Utah, so they are not synthetic, and give my water a crisp taste.  The trace minerals are also co-factors for vitamin absorption and immune system support.  I also add this to my bottled water.
  • If you feel the need to take vitamins, go for options that are wholefood are derived from food sources and put in capsule form, so that you get the benefits if you are unable to follow the dietary requirements all the time.  I personally use in the wintertime to give my family an extra immune boost.

When Synthetic Vitamins are Necessary
My position on synthetic vitamins is the same as on medication: only take it if it’s absolutely necessary.  There will be circumstances where supplementation is needed because of serious health issues that can be associated with deficiencies.  For example, in 2013, I found myself losing patches of hair, and I didn’t have a period for 9 months.  After countless hormone, fertility and blood tests, it turns out that my vitamin D was at 8nmol/l, which is only 2ng/ml!  I had a severe deficiency, and was put on 40,000ui of vitamin D for 5 days.  By the fourth day, my period came back.  After my five day course, I supplemented at 10,000ui daily for a period of time whilst focusing on diet and lifestyle changes, and then once I was back in the normal range (above 20ng/ml), I stopped supplementing.  My levels are now consistently between 40ng/ml and 50ng/ml with no supplementation.  If you are in a situation where you have a serious deficiency that is causing physical or mental health issues, please supplement until that issue is resolved.  There are some brands that are better than others.  You want to look for ones that have no synthetic fillers or additives, and you want to focus on healing your body primarily through lifestyle changes so that you can start to increase those levels naturally for lasting health benefits.

Remember, there’s no such thing as “just a vitamin” when it comes to synthetics. For related content, check out my blog posts, food and health: why you literally are what you eat and when to buy organic and when to save your money.

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