As a herbalist, I was never big on supplements vs. getting nutrients from whole food sources. Most vitamin and mineral supplements found in pharmacies, supermarkets and even health shops are largely synthetic, petrochemical derivatives packed with fillers and unnecessary rubbish.
However, if you've been to see me in the past, there is a chance I won't have asked you to specifically stop taking certain supplements, like vitamin D, vitamin C and iron. Chances are, at some point I might even have encouraged you to carry on taking these.
I was taught, like most other herbalists, naturopaths and nutritionists, that if a client's vitamin D levels are low, you should advise supplementation, sometimes at very high levels, and especially in winter. I was taught that symptoms such as tiredness, shortness of breath, pallor, and cold hands and feet point towards 'iron-deficiency anaemia' - a lack of iron in the body. The solution? Iron supplements, and preferably liquid iron for best absorption. I was taught that it was a good idea to take high doses of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) when you feel a cold or flu coming on, and that it's ok to stay on relatively high doses of vitamin C almost permanently.
Suffice to say, things change. My favourite quote about this, that one of my latest and greatest teachers, Morley Robbins, often refers to, is:
"It's not what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so"
So, let's myth-bust these bad boys. Then I'll share with you the only supplements I consider worth taking these days, and why.
It's not a vitamin, it's a hormone
Probably the most consumed supplement during the COVID pandemic, and one I've often recommended to my own clients in the past. Vitamin D is actually thought to be more of a hormone than a nutrient, or a prohormone - it is absorbed through the skin or ingested in the diet, and then converted in a hormone (calcitriol) in the liver and kidneys. Calcitriol regulates calcium levels in the blood mainly by monitoring calcium absorption through the gut.
It depletes magnesium
What is not often appreciated is that in order for cholecalciferol (pre-vitamin D) to be converted to calcidiol (storage D) and then finally calcitriol (active D), magnesium and several other minerals are required. High doses of vitamin D therefore put a substantial stress on magnesium stores - in other words, vitamin D supplements deplete magnesium. This means that the vitamin D blood test is actually a perfect test for magnesium status, and that many of the "well-known" clinical signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency (ie. inflammation) may be signs of magnesium deficiency instead.
It depletes vitamin A
Vitamin D and Vitamin A (retinol) are in very close relationship with each other in the body, and both are stimulated in response to sunlight. In terms of dietary sources of vitamin D (oily fish, cod liver oil) these always contain high levels of vitamin A as well. Supplementing with synthetic vitamin D upsets this balance, blocking the absorption and use of vitamin A and having a negative effect on immunity, metabolism and mineral regulation.
It suppresses immunity
Whereas vitamin A down-regulates inflammation, vitamin D has in fact has been shown to suppress it. This may be a useful strategy in the short term to fight acute inflammation, but taking substances that suppress immunity on a daily basis is clearly not advisable.
Also, the theory that low vitamin D levels cause inflammation is under dispute - some studies suggest that low vitamin D levels are a consequence of chronic inflammation, rather than the cause.
This is just the tip of the iceberg on 'hormone D', but it's enough for me to stop recommending this supplement to clients. I now simply advise proper sun exposure, a diet rich in oily fish and a specific cod liver oil supplement - more on this below. Now let's move onto vitamin C.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)
Real wholefood vitamin C from citrus, leafy greens, berries etc is very beneficial to the body. It's an antioxidant, improves immunity, synthesises collagen and lowers inflammation, due in part to the fact that it contains copper. Copper is needed to activate ceruloplasmin, a protein involved in iron transport and regulation, and the production of energy at the cellular level for all sorts of metabolic processes.
Synthetic ascorbic acid is a very different thing - it is simply the outer shell of the wholefood vitamin C molecule, minus the copper and bioflavonoids. This actually blocks copper absorption in the intestines, damaging the activity of ceruloplasmin, which interferes with iron regulation. At the same time, it increases intestinal absorption of iron (ever heard that you should take vitamin C with iron supplements?) further contributing to iron dysregulation - ie. more iron is taken into the bloodstream without the ability to manage it properly. This wreaks havoc on the system, causing inflammation and oxidative stress.
High doses of ascorbic acid also increases the production of hydrogen peroxide, which does kill off pathogens and cancer cells, but not without a similar effect on surrounding cells. Yikes.
Instead of vitamin C supplements, I now recommend the wholefood versions above or powders of camu camu or acerola mixed into drinks and smoothies. Daily adrenal cocktails (recipe in Christmas newsletter!) are also a great way of getting your daily vitamin C, which along with the potassium and sodium provided, nourish the adrenals, support mental focus and reduce fatigue.
Now, onto iron.
Iron supplements and the anaemia myth
Last but not least, iron supplements are amongst the most commonly recommended supplements in the entire women's health arena. I have watched women take iron supplements, in all sorts of forms, for many years with no lasting effect on their serum iron levels, ferritin levels, energy or blood quality whatsoever.
The reason for this is complicated and quite harrowing, so I'll try to keep it simple.
Since the 1940s, due to wartime rationing of food resulting in micronutrient deficiencies, plus the widespread belief that all women suffer from anaemia simply because they have a monthly period (something you still hear these days), foods such as wheat, cereals, dairy and processed foods began to be fortified with iron. This basically means that iron filings - little metal shavings - were added to our food, and in the US, the UK and Canada, along with many developing nations, they still are.
Let's just put aside, for the moment, the fact that the human body is not designed to digest pieces of metal. Even if this extra iron was bioavailable (absorbable by the body), adding more iron to the diet without also adding more copper is a recipe for inflammation and oxidation. Just like the relationship between vitamin A and vitamin D, all the best natural sources of heme iron (the most bioavailable form of iron, found in animal products) also contain large amounts of copper - clams, oysters, liver, venison, mussels, and beef.
Added to the fact that the human body cannot absorb, assimilate or utilise iron filings, the result of this widespread 'fortification' has been increased inflammation, oxidative stress, obesity and all manner of conditions resulting from dysfunctional energy production. In this already 'iron toxic' environment, extra iron in the form of synthetic supplements, whether they are capsules, liquid, natural or not - just makes the whole situation worse. Magnesium, a mineral that is known for its powerful anti-oxidant and energy-enhancing properties, is also typically low in modern individuals, adding to the problem - too much fire, and not enough water to put it out.
Iron dysregulation, blood deficiency, and herbs
While real iron deficiency can happen when excess amounts of blood are lost, due to injury, childbirth or internal bleeding, what is commonly referred to as 'iron-deficiency anaemia' is more specifically a dysregulation of iron transport and usage in the body, probably brought on by a relative bioavailable copper deficiency, amongst other things.
This can also show up as 'blood deficiency' in a more traditional medicine sense - low energy, cold hands and feet, light or irregular periods, and a pale tongue can all be a sign of blood deficiency, which responds really well to specific Chinese and Western herbs. I go into all of this in detail in my upcoming course, Elemental Women's Health (registration now open, with discounts available for early bookings).
That brings us onto the only supplements I consistently recommend these days, and the only ones I take myself, because I see the benefits they bring to myself and my patients in terms of energy, mood and overall vitality.
Cod Liver Oil
A perfect balance of vitamin A and D, cod liver oil is a powerhouse of anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fats and copper-activating goodness.
The brand Rosita is particularly good in the way it is manufactured to preserve the nutrient value: https://www.rositarealfoods.eu/
Magnesium fuels countless enzymatic processes in the body, improves energy, sleep, calms the nerves and relaxes muscles. It also quenches free radicals and lowers inflammation caused by iron toxicity.
My favourite ways to take magnesium are:
- Magnesium Malate in the morning
- Magnesium glycinate in the evening
- Epsom salt baths (hand and foot baths too)
- Magnesium lotions like this one.
Grass-fed Beef Liver
Desiccated beef liver supplements are one of nature's all time best multivitamins. Beef liver is a traditional restorative food, chock full of essential nutrients like copper, retinol (vitamin A), heme iron, wholefood vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium, choline and CoQ10, all provided in easily absorbable forms.
Ideally we would be eating fresh organic grass fed beef liver weekly in our diets (yum), however, not only do most people not enjoy the taste of liver, but organic grass fed liver is quite hard to come by. That's why I often recommend taking supplements like this one daily instead.
So, as Morley Robbins says, what to do with your synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements? Give them to the neighbour you like the least! They're simply not worth the damage and dysregulation they cause to your health.