When it comes to optimum health and wellness, a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods is an absolute cornerstone. In a perfect world we would all eat plant foods that were organic and locally grown and animal foods that were pastured and ethically raised. The seeds for our vegetables would come from heirloom varieties, and our livestock, from heritage breeds. We would pay close attention to cooking methods such as soaking and sprouting grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes to eliminate anti-nutrients. Finally, we would slow down long enough to eat three well balanced meals in the company of caring and compassionate people.
This description may seem idyllic but we should all strive to approximate it as much as possible. The reality is many of us rely on convenience foods, eat on the run, and consume more than our fair share of processed foods composed of empty calories. For those fairly close to an ideal diet, supplements are nutritional insurance, but for those living a high stress lifestyle and eating a poor diet, nutritional supplements can help bridge the gap.
Your body is dependent on proper nutrition to build, maintain and repair all of its tissues. This truth is what gives rise to the axiom “you are what you eat”. Although the human frame is fairly resilient and flexible in terms of storing nutrients and manufacturing others, the individual suffering from a chronic condition would do well to evaluate whether they are deficient in one or more key nutrients that their body requires in order to heal. Furthermore, our genetics, lifestyle, and environment may necessitate more of certain nutrients. For example, the genetic metabolic condition of pyroluria demands high amounts of vitamin B6 and zinc, in some cases, far beyond what that individual could obtain from diet alone.
For these reasons, many patients choose to supplement their diet with any number of nutritional products. But buyer beware; there are considerable differences in the manner which supplements are made. There are two broad categories that are useful for comparison: natural vs. synthetic and isolated vs. whole-food.
The terms natural and synthetic are unregulated and ambiguous so when you are researching a supplement company you have to ask them to explain their methods. Generally speaking, you can either derive a nutrient from a food (natural) or through biochemistry (synthetic). The vitamin C your body absorbs from eating an orange is natural but a chemist could produce a fraction of vitamin C, ascorbic acid, in a lab via corn starch. To the starch, enzymes are added to liberate glucose from which catalytic hydrogenation produces sorbitol. Sorbitol then gets converted into sorbose with the addition of acetone, sulfuric acid, alcohol, and hydrochloric acid all to eventually derive ascorbic acid. Doesn’t sound very natural, does it?
Synthetic ascorbic acid such as this can be regulated and sold as vitamin C, but it is not vitamin C that our bodies have evolved to recognize. This is the difference between an isolate and whole-food supplement. You can compose a multi-vitamin with 100% of the RDA for almost every vitamin, synthetically derived, and every mineral, inorganically sourced, but have very little health benefit associated with taking it. The axiom of “you are what you eat” should be changed to “you are what you absorb”.
In nature, nutrients come packaged as complexes, rich in cofactors and synergists that help the body to fully absorb and utilize it. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, the vitamin C from an orange contains the antioxidant ascorbic acid, but also bioflavonoids and many other factors, both known and yet undiscovered, that make up true Vitamin C. You don’t have to be a chemist to properly nourish your body; you simply need to consume nutrients the way they are found in nature.
Clinically, there are times when a mega-dose of an isolated nutrient is of therapeutic benefit. Within the field of orthomolecular medicine for instance, it has been well documented that some conditions respond very favorably to high-doses of an isolated form of niacin.
For the rest of us seeking nutritional insurance, it is wise to select a naturally derived, whole-food supplement to close the gap between our diet and optimum health. The vast majority of supplement companies mass produce products composed of synthetic isolates. This is what you will see lining the shelves of mainstream pharmacies and grocery stores.
Practitioners of holistic medicine, educated in these differences, often favor whole-food supplements. Instead of being made in a laboratory, whole-food supplements are made through the removal of water and fiber from raw foods, condensing the leftover nutrient-rich powder into tablets or capsules. The machines doing this processing must operate at lower temperatures that do not heat the material and destroy the delicate enzymes within the nutrient complexes. When complete, these supplements are a distillation of nature and are thus well suited to do exactly what is intended, to supplement one’s diet.