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According to scientists, there is little doubt that we inhabitants of the 21st century have all evolved from the primitive hunter gatherer who came out of Africa and who survived on nuts, berries and the occasional kill of meat, fish or fowl. And even now, in various parts of the globe, indigenous peoples still follow a similar lifestyle in an often hostile environment: environments in which we we city slickers would succumb at a fairly rapid rate.
But as the hunter gatherer moved from the idea that humans should hunt in isolation or in packs, to living together in small communities, they then took on the challenge of controlling the environment by farming crops and husbanding animals, with the hoped for intention of replacing the feast/famine cycle with the more constant production of basic foods.
And over the many hundreds of thousands of years from the hunter gatherer to the present day, our bodies have adapted to the consumption of the wide variety of foodstuffs that we eat and which contain the essential nutrients that our bodies need. In fact we are now only just beginning to glimpse, and understand the role of, the billions of organisms that have evolved inside our intestines during this same period of time and which help us digest these foodstuffs. Not only do these internal organisms help us digest our meals, but they also supplement our nutrition with essential nutrients that help maintain our health, and it now looks like they also play a part in helping our immune system, regulate our nervous system and even interact with other organs around our body!
These are some of the reasons why I’ve always had some concern about the “pellitization” and widespread promotion of vitamins and minerals: formulations that are sold worldwide and which are promoted as aids to improving our health, boosting the immune systems, or changing us from flu ridden wretches to bouncy smiling super athletes in a matter of minutes after consuming one of these marvelous, Multivitamin pills.
Vitamins weren’t in fact discovered until the early part of the 20th century - which in the evolution of mankind is literally only a few minutes ago. Vitamin C has a slightly longer history as it had been noted by a ships surgeon back in the 18th century that the scurvy, which affected all sailors who embarked on long sea voyages and which we now know to be caused by vitamin c deficiency, could be prevented if they ate limes which are rich in vitamin C. However it was to be another 200 years before the active constituent in limes was identified, and not until 1935 that it was first produced commercially and which has since made billions of dollars for the manufacturers.
Many of the vitamins were first isolated in foods as a result of deficiency syndromes found in sick patients : for example Beri Beri is due to thiamine - or vitamin B6 - deficiency, and pernicious naemia is due to a lack of vitamin B12 in the body. The problem is that once these critical substances were identified, the “idea” developed that “more is better” so if we all took more of these life - and the Latin word for life is Vita - these life enhancing chemicals, then we’d all live healthier lives. But unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case.
Vitamins are to be found in all well balanced, healthy diets and the vast majority of people do not need any vitamin replacement. But as well as the vitamins we get in a well balanced diet, there are other beneficial micro-nutrients: for instance an orange provides vitamin C plus some beta carotene, calcium and other nutrients: which cannot be said of vitamin C supplements which lack these other Micronutrients. Food stuffs can also contain essential fibres that are very helpful with conditions as varied as constipation to diabetes and heart disease. Other health positive nutrients to be found in a well balanced meal are Phyto-chemicals and anti-oxidants which have their own unique benefits in maximizing our health.
However, just as I am against the blanket promotion of Vits and Mins for the whole population, I also recognize that certain people definitely do need replacement therapy for proven medical conditions and some, such as those with Cystic Fibrosis, would be at critical risk should they fail to take their daily vitamin supplements.
Neonatal Folic acid is essential for pregnant Mums to prevent the occurrence of neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida. Vitamin D is recommend for pregnant Mums to help with healthy bone formation in infants. Iron supplements may be necessary for menstruating women who have heavy periods or who are pregnant. And those people who cannot produce or absorb Vitamin B12 need regular replacement in order to protect and maintain healthy functioning of their nervous system.
One of the major drawbacks of single substance replacement - which is what vitamins and minerals offer us - is that their potential for good has failed to live up to the promised expectations. In fact trials aimed at showing the benefits of vitamin E have proven potentially, to do more harm than good.
Then there are the health supplements which contain herbal extracts
: and these have proven to be much more difficult to assess. Fresh herbs are far closer to the natural foodstuffs that we eat, and the greener and fresher the leaf the better it is especially when it comes to Cruciferous vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and arugula. With herbal extracts however, there is a huge disparity between whether the leaf, stem or root of the herb is used and at what time of year they are collected. Also, there have been many reports of sports-related herbal extracts being tainted with anabolic steroids and other chemicals in order to enhance their effects. So if you do choose to take a herbal extract,then it’s very important to read the label, see where it was manufactured and see what’s actually in the supplement that you are taking. Then check out the expiry date as this can have a big impact on the potency of the supplement involved.
Herbal extracts and even vitamins and mineral supplements can interact with medications that people take - especially older people who are on anti-coagulant medication and on young women who take the oral contraceptive pill, so always discuss what you are taking with your pharmacist and when in any doubt, seek professional advice first.
But to put the whole thing in perspective, Vits and Mins as well as herbal supplements can cause problems, but when held up against the adverse drug reactions, the inappropriate use of medications and the hospital deaths that are caused by the wrong medications being given, they do pale into insignificance.
The vast majority of young families who are enjoying good health do not need any supplementation if they are eating a varied diet of healthy food. Even those recovering from the flu can get all their nutrients replaced in a few days by resuming a normal diet. For more serious infections that may have required powerful medications, then you should consult with your treating doctor and even a dietician to get the correct advice on what is best for you.