Health and vitamins — who should take dietary
supplements and why?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Virtually everyone has a family history that includes a chronic illness such as
heart disease, diabetes or cancer. You may be concerned that you carry a genetic
predisposition to one or more of these diseases. But recent science has shown there’s
much you can do to prevent disease, starting with nutrition. The good news is that
with optimal nutrition, including dietary supplements, you can rewrite your life
story with a happier ending.
Much has been made in the news recently about whether taking a daily multivitamin/mineral
(MVM) is a good or a bad idea. Since half of all Americans are already taking MVM’s,
the National Institute of Health decided to convene a panel to come to some consensus
as to whether this practice is safe and effective against chronic diseases.
There are always two sides to a good debate, and trying to give Americans a one-size-fits-all
solution in the form of a multivitamin is no one’s idea of a solution. But
one thing I do know from my own clinical experience is that a daily, top-of-the-line
multivitamin will not harm you, and it may do you a world of good. At my practice
and on a personal level, I see on a regular basis the dramatic positive effect taking
a good multivitamin has had on my patients, my family, and my friends.
So why are so many people still unaware of the importance of taking vitamins? Which
vitamins do you need and what are the best multivitamins to take? Why are drug companies
and doctors often opposed to nutritional supplements? Why is there continued debate
over vitamin safety and dosages?
Let’s look at this topic in light of recent studies so that you can take an
If you read the NIH panel’s
state-of-the-science statement, you’ll see that the findings are inconclusive
and that they requested more studies. The mainstream media has spun this to read
that the NIH panel’s findings were “insufficient” to recommend
multivitamins to the general population. In fact, the panel made no such claim —
their own press release simply urged “a more informed approach.” At
Women to Women, an informed approach is our standard protocol, including any and
all uses of dietary supplements.
We’ve used nutritional supplements and dietary changes as medical therapies
for over 20 years. To this day we recommend that every woman take a pharmaceutical-grade
vitamin. Yet we agree there are reasons to be concerned about how multivitamins
are marketed and used. So let’s talk about what we advocate when it comes
to dietary supplements and how we answer women’s questions about the vitamin
The link between nutrition and chronic diseases
The increase in chronic illnesses is one of the major health stories of our lifetimes.
Today seven out of ten Americans will die from the complications of a chronic disease,
including heart disease, cancer,
depression, metabolic and digestive disorders (including heartburn and acid reflux), rheumatoid arthritis, fibroids, and
osteoporosis, to name a few.
(Acute diseases, by contrast, are characterized by rapid onset, are usually treated
with antibiotics or surgery and are time-limited.)
Why the dramatic increase in chronic diseases? Clearly we are living longer, and
many of us under greater stress, both of which contribute to degenerative conditions.
But only recently has the role of nutrition begun to be given its due.
Conventional practitioners treat chronic diseases with an ever-growing array of
expensive pharmaceuticals that may temporarily relieve the painful or uncomfortable
symptoms, but do nothing to resolve the underlying cause — and may actually
cause other serious problems. That’s because conventional medicine is focused
on disease screening and drug treatment — ignoring the more powerful approach
of disease prevention, especially through nutrition.
What about the role of genetic factors in causing disease? In our view, genetics
rarely determine definitively that someone will develop a disease. Instead, you
may inherit a genetic predisposition — a kind of vulnerability — that
when combined with other factors results in disease. Nutrition is arguably the most
important of those factors.
Many of our patients at our medical practice are surprised to learn that their chronic
condition or disease can so often be traced to a nutritional deficiency. But the
linkage is clear enough. Nutrition affects our immune system, organ function, hormonal
balance and cellular metabolism. The nutritional deficiency comes first, followed
some years later by symptoms, which lead in time to disease. To make things worse,
the whole downward spiral is accompanied by accelerated aging.
Multivitamins and hormonal balance
Our bodies require micronutrients for the non-stop process of synthesizing hormones
from simpler molecules. It is simply impossible to achieve and maintain hormonal
balance without such support. We have found it helpful to describe hormonal balance
to our patients as a kind of symphony in their bodies in which the instruments of
the orchestra play together to create health. When some of the players aren’t
there, it doesn’t sound right — and you don’t feel good.
Remember that our hormones fluctuate with our circumstances. Cortisol and adrenaline
levels rise and fall as we work out stressful situations. Stable insulin levels
provide the framework that allows all of our major female hormones to communicate
with one another. If nutrients are low or missing, the balance of this communication
is undermined. To remain flexible and strong, especially when approaching menopause,
we all need to give our hormones the wide array of nutrients they need.
Is it any wonder that so many women wake up to their health problems at mid-life?
That’s the really positive change we see in perimenopause and menopause —
women wake up to the choices that have given rise to their symptoms, such as poor
nutrition — and then take control of their health. Improving dietary choices
is a good start, but you need a pharmaceutical-grade vitamin, too. Let’s find
Why ordinary nutrition isn’t enough
Americans appear to be so well fed, it seems impossible that we aren’t getting
enough nutrients. But study after study has shown that most of us don’t get
adequate amounts of key vitamins and minerals. One of the consequences is the increase
in chronic diseases. Beyond that, many of us are living longer, but feeling worse:
our quality of life is suffering as we age. We are also seeing chronic diseases
manifest in younger and younger people — children are now routinely seen with
“adult” diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure — which
arise from the insulin resistance
caused by modern diets.
How can it be true that ordinary nutrition is not enough? It’s partly a quantity-versus-quality
problem. Most of us aren’t eating enough of the right things. We eat a lot
of what I would call non-food: fast food, over-processed food, food with highly
refined sugar, simple carbohydrates, preservatives, and large quantities of trans
fats. We ingest stimulants that actually get in the way of our bodies’ ability
to absorb vitamins and minerals.
Another reason is that our fishing and farming methods have changed drastically.
In the past our harvests fully embodied the vital nutrients of the soil and sea,
and those nutrients nourished us fully. Now we pump pesticides, inorganic feeds
and fertilizers, and waste–treated water to grow a lot of food quickly and
cheaply in soil and water that would otherwise be unable to support life. These
practices produce crops that are big and colorful but nutritionally depleted, sometimes
harmful, and mostly tasteless, too! (Think of what store-bought tomatoes taste like
now compared to when you were a child.)
Research has verified that crops cultivated using organic methods are not only free
of the toxins our bodies don’t need, but superior in the micronutrients we
do. For example, routine application of organophosphate fertilizers over the past
50 years has decreased the calcium content of conventionally grown broccoli to one-sixth
what was it was in the 1950’s. But until we as a society put our money where
our mouths are and wholly support sustainable agriculture, the benefits of organic
food will remain available only at a premium to the determined few. And in the meantime,
doesn’t it seem like supplements are an affordable stop-gap?
We also import our food from vast distances, so it must be variously wrapped, coated
and sprayed chemically to keep it from spoiling. We buy lettuce in a bag because
it’s easier than washing it. But did you know that pre-bagged salad greens
go through “post-harvest processing” in which the greens are exposed
to a variety of gases before the bag is sealed to ensure crispness for weeks? (These
gases, by the way, are not required to be disclosed as preservatives.) By the time
you make your salad, the vital enzyme activity of those greens is only a memory.
It may seem like a generalization, but buying local food in season, when you can,
makes good sense.
Another factor is dieting for weight loss.
Almost half of all American women are on some kind of diet at any given time. Many
of these diets rob the body of vital nutrients. And yo-yo dieting (weight loss followed
by weight gain, and then another cycle of weight loss) is a major source of stress
for our bodies.
The link between stress and nutrition
On top of our questionable diet, our bodies face an onslaught of external stressors
that are beyond our control. Whether environmental or emotional, these stresses
are far beyond what our bodies were designed to deal with — and they increase
the gap between our bodies’ nutritional needs and the vitamins and minerals
that are available in our diets.
Let’s start with the environmental issues. Toxic chemicals, air pollution,
radiation, artificial polymers,
hormones in our meat and dairy, and pesticides and chlorine in our drinking water
are just a few of the man-made hazards we all face. Fast-food hamburgers have been
shown to contain traces of over 100 pesticides. Even the common practice of microwaving
in plastic containers imbues our food with toxins. From whatever the source, these
chemicals burden our liver with the task of detoxifying, a process that uses up
some of our stores of essential nutrients.
We also have the extraordinary stresses of everyday life: children, spouses, work,
friends, parents — a host of obligations and expectations! Stress has been
shown to deplete nutrients and suppress immune function. That’s in part because
stress produces cortisol, and sustained high levels of cortisol are very detrimental
to the body and the brain. It’s why we see so many women in our clinic with
adrenal fatigue. And there’s
no doubt in my mind that the level of stress women deal with today is unprecedented.
So stress compounds the insult of poor nutrition in the modern diet. If the deficiency
is sudden we can get very sick very quickly. But more often the nutritional deficiency
wears us down bit by bit, and we slowly, steadily deteriorate. Eventually we show
signs of accelerated aging and chronic disease. This is why so many of us crash
and burn in perimenopause. Our problems will persist and likely worsen unless and
until we consistently get the essential nutrients we need. This is why nutritional
supplements can make such a dramatic difference for women at mid-life.
The role of nutritional supplements
Between the poor nutritional quality of our diets and the nutritional burdens added
by modern stressors, you can understand why we tell every woman who walks through
our doors that she should be taking pharmaceutical-grade vitamins every day. This
small step translates into a huge leap for our bodies, which after all are miraculously
good at healing injury and preventing illness if they are given adequate support.
And mainstream medicine is beginning to catch on. A 2002 study in the Journal of
the American Medical Association stated that a lack of certain vitamins
“is a risk factor for chronic diseases and common in the general population.”
The report continues, “Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all
vitamins by diet alone. It appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.”
So why don’t we all know this? Well, as many as half of us already take some
form of dietary supplement. So the obvious question is: Why don’t the other
half take multivitamins too? The less obvious question is just as important: Why
aren’t the people who do take multivitamins clearly healthier than those who
Many people don’t take multivitamins because they believe that doctors oppose
dietary supplements. Their doctors may have discouraged them from using supplements
in the past. In fact, there are good reasons why doctors are often hesitant to endorse
the use of dietary supplements, and it is a good idea to understand why. Click here
to read about the reasons doctors
are concerned about dietary supplements.
Remember also that not all nutritional supplements are alike. This is one reason
doctors are so skeptical about their use. Please click here to learn how to
choose a multivitamin.
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home
version of what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at
1-800-798-7902. We're here to listen and help.
Related to this article:
References & further reading on health
Last Modified Date: 04/20/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP