Saturday, January 7, 2012

Supplements 1

When I was in my twenties and thirties I used to get lots of bruises on my arms and legs.  I started reading about what might be causing these and learned that smoking, stress, and drinking alcohol (yes, yes, and yes) can all deplete vitamin C.  I started taking a vitamin C supplement and there was less bruising.  This experience caused me to pay more attention to  nutrition. 

In those days I would sometimes visit my parents and notice how little they were eating; such a meager diet, I thought, couldn’t possibly provide all the nutrients they needed.  I suggested to my father that they take a multivitamin.  My father refused, saying his doctor had told him that a balanced diet provides all the nutrients a person needs.  Taking supplements, the doctor said, just produces expensive urine.  I believe that my parents’ final illnesses were both worsened by malnutrition.

Even after decades of research showing that vitamin deficiencies are common and that balanced diets are the exception rather than the rule, some doctors are still repeating this wrong-headed advice.  For these individuals, “The Nutrition Source,” which is part of the web site of the Harvard School of Public Health, should be required reading.  It provides clear, sensible guidance based on the latest research.  The article on vitamin D is especially valuable.  Inadequate levels of this nutrient are common, especially among dark-skinned people, the elderly, and those who live in cold climates.  Recent research has related vitamin D deficiency to a long list of serious illnesses from heart disease and cancer to depression.  

How can I tell whether I am getting enough of a particular nutrient in my diet? I ask my doctor to order a blood test.  When the results arrive, I ask for a copy and read it carefully.  Usually there will be a range of values that are considered normal next to the actual value from your own blood sample.  If my level is below the normal range, even by a little bit, I talk to my doctor about taking a supplement.  When it comes to test results, doctors tend to focus on numbers that are strong predictors of disease, such as high triglycerides or LDL (bad cholesterol).  A slightly low protein level may not even be addressed because it seems to pose no immediate threat.  In the long run, though, minor deficiencies may have a significant impact on the person’s health.  In my case, taking a protein supplement has helped to develop stronger muscles and to improve my overall fitness. 

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