People often ask me ‘Why do you take so many supplements? Can’t you get all the nutrients you need from your diet?’
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on exactly what you mean by ‘need’? All the nutrients you need for what, exactly? Need for living long enough to reproduce? Need for reasonable good health? Need for maximum althetic performance? Need for living average lifespan, which is 77 for women and 73 for males in north America? Or, perhaps, need for living way, way longer than anyone else?
If what you mean by ‘need’ is living a reasonably healthy life and probably not getting cancer, then YES – you can probably achieve that goal without aggressive supplementation. All you ‘need’ for that particular life goal is a good diet, regular exercise, and low stress. No problemo.
But what about folks who want more certainty? For example, ‘probably’ does not mean ‘won’t’. And what about people who want to live past – maybe WAY PAST – the average lifespan? For those people, aggressive supplementation is the only option, and here’s why …
Many different foods offer powerful anti-cancer and anti-aging properties, but it is impossible to integrate them all into your daily diet. For example, blueberries are incredibly healthy, as are pine nuts, cranberries, maca, goji berries, ginger, turmeric, bilberries, broccoli, garlic, white tea, tomatoes, olives, leafy greens, quinoa, basil, lemons, avocado, walnuts, shiitake mushrooms, sprouted lentils, acai berry, brussel sprouts, flax seeds, cherries, sunflower sprouts, and the list goes on and on. It would be almost impossible to consume these superfoods in sufficient quantities to get the maximum benefit without over-eating. Yet, to take just one example, the compound sulphoraphane in broccoli is scientifically proven to prevent cancer. To get enough sulphoraphane to protect fully against cancer, you would have to chomp several pounds of broccoli per day – an unrealistic (and perhaps unpalatable) goal. By ingesting a sulphoraphane supplement you achieve the same benefit without the added calories (or farts…). The same concept applies to the other superfoods in the above list – you simply could not eat enough of them every day to gain the maximum nutritional benefits they offer.
I call this the theory of incremental nutrition. Each superfood is incrementally beneficial; for example, it is better to eat maca than not, better to eat blueberries than not, better to eat flax seeds than not, but impossible to consume all superfoods in sufficient quantities to reap the maximum health benefits. Overeating superfoods is not the solution because a high calorie diet causes myriad health problems, while calorie restriction is proven to increase lifespan. Supplementation provides the health benefits of superfoods without the excess calories.
Certain compounds, such as resveratrol, extend the lifespan of laboratory animals – but you could never consume enough resveratrol in the normal diet to achieve those results. Since resveratrol offers many known positive benefits and no known deleterious side effects, it should be part of everyone’s supplement regimen. The same line of reasoning applies to many other supplements. Consider lutein. As we age, our vision inexorably declines, a phenomenon known as ‘age-related macular degeneration.’ Not cool. Lutein, a derivative of the marigold plant, is proven to improve vision. I can’t munch two pounds of marigolds per day, but I am happy to pop a couple lutein pills if it helps improve my eyesight.
Consider this study, in which scientists fed one group of mice a regular diet, and fed the other group the same diet but added superfood supplements. Can you guess which group lived twice as long?
Aging is a mysterious process that scientists still do not fully understand, but one component of aging is surely the body’s declining production of ‘hormones of youth,’ such as melatonin and DHEA. As the body ages, production of these two hormones declines dramatically, which explains why older people have trouble sleeping as the pituitary gland’s production of melatonin drops off. DHEA is a steroid hormone which serves as a precursor to testosterone and estrogen. The body’s production of DHEA peaks in the middle to late 20s, then declines by about 10% every decade thereafter. Many gerontologists have linked the decline in DHEA production in older adults to heart disease, cancer, and age-related degeneration. Aggressive supplementation of both melatonin and DHEA may be necessary to forestall or reverse the decline of youthful hormone production. It should be noted that DHEA supplementation is currently a hot topic in the world of ‘life extension.’ I personally take melatonin daily, but I have held off on DHEA supplementation until the research into potential downsides is more clear.
Speaking of downsides, one objection I hear to supplementation is ‘what if all those supplements are actually harmful?’ Fair enough. Just because some slick company prints ‘proven to extend life’ on a fancy bottle does not mean that the supplement is either useful or safe. Before adding any supplement to my regimen, I extensively investigate any potential negative effects. If double-blind placebo controlled studies show positive benefits with no measurable risk, then I usually end up taking it. If doubt lingers as to the safety of the supplement, as in the case of DHEA, then I put it on the back burner until additional research clears up the confusion. An equally fair objection is that no one really knows about the interaction of so many supplements in the body. For example, carnosine might be completely safe. And resveratrol might be completely safe. But taking them together might not be safe. This is a totally valid point. Aggressive supplementation involves potentially huge benefits (life extension, incredible health boost) while also incurring some risk due to the unknown interactions of supplements. I believe the risk can be mitigated by slowly adding new supplements to the regimen and observing any side effects that might develop. Personally, I take several dozen different supplements and have never noticed any negative effects whatsoever (anecdotal evidence, I realize).
Most health-conscious people who reject supplementation simply can’t afford them, resorting to desperate rationalization, such as the classic ‘But I get all the nutrients I need from my diet.’ As I explained above, this depends on what the person means by ‘need.’ Of course it is much easier to rationalize rather than take a critical look at what you ‘need’ or want for your life.
When considering aggressive supplementation, decide what you want from your diet. Life extension? Extreme health, athletic performance, and certainty of disease-free living? If those are your goals, then supplementation is mandatory. If you simply want a slightly above-average lifespan with reasonably good health, then a solid diet and excercise regime would suit your needs.
What do you ‘need’ or want out of your life? The choice is yours.
Supplements I recommend:
Bilberry and/or Grapeseed Extract
Flax seed oil