Note: This article discusses the fallacies of the supplement industry, how the widely-used multivitamins can cause more harm than good, the importance of finding out what you are deficient in and crucially, the 5 supplements that every high achiever should take daily (if this the only bit you are interested in, feel free to scroll right down to it).
Thanks to the growing interest of people to take control of their health, increasing population rates and a focus on longevity, the supplement and multivitamin industry is booming with new brands and names. In fact, Internet searches for terms like ‘best multivitamins’, ‘supplements’, and ‘essential supplements’ have doubled in the last 10 years (anno 2005) . Using (sometimes dubious) data, companies are producing and labelling their supplements in clever ways. For you and me, people who have little time to investigate their claims and question marketing campaigns, there is just too much noise.
Back in 2005 I used to swear by multivitamins. ‘Just in case’, I’d say. I took them for safety, even if I didn’t need any supplementation at a given time but who knows what could happen. It wasn’t just me. Physicians were, and still are, happy to prescribe multivitamins.
Although they are perceived as a harmless supplement, these tiny tablets pack a whole lot of essential minerals and nutrients. Take a look at the back label of any supplement – you might notice that the RDA approved daily norms are upped to 5 times more than what a person would require in a day. Some vitamins, such as Vitamin C in it’s easily absorbable ascorbic acid form, are usually concentrated for up to 10 times the daily recommended amount.
The Facts about absorption of supplements
In 2006 the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the School of Medicine investigated some of the health claims of multivitamin and mineral supplements distributed in the US. They found no significant impact of these supplements on the prevention of cancer and chronic disease.
Simply put, taking multivitamins every day will not decrease your chances of getting cancer or any other chronic and life-threatening disease. It won’t even lower the rate at which it could affect your body.
The majority of supplements and multis these days are a mixture of what are in and of themselves useful chemicals, but here they’re mixed with each other – their amounts calculated and carefully prepared, then milled and packed. The nature of many of these chemicals, their half-lives and solvency, mean they cannot be broken down or absorbed physically. Some dissolve in water, whilst others need fatty acids, another group might need to be combined with a specific nutrient that activates its absorption.
This is why pharmaceutical labels will state that you need to take multis and supplements on a full stomach to enhance the absorption. This though is still a blind, long shot for the desired effect.
For a moment let’s speculate that these conditions are perfect for absorption and all of the nutrients get absorbed. This would raise another issue: your body will not store in excess those micronutrients which it is not scarce of.
What this basically means it that your body really needs just traces of given minerals, vitamins and nutrients. What multivitamins deliver is that just-in-case safety dose described earlier. 99.9% of the time, that extra amount added for safety will however lead to all of the contents of the pill being expensive and usually fluorescent pee.
More harm than good
It’s better to be safe than sorry though. And any extra supplements will be removed through urination anyway, right? Wrong – things aren’t that straightforward. The contents of a typical multivitamin tablet or any other unnecessary supplement can cause more harm than do good, especially in such large quantities.
This topic is worth its own article, however to briefly illustrate the point: A 2007 French study found that excessive consumption of vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, selenium, and zinc (some of the typical ingredients in your day-to-day multivitamin) could cause cancer.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be taking supplements at all. However, you can take a smarter approach and take only those nutrients and minerals that your body is actually deficient of.
Bulls-eye: Take the vitamins and minerals your body is deficient of by getting a blood panel
Last year I took a deficiency test in one of the independent labs. What I found out was that I was highly deficient in omega 6s, creatine, magnesium and vitamin C (the most common deficiency). Interestingly, magnesium and vitamin C stores in particular are directly linked to the high achiever lifestyle I live, where I battle stress both mentally as a corporate office worker and physically as an athlete.
Needless to say, a blood panel truly is the best way to find out what specific elements your body needs. The test does only capture deficiencies that are true at the time you took it, so it’s advised to do the tests a few times a year. Deficiencies tend to change based on your diet and lifestyle choices. This approach is the only way to ensure optimal performance.
You can request a blood deficiency panel from your GP, an independent practitioner or, like me, you can order one online.
But wait, there’s more you can do for your health.
The 5 essential supplements, which should be on everyone’s work desk
Some supplements are like golden nuggets that anyone can benefit from introducing into their life. These are key micronutrients that almost every person is either deficient of, or could benefit from higher reserves.
Three of these 5 supplements play an important role in my day-to-day life and for that reason they are strategically placed on my work and home office desks. This is an easy way to get intentionally distracted and consume them as required throughout the day. Think of it as a visual marker or a less annoying post it note.
1. Turmeric extract / Curcumin.
Turmeric, originally a spice common in curries, has not only a unique flavour but is also known for its highly potent medicinal properties too. It’s curcumin, the key ingredient of turmeric powder, that gives curries that heart-warming yellow colour. However, curcumin is also high in antioxidants, has anti cancerous properties and reduces acute or chronic inflammation in muscle strains, arthritis, and damaged gut. Because of its strong antioxidant properties, it’s thought to have the rare effect of reducing the growth of cancer cells.
A turmeric supplement is a must not only for athletes, but for anyone concerned with their long-term health. Some of its effect can be felt almost immediately too – according to some, turmeric can have a mental-sharpening, neutrophic effect.
2. Vitamin C
Undoubtedly one of the most excessively used ingredients in multivitamins, vit C is ironically one of the vitamins that most people are deficient in. This is especially true if you’re a stressed worker, an athlete or even more so if you’re both.
The vitamin C storages are in your body’s adrenal glands, which get flushed out with adrenaline everytime you are stressed, work out, push your body to its limits or face the unexpected in some other way – all too familiar to a high achiever, right?
That’s why stressed out people tend to have weak immune systems – they have too little of ascorbic acid (Vit C) for their immune response to function well. One month after another, you are frequently ill.
The best way to consume vitamin C is as a pill a couple of times a day. What some of my clients do is to prepare a daily lemon water boost first thing in a morning, by squeezing 2-3 lemons in a 1l bottle before heading out to conquer their day. Notably this is yet another ‘just in case’ usage of vitamins, however vitamin C is essential knowing how stressed you get every day.
3. Fish / Krill Oil
Fish Oil and Krill Oil are the go-to supplements for boosting omega 3s (DHA which stands for docosahexaenoic acid, and EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid). Krill Oil has higher amounts of EPA, so it’s considered the more potent form of fatty acid supplement. It also appears to be less processed and not rancid, both of which are common qualities of the fish oils in the industry.
Essential fatty acids are just that – essential. They are used by your body in a number of different ways: to strengthen bones, to regulate mood via seratonin, for brain function and to support memory mechanisms, to help strengthen the vision, and much more. What you really want is a healthy balance between the omega 6 and 3 in your diet. Since omega 3 is more scarce it is wise to supplement it.
There are couple more supplements which are highly recommended for any high achiever:
This is another mineral that most people are deficient in. If you don’t believe it should be essential in your diet, just consider that magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions within the body, including the metabolism of food as well as synthesis of fatty acids and proteins. Once again, if you live a stressful and demanding lifestyle, it’s all the more important that you consume enough magnesium daily.
There’s an additional benefit to magnesium supplements that goes beyond just the invisible effects of keeping your body up and running. As a high achiever you might have a hard time getting to sleep or feeling refreshed after waking up. Taking a pure magnesium supplement or ZMA* (Zinc, Magnesium and Vitamin B6) just before bed will improve your sleep.
*ZMA is a popular sports supplement primarily taken to boost recovery, prevent cramps and enable the 300 or so enzymatic processes – all of these are important for optimal athletic performance but they can be consumed by non-athletes too.
Another supplement borrowed from the fitness & sports industry, creatine is one of the most investigated ingredients. It occurs naturally in the body and is widely used for power production(ATP) in muscles and the brain alike. In fact creatine in its phosphate form is stored in the cells and is required for the ATP synthesis. What’s not as widely known are its mental benefits – creatine can be taken as a smart drug/nootropic.
When consuming creatine for this purpose you should ignore what the packaging says as the usual dosage for athletes could be up to 20g per day. For a mental boost you’d only take 5g. Taken daily, this dose will increase your cognition and delay the mental fatigue you might experience otherwise.
As a side note, vegetarians and vegans might be highly deficient in creatine because it occurs naturally in meat products. Therefore, these groups in particular are encouraged to supplement creatine.
I hope all of this convinces you that it’s time to bin the commonly used multis and other unnecessary supplements. The best approach is to simply focus on a well-balanced diet and to only supplement what your body truly needs. Blood tests are the best way to find this out. If you can’t get your blood tested, at least get the essential 5 supplements listed above, as they’ll boost what most people are deficient in nowadays.
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 Based on google trends search based queries and data. For the periods of 2005-2015 – trends.google.com
 ‘Toward a new recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C based on antioxidant and health effects in humans’. – Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University, Corvallis 97331, USA. Pubmed. In comparison with an unnamed, generic vitamin C supplement – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10357726
 ‘The efficacy and safety of multivitamin and mineral supplement use to prevent cancer and chronic disease in adults: a systematic review for a National Institutes of Health state-of-the-science conference.’ – Bloomberg School of Public Health and the School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21205-2223, USA. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16880453
 ‘Why do vitamins turn pee bright yellow’ – Today I found. 2013 – http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/09/why-do-vitamins-make-urine-bright-yellow/
 ‘Dietary supplements shown to increase cancer risk’ – Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2015 by University of Colorado Cancer Center investigator Tim Byers, MD, MPH.
‘Antioxidant supplementation increases the risk of skin cancers in women but not in men.’ – UMR U557 Inserm/U1125 Inra/EA3200 Cnam/Univ Paris 13, Bobigny, France. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17709449
 Facts about Vitamin C and Adrenal Fatigue – http://www.adrenalfatiguerecovery.com/vitamin-c.html