It seems that just about everyday there is a study that comes out that proves a supplement or vitamin is not effective and their studies are correct, at examining what they have set out to test. For the most part scientific studies are reductionist, they take something large and attempt to break into to smaller pieces that can be tested and ultimately better understood. For example, if we had a hunch that vegetables are healthy we might want to break them down into tiny microscopic parts in order to determine what components are responsible for these health benefits.
One way to figure out which piece of a vegetable makes it healthy would be to determine all the parts of a vegetable and give that to a group and subjects individually and see if they get healthier. We know that vegetables contain vitamins like A,B,C etc, so we could put together three groups; each group would be told to keep living like they have always lived but group 1 would be told to take a vitamin A pill, group 2 a vitamin B pill and group 3 a vitamin C pill. In order to determine which part of the vegetable is the healthy part we would following these people over time to see if they get more or less diseases, but since there are so many diseases we would have to pick a handful of diseases to track.
Let’s take the average American eating the standard American diet and have them take a few thousand IUs of vitamin A and see if miraculously there’s any impact on morbidity. If this person is deficient in Vitamin A we might see some improvement in health, but didn’t look for people who are Vitamin A deficient, but that was not what we were testing for. Obviously we wouldn’t expect a small Vitamin pill to have a profound impact on our sedentary, overweight smoker. When we read the headlines “Vitamin A doesn’t work!” we throw up our hands and curse that talk show host that told us to go out buy this supplement.
There is a reason that our vegetables contain a wide array of nutrients, because our bodies need all of the parts to be healthy. Our aforementioned hypothetical study would be akin to studying how well your car can get you to work, but we only gave you the windshield. We need every part of a car for it to function properly and our health is no different.
Are their people that can benefit from taking individual nutrients, of course, but we can’t give these nutrients to people without knowing if they truly need them. The best source of these nutrients is through dietary intake, but due to our modern diet these nutrients are not consumed in the levels we need. Vitamin D is a good example of a nutrient that many of us are deficient in. Vitamin D is processed in the body from either food or from the sun. Most of us don’t get enough from our diets and rarely do we get outside to get Vitamin D from the sun. We are even seeing kids getting Rickets, which is a disease associated with low Vitamin D and thought to be all but eradicated in developed areas. If I were to give Vitamin D to someone who lived in Southern California I might not see much benefit, but there might be a completely opposite effect on someone living in the Pacific Northwest.
The take home message for this post is to take studies as what they are, a small piece of the puzzle. If one study comes out and says that Vitamin A has no effect on prostate cancer, it isn’t time to throw away all your carrots. The best source of healthy nutrients comes from a plant, it’s not made in one but there are most definitely situations where dietary supplementation can have a profound affect on vitality and wellness. Also, don’t pick up a supplement that you co-worker has recommended because it has worked from them, they’re not you and that supplement may not be right for you even though you swear you have the same symptoms. Research your symptoms, speak to someone who is knowledgeable in order to get on the path to wellness.