Counseling Sheet

Vitamin Supplements

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.

Preventive Medicine

A question often arises about vitamin supplements. Some advise taking extra vitamins, giving as reasons that there has been leaching of the soil with loss of basic nutrients; that commercial practices of production and marketing involve quick growing of plants, harvesting before full development has occurred, distant transportation, and holding in cold storage for long periods resulting in nutrient deterioration. Is it not wise, therefore, to take vitamin supplements to insure a sufficient supply to meet all of the body needs?

My position is that the human fits fairly well into its environment. The environment was designed especially for man; and even though the food may not be as nutrient-rich as in the primeval stage, there are sufficient vitamins and minerals in the food that we grow to supply all of modern man's needs.

As with all substances that compose body tissues, vitamins have a maximum and a minimum level. To exceed either of these limits is not as good as to have a middle-of-the-road position. Within a few minutes after one eats a plateful of food, that food is in his bloodstream. The heaviness of the blood and its flow characteristics are determined in large measure by what has been eaten. The blood may become heavy because of salts or dissolved proteins; or it may become syrupy because of sugar; or it may become frothy and sludgy because of fats, which have been eaten. The changes that occur in the blood following a meal would always be fatal to the individual were it not for the efficient design of the biochemical mechanisms, buffer systems, storage depots, and other influences that brings the blood to the proper physical and chemical status quota within a very short period. Nevertheless, to eat a meal has not only building up features, but it also puts a tax on the body, a tax which ages the body if it is so heavy that it exceeds the building up features.

When a vitamin or mineral is taken in excessive quantity, there is an immediate imbalance of the body's economy of nutrients. As an example, calcium and phosphorus maintain a seesaw type of relationship with one another. When one goes up in the blood, the other goes down. If one takes a lot of calcium, the phosphorus goes down. Conversely excessive phosphorus causes the calcium to decline. The use of large quantities of protein causes the body to need many other companion nutrients; vitamin A and vitamin B12 are both needed in multiples of their usual requirement if protein is taken excessively. Too much protein causes excessive loss of calcium.

The story is well-known of the underdeveloped nation who received non-fat dry skimmed milk from the U.S. government to relieve their condition of starvation. About six months after the non-fat dry skim milk was distributed to the starving natives, there began to be a large number of cases of blindness due to xerophthalmia. The high protein content in the diet in the absence of other nutrients, especially with low vitamin A, had caused the eye disease, which resulted in the epidemic of blindness. From this story it can be readily appreciated that a general, yet tolerable degree of starvation is better than partial starvation on some nutrients, and selected supernutrition.

The common story heard by physicians from those who take vitamin supplements is that as one ages or as one decreases his physical activity he begins to feel less strong or energetic than previously. Someone tells him about some vitamin that has made him feel better, and immediately the person begins to take the vitamin supplement and feels better. It is a fact that vitamins cause stimulation to the body's metabolism, causing one to feel a general stimulus, somewhat after the fashion of caffeine. This sense of stimulation is no recommendation for the substance; however, as it puts a tax on the body. After a few weeks this tax is expressed as fatigue, weakness, or unpleasantness and the individual again feels somewhat down, particularly if he has not corrected the initial bad health habit that cause the original problem. With the secondary sense of feeling unwell, the individual remembers how much better he felt at first under the stimulus of the vitamin, and now fancies that he is again deficient in some other vitamin or mineral and purchases another food supplement at the recommendation of a friend. Again, he feels the stimulation, again it wears off after a few weeks, and the round is repeated a third time. After several repetitions of this cycle, the individual is spending as much on supplements as on food, and seeks medical counsel in a puzzled frame of mind. After all, isn't he being ultra careful with his health? He is surprised to feel better when the physician tapers him off all his vitamin and mineral preparations.

Keep in mind that it is better to let the body be its own biochemist and that it is impossible for one to balance adequately through pharmacologic juggling the nutrients that should be obtained from food. The body can receive all the nutrients that it needs to maintain health and to recover from illness, if one will eat generously of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and sparingly of any other food.

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Seale, Alabama 36875