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Vitamins, Supplements, and Food as Medicine

Note: I have decided to make this article a work-in-progress, with updates and edits based on new research. Keep checking back -- and please send me any of your own findings!

If I could go back in time to my early-20s self, grab her by the shoulders and tell her to do one thing to invest in me, her future self, it would be: “Take vitamins!” (Well… I would also tell her to do a lot of things differently, but taking vitamins would be a big one.)

I tried committing to vitamins in the past, but I didn’t really care that much about myself, so I could never stick to it. I also lived off of peanut butter and ramen noodles for most of my 20s, having barely any understanding about nutrition in food. I stopped eating red meat when I was 20, and was vegetarian for a few years without knowing how to supplement my diet with vegetables. I kept getting tested for protein and iron deficiency, so I added fish and poultry back into my diet later in my 20s, but I still didn't know how to get what I needed from food -- and honestly, I was barely even thinking about it. It took a major life change in my early 30s to get me on a path of healing and recovery. That’s when I realized that I took better care of my car than my own body (and mind, heart, and soul). One of the first things I committed to was self-care through my diet. At 32, I committed to a 90% plant-based diet (inspired by The China Study), taught myself to cook, and began educating myself about vitamins, supplements, and food as medicine.

I have spent countless hours researching which vitamins and minerals I can get from which foods, since getting everything I need from my food would be ideal. I've also done a lot of research about the helpful effects of nutrients on mental health and brain function specifically -- two things I am always working to improve in my life, having battled with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and PTSD. Today, over three years after committing to self-care through nutrition, I can say that the simple act of taking a few supplements every day has changed my life in immeasurable ways.

There’s a beautiful science behind vitamins, minerals, and supplements. We need certain vitamins to help us absorb certain minerals, and certain supplements help our brains get our body’s natural antidepressants into our system faster. For us ladies, taking the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and supplements can help with PMS symptoms and even prevent breast cancer.

When it comes to vitamins and supplements, it’s much more effective to get what I need from my food rather than from a pill. But in my experience over the past three years of researching and trying different combinations, I have personally found the following combination to do wonders for my well-being -- particularly my anxiety and mood balance. Keep in mind: I’m not trying to get 100% of my daily value from my vitamins! My 90% plant-based diet goes a long way toward meeting my nutritional needs.

Here are the daily vitamins I take* (again, updated from time-to-time based on new research and my own trial-and-error). I'll say it again and again: my aim is to get most of my daily values from my food. Always consult a doctor or nutritionist, and do your own careful research before taking new vitamins and supplements!

1. Daily Multivitamin (See update! I no longer take this.)

 Rainbow Light “Just Once” Multivitamin -- a dependable brand that focuses on offering high-quality, food-based vitamins and supplements. Unlike some of their multis that contain D3 derived from lanolin – secretion from sheep skin – this particular multi is vegan, food-based and easy on the stomach. The vitamin D in this multi is D2, which is great, but humans need D3 so make sure you’re taking a vegan D3 supplement as well (see below).

Update (March 2016): There are lots of studies out there about the pros and cons of daily multivitamins. My continuing research is leading me down the path toward eliminating a multivitamin from my routine, and only taking the supplements necessary for a mostly-plant-based diet

2. Fish Oil / Omega-3 (at least 500mg combined EPA/DHA)

I’m in the middle of ongoing research about omega supplements. Fish sources are not ideal because of sustainability, and being non-vegan if you’re worried about that. I’ll look for any opportunity stop relying on animal products, especially mass-produced ones. I took Barlean’s Fish Oil for years, but it isn’t vegan or even pescatarian due to the bovine gelatin in the capsules. It is, however, the only fish oil I’ve tried to-date that has no aftertaste or “fish burps.”

Research notes: Recently, I re-upped my efforts to find a vegan alternative to fish oil. The problem with vegan sources of omegas (such as flax oil) is that they are mostly ALA, which can be converted to the EPA and DHA that provides all of the amazing benefits of omegas. However, most ALA gets used up as energy in the body, and only a small amount gets converted into the EPA and DHA omegas that you would get from fish oil (which, again, is the stuff you want). I was incredibly excited to discover a new method of extracting EPA and DHA from the algae that fish feed on, which is where they get it in the first place. Studies are starting to show that this may be a viable, sustainable alternative to fish oilOvega-3, which provides almost as much EPA and DHA in one vegan softgel as I was getting from two fish oils, and is derived from algae instead of fish. However, after switching to this brand, I found out that it contains carrageenan, a thickener disguised as “natural” because it is derived from red algae, but is actually a serious inflammatory agent that also can cause intestinal abnormalities among other issues. (Read this and this, for starters.) Personally, I have noticed a marked changed in my gastrointestinal “activity” since switching to the Ovega-3s. So, back to the drawing board!

Update (November 2016): After finding out that the vegan omegas I was taking contained carrageenan, and the only non-carrageenan vegan option being difficult to find in a high enough dosage, I decided to go back to fish oil for now, and found Nordic Naturals - Ultimate Omega Fish Gels ” softgels, which are made from fish gelatin. Hooray! Two of these softgels provides 1100mg of combined EPA and DHA. Since I mostly take omegas for the mental health benefits, it’s imperative that I include this in my diet. I also make sure to eat at least one serving of salmon or high-quality tuna each week.

3. B-Complex or B-12 (See updates!)

B-Complex vitamins help with all kinds of things from mood disorders to PMS. Whatever your body doesn’t need, it will get rid of in your urine. So while you don’t want to overdo it, you can probably safely add a full dose of B-complex to your multivitamin. Here’s an article about suggested and maximum daily values (DVs) of B vitamins.  The Garden of Life Mykind Organics B-Complex is a great choice for both men and women; however, do the math on your daily values, especially if you're taking a multivitamin! 

Update #1 (March 2016): I recently found B-6 on a list of Vitamins You Should Never Take(which also included multivitamins).  There have been studies done suggesting that prolonged use of B-6 in a high dose can cause nerve damage and other issues. B-6 is easy to get from your food. A plant-based diet won't supply enough B-12 without some extra effort, so that may be the only B-vitamin needed. You can get pretty much all the other B-vitamins you need from your food -- though it takes some commitment to a healthy, plant-based diet.

Update #2 (June 2016): Trader Joe's has a great, inexpensive, vegan B-Complex vitamin that I have been taking, now that I'm not taking a multivitamin. I take half the suggested dose and get the rest of my B vitamins from my diet.

Update #3 (January 2017): I'm about to try the Garden of Life mykind Organic B Complex with Folate for a change. I'm planning on halving the tablets so I'm not taking such a high dose, while I continue eating foods that are rich in B vitamins. Balance is movement, not a fixed position!

4. Calcium-Magnesium (Dosage varies; see updates!)

Getting this combo (which usually comes with added vitamin D3) has all kinds of  health benefits, including absorption of minerals and vitamins, and of course bone strengthening. But again with the lanolin! Most cal-mag combos have added vitamin D3 that is made from lanolin – i.e. secretion from sheep skin, making them non-vegan. I have switched to this vegan Rainbow Light brand with vitamin D2. I do NOT take the full recommended dosage on the bottle, because I’m getting some of these minerals from my diet. If I ever eliminate my multivitamin from my routine, I'll go to the full dose of this supplement, as I keep my dairy intake to a minimum.

Please read this article to learn about getting the right balance of calcium and magnesium in your diet. And make sure you’re getting vegan D3 as well.

Update #1 (June 2016): I recently switched to the Trader Joe's vegan calcium-magnesium-zinc supplement, now that I'm not taking a multivitamin.

Update #2 (January 2017): I ran out of the TJ's vitamins and didn't want to make the treck to the store, so I went to my local holistic pharmacy and found MegaFood's Cal-Mag with Potassium. It's more expensive online, but this is a supplement that is crucial, and it helps me aborb other nutrients, so it's worth the expense. I also only take half the dose. I try to get the rest of my calcium and magnesium from my food! 

5. 2000 IU of vegan Vitamin D3

After finding out that most vitamin D3 is made from sheep skin (learn about lanolin here), I have been on the hunt for a vegan D3 alternative. Not easy to find, but thanks to Alicia Silverstone’s MyKind line of vegan vitamins and supplements through Garden of Life, I did find it! I am making the switch to Garden of Life MyKind Organics 2000 IU Vegan D3 and I don’t plan on looking back.

Vitamin D is one vitamin that every study agrees we should all be taking, especially if we're not getting daily, full sun exposure. However, I do not take any vitamin D from late spring to late autumn, as I'm getting 15 minutes of sun or more almost every day during those months. Find out more about vitamin D, melatonin, and Seasonal Affective Disorder here.

*Disclaimer: As with anything else I post in this blog, always consult your doctor first. I am not a doctor and I am only sharing things that work with my genetic make-up.

Sarah Saturday