Using Nutrition Safely

With Christmas just passed some people may try to repair the damage done to their systems during the festive season by doubling up on their supplements. But, as Margaret Moss explains, supplementing is not that simple


Cartoon Christmas hangover

Many people take a do-it-yourself approach to nutritional supplements. The trouble is that human biochemistry is very complicated. It is easy to take the supplements you do not need, and to miss out those that would really help you. Taking too much of one nutrient can make you short of another. Nutrients work as a team. Taking just one is unlikely to work. Some nutrients are toxic if you take too much, and some brands include harmful additives.

Uptake competition
Some minerals compete for uptake into the body. Calcium and
magnesium compete. Taking calcium without magnesium may result in the magnesium in food being poorly absorbed, because of the large amount of calcium competing with it.

Zinc and iron compete. If you are short of zinc, and only take iron, the iron will prevent absorption of enough zinc. This is a particular problem in pregnancy, as zinc is needed to make protein for the foetus. It is important to have enough iron to prevent anaemia, but many people obtain enough from meat.

Sodium and potassium need to be kept in balance. Too little sodium may lead to low blood pressure and nausea, but too much leads to high blood pressure. Processed food has a lot of sodium as salt and monosodium glutamate.

Cooperative effort
Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids. Vitamin B6 is needed to change one amino acid into another, in order to make protein for enzymes, muscle and hormones. However, vitamin B6 has to be activated by vitamin B2, magnesium and zinc, and magnesium is ineffective without vitamin B1. Usually, if vitamin B6 is not working properly, it is because there is not enough vitamin B2. Taking vitamin B6 on its own is rarely effective.

Probiotics are useful bacteria for the gut. Good quality probiotic products can be useful in treating people with various illnesses, and can protect you if you have to take antibiotics. However, the bacteria in poor quality products may be harmful, dead or unable to pass through the acidic stomach intact. Some probiotic drinks may contain harmful additives.

Cod liver oil v fish oil
Sometimes people take cod liver oil because of painful joints. One special long chain omega 3 fat from fish called EPA is anti-inflammatory. So the oil from the flesh of fish helps. However, cod liver oil contains much vitamin A. Too much vitamin A can damage the membranes of liver cells, and can damage a foetus. So use fish oil, not fish liver oil. Only buy good quality fish oil, to avoid mercury, or other pollutants. Of course, vitamin A is essential, but we do not want too much. There is much vitamin A in liver. I suggest avoiding liver, and vitamin A in supplements, before and during pregnancy.

Omega 3s for vegetarians
Vegetarians may choose a vegetarian source of omega 3 fats. The richest is flax (linseed) oil. Only a small proportion of this converts to the valuable fats, EPA and DHA. So taking flax capsules is not enough. Flax needs to be taken by the spoonful. Keep flax oil or seeds in the fridge, as they easily become rancid. Most research on the omega 6 fat, GLA, has been on evening primrose. You cannot assume that other sources of GLA will have the same effect. Also borage (starflower) oil may increase blood clotting.

Too much Vitamin A
Someone may take a multivitamin, an antioxidant and cod liver oil. All of them probably contain vitamin A. The multivitamin and the antioxidant may well contain beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Some people do this more efficiently than others. The sum total of all these sources of vitamin A may be harmful.

...or selenium
Selenium is part of a very important antioxidant. If someone takes a multivitamin/mineral supplement, and an antioxidant, they may both contain selenium. Too much selenium is harmful. Washing hair in the bath with anti-dandruff shampoo can lead to toxic amounts of selenium being absorbed through the skin.

...or L-glutamine
L-glutamine is used by the immune system, and can repair damaged gut walls. However it readily converts to glutamic acid, which, like monosodium glutamate, over-excites nervous system cells. Do not use more than 500mg a day. Usually Epsom salt baths, fish oil, coconut oil, mushrooms and butter repair the gut wall without any need for L-glutamine.


Making too much cysteine
Cysteine is another excitotoxin. The body makes it, in order to convert it to taurine, glutathione and sulphate. It is used to prevent viruses entering cells. N-acetyl cysteine is very useful when given to people who have been ill for a long time with a serious virus like HIV. However, many people, especially those with chronic fatigue, have too much cysteine.

Aspartate & aspartame
A mixture of magnesium aspartate and potassium aspartate can stimulate energy production, in chronic fatigue syndrome. However, this should only be done for a limited time, as too much aspartate over-excites the nervous system.
Aspartame is a cheap sweetener, often put into multivitamins, especially those intended for children. It contains aspartate. It also contains methyl alcohol, which converts to formaldehyde, and then formic acid. It should be avoided.

Avoid the yellow
Some multivitamins have little of the important yellow vitamin B2. So a synthetic yellow dye is included. Do avoid supplements with artificial dyes.

...and carrageenan
Carrageenan is a pro-inflammatory chemical. It is used in research labs to produce inflammation, so that it can be studied. It is thought to be linked to cancer, heart disease and ulcerative colitis. Yet it is in some vegetarian capsules, usually ones containing liquids like
vitamin E and evening primrose oil. Always avoid capsules that
contain carrageenan. It is also in many dairy products.

...and boron
Boron is a toxic mineral, which depletes the body of vitamin B2, and raises the level of carcinogenic oestrogen. It should not be in your supplements. It should certainly not be in supplements for pregnant women.

...and nickel
Nickel is another toxic mineral that should not be in supplements, and especially not in supplements for those planning pregnancy.

Absorption problems
Minerals need to be taken in forms that are well absorbed. Calcium carbonate is poorly absorbed, especially by those with low
stomach acid. As is magnesium oxide - too much can end up in the large intestine, causing diarrhoea. Iron sulphate is poorly absorbed,
causing constipation.

Too much - or too little
Some products contain too much of a nutrient to be safe. However, more often, a product contains so little, that you might as well eat a lettuce leaf. The nutrient may just have been included in order to have an impressive list of contents on the label. Alternatively, there may be only a few nutrients in the supplement. Although inositol, choline and PABA are not strictly speaking vitamins, a good quality vitamin B complex or multivitamin product should include them.

Progesterone problem
Progesterone is thought to be more carcinogenic than oestrogen. Without these hormones we would not be born, but we do not need to add to what the body makes. Progesterone creams are sold as natural. In fact they are synthetic. Plant oestrogens are sold as beneficial, but some scientists believe they can contribute to cancer.

Changing formulations
Sometimes I suggest someone takes a particular supplement. The person then goes on buying it from a health food shop. It may be taken for too long and a toxic level may build up. Alternatively, the formulation may be changed to include carrageenan or boron. The
consumer may assume it is still the product I advised, when it has actually become harmful.

Oh dear, it sounds as though supplementing can be full of
problems. In fact, supplements can be used to rid ourselves of many health problems, and they are much safer than drugs. They just need to be used carefully.

Either ask the advice of a competent nutritional therapist, or else proceed with caution. You could buy a well-balanced multivitamin-mineral tablet, with all the essential vitamins and minerals in it. Add magnesium, as this is needed in larger quantity than fits in most multivitamin-mineral tablets. Add calcium, if you do not use dairy products. Add a good quality oil from the flesh of fish, or a bottle of flax oil, if you do not eat much fish.

You can contact Margaret at the Nutrition and Allergy Clinic
tel 0161 432 0964

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First Published in 2007

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