“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
If you’re on a healing diet, you’ll hear this phrase a lot. It’s all about choosing the foods that have the greatest nutrition: high quality meat and seafood, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and healing foods like bone broth and organ meats. When you’re using food as medicine, your food choices become very important.
Although it would be nice if supplements could replace those choices, the experts agree that nature doesn’t work that way. Why not? Lots of reasons, actually:
- Nutrition in nature is designed to work in synergy. There is no food that contains one nutrient only. That’s not a mistake. One vitamin will help the absorption of another, and fiber and fat make a difference as well. When we eat whole foods, we get everything we’re supposed to get, in the form it’s intended.
- When we take supplements, we can get too much of one nutrient and not enough of another. “Many nutrients compete for absorption sites in the gut. So, if we supplement too much calcium for example, it may impair absorption of other nutrients: magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, and amino acids, creating deficiencies in those nutrients.” (The GAPS Diet, page 296).
- There are many nutrients that haven’t yet been identified. Supplement manufacturers guess at the “active compound” that makes a food medicinal, but no supplement in isolation is going to be as powerful as the magic combination that exists within the original food. Terry Wahls learned this in her own experimentation. Supplements halted her decline, but it wasn’t until she increased the nutrient density in her diet that her MS symptoms actually improved.
- Treating the symptom vs. addressing root cause. Most nutrient deficiencies in people with autoimmune disease have their root in digestive problems. The answer isn’t to supplement, because the body will have trouble digesting the supplements as well. The answer is to heal the digestion, so that you can absorb deep nutrition from your food, as intended.
- Dr. Sarah Ballantyne puts it succinctly: “For most people, simply eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods will provide all the vitamins and minerals required for health, in the appropriate quantities relative to one another for optimal absorption and use by the body.” (The Paleo Approach, page 89.)
- The image below shows the power of nutrient density. The pink bar is the Wahls Protocol, and the blue bar is the Standard American Diet. The only nutrient requirement that isn’t completely filled under the Wahls Protocol is vitamin D, and that is best gotten from the sun. (The Wahls Protocol, page 151)
- Does this mean you never need supplements? No. It simply means we should all focus on food first, and supplements second, and make our decisions wisely. Usually, autoimmune symptoms don’t disappear overnight, so it’s not uncommon to have supplement needs as we heal.
- Read the labels carefully. One of the most common places food intolerances sneak back into a healing diet is through supplements and medication. How frustrating to work so hard avoiding trigger foods, only to discover you’re eating them daily in your medicine! Read the ingredient list carefully. If you don’t recognize a word, do a google search to learn more. Look for allergen statements on the label, which will tell you if a supplement contains things like wheat, soy or dairy. Also, try and find the source of the nutrient itself. For example, 99% of Vitamin C supplements are derived from GMO corn. The ones derived from another source say corn-free on the label. Similarly, most probiotic supplements contain traces of dairy, so look for bottles that are certified dairy-free.
- Choose brands with third-party testing. Since the supplement industry has very little oversight, supplement fraud is a huge problem. Some bottles contain ingredients not listed on the label, and others contain much lower amounts of the supplement itself. High-quality brands do third-party testing, which they advertise on their website. This means that their supplements are tested by an independent lab to prove purity and potency. Note: this is very different than “in-house” testing.
- Try one supplement at a time. When you’re trying to determine whether or not a supplement will help you, you need to minimize the variables. If you start taking 6 supplements at once, and then you improve or get worse, you won’t know the cause. Supplements should give you measurable improvement. They’re not something to take just because someone told you they’re good for you.
- Don’t take too many supplements. If you have autoimmune disease, you almost always have issues with digestion and detoxification. Too many supplements can overwhelm your body very quickly. Take as few supplements as possible, to meet your most important needs.
- Potential supplements to research. Here are the categories where supplements might help people with autoimmune disease: digestive support, pain relief, immune system regulation, and support of any organs affected by your disease. Examine.com is an excellent resource. They offer free, unbiased research into supplement effectiveness. One thing to look for is the bioavailability of a supplement; this indicates how easily it is absorbed by the body. Believe it or not, there are supplements on the market that are 90% unavailable to your body.
- Working with a specialist. Everyone is unique in terms of supplement needs, and working with someone who is an expert in this area, with access to tests, can be very helpful. This can be a doctor who specializes in functional medicine, or a nutritionist/health coach familiar with dietary healing. Be sure to choose someone who is an expert at your particular healing diet. Here’s a list of practitioner directories. The best practitioners will have a “food first/supplement second” philosophy. If they try to recommend too many supplements at once, be wary. Before buying anything, read the labels. If they’re recommending supplements which contain bad ingredients, be wary. If the supplements cost as much as your mortgage, be wary. Finally, if they insist you need thousands of dollars worth of tests, be wary. A good practitioner will be someone who can troubleshoot your issues, help you prioritize, and work on them one at a time. They’ll charge for their services, but it shouldn’t feel like high pressure sales. They’ll help you get better faster and inspire trust. If you’re working with someone who doesn’t fit this description, find someone else.
- Don’t be a copycat. It can be tempting to just copy the supplement list someone else is taking with a similar diagnosis. This rarely works. We’re all too unique for this. Just like we can all do the same elimination diet, yet discover different food intolerances, we can also take the same supplements and respond completely differently. Accept that you are a unique snowflake and take the time to discover what’s right for you.
- Supplement needs change over time. Just because you need a supplement now, doesn’t mean you’ll need it forever. As your body heals, and your digestion improves, and your autoimmune disease reverses, your supplement needs will change accordingly.
I thought it would be helpful to share some examples of people’s supplement journeys: which ones they’ve tried over the years, which ones worked, and which ones didn’t. You can expect to have some trial and error in your own supplement journey as well.
Eileen Laird, rheumatoid arthritis
- What supplements do you take currently and why? The primary symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is excruciating pain, so my goal with supplementation from day one was pain relief. While diet ended up making the biggest difference, each of these supplements had a measurable anti-inflammatory effect for me also. I tested each one separately before adding them to my protocol: curcumin, cat’s claw, boswellia, black currant oil and krill oil. I also take magnesium, which helps my sleep and digestion.
- What supplements have you tried that didn’t work for you? The following supplements were recommended to me either for digestive support, or pain reduction. Some made my symptoms worse, while others had no effect one way or the other. These are supplements that come highly recommended in the GAPS & Paleo communities. It’s a good example of how unique we are, and that there is no one prescription for everyone: vitamin D, fermented cod liver oil, high-omega 3 fish oil, prescript-assist probiotic, megaspore probiotic, Wobenzym, CMO, bromelain, and ginger.
Christina Feindel, Hashimoto’s and celiac
- What supplements do you take currently and why? Because of my history of vitamin D deficiency and anemia, I take vitamin D and iron supplements as needed according to my lab results and/or symptoms. As I get more vitamin D and iron from sunlight and food sources since going AIP — and also digest my food better — I have been gradually tapering the amount I supplement. I also take a small dose of magnesium despite having good blood levels because it seems to keep me from grinding my teeth at night.
- What supplements have you tried that didn’t work for you? In the beginning, I was so desperate to feel better that I tried pretty much anything and everything you often see recommended for thyroid patients, immune regulation, adrenal fatigue, and leaky gut. I’ve taken vitamin C, selenium, calcium, 5-HTP, adaptogens, antioxidants, Repairvite, probiotics, apple cider vinegar, evening primrose oil, B vitamins, oregano oil, and multivitamins. Some of them, like 5-HTP, made me feel worse, while most seemed to make no difference at all. I definitely needed to get my diet and lifestyle in line to reap the most benefits, and then supplementing became unnecessary.
Robyn Latimer, lupus
- What supplements do you take currently and why? Fish oil – because it cools inflammation in my body, especially my joints. Vitamin D – I live in Ohio so I don’t get adequate sun exposure for half the year. Supplementing keeps my levels up. Magnesium – it is very difficult to get an adequate amount of magnesium from food no matter how healthy you eat. It also helps my sleep two fold: I fall asleep quicker, and I have a deeper, more restful night. Turmeric – This is my favorite supplement. It makes me happier, I have better blood flow, my hands and feet rarely feel cold, and my joints feel better, too.
- What supplements have you tried that didn’t work for you? Astaxanthin, CoQ10, and fermented cod liver oil. I tried them all based on their reputations, but I didn’t find they had any effect on me.
Whitney Ross-Gray, multiple sclerosis
- What supplements do you take currently and why? I’ve been paleo for 4 years and my MS is now 99% symptom-free. The only supplements I still take daily are magnesium and fermented cod liver oil, for general health support. I also take R-ALA on days I’m doing fasted workouts.
- What supplements have you tried in the past? Four years ago, when I first went paleo, I supplemented aggressively. I took HCL and digestive enzymes for many years, to heal my digestion. Now, my digestion is the best it’s ever been, and I no longer need digestive supplements. I took resveratrol and curcumin daily for inflammation relief, but now I only take them if I’m stressed or I eat a trigger food and feel inflammation. I took vitamin A for my optic neuritis, but stopped when I realized I was getting enough from food. I used to supplement vitamin D, but two years ago, my office installed natural, high spectrum lighting, so I no longer need it. I took ashwaganda for a while, because I thought it would help me manage my stress, but I stopped when I found out it is a nightshade. I took probiotics until I realized I am better off getting them from fermented foods. I do notice a difference with my digestion (mostly regular BM’s vs. non-regular) if I don’t eat enough fermented food. I also took dopamine support in the beginning, to help me transition from my old diet to my new diet, as well as to help me quit drinking. It was a short-term supplement.
What About You?
Do you take supplements? Have you found them helpful, harmful, neutral? How much do you focus on nutrient density in your diet? Share in the comments below.
As you can see, everyone’s supplement needs are unique. I’m neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. Please work with a qualified practitioner to guide your own supplement experiments.
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Credit: image at top of page purchased from iStock.