This is yet another subject where everybody has an opinion that’s slightly different. If you come with the conventional wisdom mindset, you probably think that a good multivitamin is a good insurance no matter how healthy you already are or how well you eat.
I think the picture is a bit more complex than that. First of all, most multivitamins are very poorly absorbed and literally become money that goes down the drain. All those nutrients packed in a small pill can often irritate sensitive guts. Also, cherry picking nutrients you think you might have a lack of can have negative effects because nutrients interact with others and more of one can mean less of another.
Taking supplemental calcium, for example, will reduce your absorption of magnesium. Even more so, if you take calcium while you lack some fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D, A and K2, the calcium probably won’t go to remineralize your bones and teeth and might end up aggravating the calcification of your arteries. This is why so many people have arthritis and osteoporosis despite consuming large amounts of high-calcium dairy.
A lot of the cheaper supplements are in a form that’s poorly absorbed by the human body or a synthetic form for which we don’t know the long term effects.
Even though antioxidants get all the praise nowadays, taking extra antioxidants in supplemental form has proven to be at best ineffective and at worst detrimental most of the time. The body has a lot of natural, endogenous, ways to deal with free radicals and oxidation and foods found in nature often have a precise balance of multiple antioxidants that work together instead of isolated ones. For example, taking more antioxidants can reduce the positive effect of exercise and strength training because the body doesn’t react the same to the positive stress and free radicals created from weight lifting. A study even showed that mice got more cancer when having a supplement of some isolated antioxidant. This is possibly due to their own endogenous antioxidants (coenzyme Q10, glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, alpha lipoic acid and catalase) being down-regulated and having problems doing their job.
We also need way less antioxidants when we don’t consume oxidizing foods in the first place. Fruit, often full of antioxidants like vitamin C, is thought to have them in higher quantity to prevent the oxidation from the sugars in them, especially the sugar fructose. It’s a case of the poison packaged with the antidote.
Of course, specific conditions call for specific recommendations, but as a general rule of thumb one should try to get all his nutrients from real, whole food. This is why it’s so important to seek out fruits and vegetables that are fresh and have grown without pesticides in a nutritionally rich soil as well as animals that have been well-treated, pastured and grass-fed.
Meeting the recommended daily allowance
I see a lot of people calculating their nutrient intake on sites like Fitday and stressing every time they don’t reach the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for a specific day on a particular vitamin or mineral. I think that this is not a very good way to go about it and it leads to unneeded micromanaging. You should strive to get enough nutrients over the course of a week instead because you’ll have the chance to introduce different food over that week that will bring different nutrients. Also keep in mind that the recorded nutrient profile of most foods is calculated from a conventional, factory farmed point of view. Pastured butter, meat, organs and eggs will have way more nutrients than what Fitday or the USDA food database say.
Also consider that the established RDA is based on people eating a standard western diet and that those people will likely need much more of some nutrients to cover for the damage done by other foods.
For example, if you eat low carb, you need much less vitamin C because carbs and vitamin C are in competition for absorption. This is why Native Americans didn’t get scurvy while new settlers were plagued by it.
Eating grains will also reduce absorption of most minerals, which surely makes the need higher for those minerals.
Instead of focusing on what the government says you should have in terms of specific nutrients, focus on high density and high quality foods such as animal fats, egg yolks, organs, bones, bone marrow, fatty meat, pastured butter as well as a variety of vegetables and limited high-antioxidant fruits. This prescription is a much better multivitamin than anything sold in a bottle.
With all that being said about multivitamins and antioxidants, let’s now focus our attention on what might still truly be lacking in our modern Paleo diet and where supplementation would probably be a good idea.
Vitamin D, fish oil and probiotics
The three categories that might still be lacking are vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics.
Unless you eat plenty of wild caught oily fish and get plenty of sunlight exposure, chances are you would benefit from more vitamin D. I prefer opting for more sunlight and oily fish, but a supplement is not a bad idea if you find it more convenient. Between 1,000 and 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 in gel caps seems to be the ideal.
It’s not important to get high amounts of omega-3, but it’s really important to balance omega-3 and omega-6 consumption. Again, the goal is not to eat more and more omega-3 fats, but less and less omega-6. Don’t go overboard and try not to have any thought, they are essential fats after all. If you eat 100% Paleo without cheat meals or eating out and you eat fatty fish and pastured meat while limiting nuts, you probably don’t even need a fish oil supplement. If, on the opposite side, you more or less frequently consume more omega-6 fats than our ancestors would have, you would probably benefit from either eating more wild oily fish or 1 or 2 grams of high quality fish oil per day.
I think everybody coming from a western or vegetarian diet, especially those who took antibiotics in the past, have a damaged gut flora in some way. It can be minimal or very debilitating and can be contributing to a leaky gut, but everybody should take care of their gut health because most modern problems come from a disrupted digestive system. The other good thing about probiotics is that, unlike other nutrients, you can’t get too much. I recommend a high potency and high quality probiotic including multiple strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium to everybody as well as regular consumption of lacto-fermented vegetables. Even if your diet is 100% dialed in, you are still a victim of the air that you breathe, the water that you drink and external factors of stress which all have a negative effect on gut flora. With that said, if you have lacto-fermented vegetables and/or raw fermented dairy frequently and are otherwise very healthy and vibrant, you can even skip the probiotic supplement.
I want to stress the importance of probiotics over the two favorite nutrients of the Paleo diet community; Vitamin D and omega-3. I think probiotics need special attention because they’re much harder to get the natural way nowadays. There were no antibiotics and nothing was sanitized in the time of our ancestors. They also ate dirt all the time. Today, everything is sanitized and antibiotics are everywhere, even in the meat we eat.
There aren’t many easy ways to replenish the good flora other than fermented foods (yogurt, cheese, fermented vegetables, fermented fish) or supplements.
It’s also important to understand that the strains of bacteria in our gut are different from person to person and are much more varied and complex than what we find in probiotic foods and supplements. What probiotics do, however, is re-establish the gut acidity and environment for the other good strains of bacteria in your gut to get a chance to thrive and reproduce massively. This is also why it’s important to get probiotics from multiple sources so you get the beneficial action of multiple strains.
The importance of gut flora starts right at birth for newborns and this is one of the reasons studies show that breast-fed children end up being stronger and having a better immune system latter in life.
I hope this article helped clarify why multivitamin and antioxidant supplementation might not be such a good idea and how you can compensate for possible lacks with simple and natural supplements. Like I said, if you’re feeling well, have a balanced diet and lifestyle that includes lots of sun exposure, wild caught oily fish and fermented foods, you probably don’t even need any supplement to achieve optimal health.