As if figuring out how to eat healthy isn’t a challenge enough, you then are faced with the confusing world of supplements. With ads, promotions, articles and stores every where claiming you need to take this supplement and that pill, how in the world can you ever decide what is right for you, and even more importantly, necessary? As a nutritionist, I do support the use of supplements as a way to promote healing and wellness in many cases. But what happens if you are perfectly healthy? Does that mean that you shouldn’t take any supplements? This is the question I get all the time. People want to know, what supplements should I be taking, and what are the most critical ones? While you can always take more herbs and nutrients to promote health, I wanted to share with you what I believe are the two most important supplements to take daily.
The two most important supplements to take daily are ones that have proven time and time again through scientific research to have the most far-reaching health effects and benefits on the body. Regardless of health status, ranging from good health to poor, no symptoms to a diagnosed condition, these two supplements have shown to promote well-being and longevity. They have also been found to help return health in cases of dis-ease, and to prevent the occurence of countless conditions. The two most important supplements to take daily are also ones that are difficult to get in therapauetic amounts from the diet. That is why supplementing with them daily becomes so important. So if you are on a budget, or just want to know how to maximize your health, here are the two most important supplements to take daily.
Can you guess what they are?
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. They are necessary for human health, but the body can’t make them. There are three main omega-3 fatty acids. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are also called fish oil, and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which comes mainly from plants. But today we are going to focus mainly on EPA and DHA since they are more difficult to get from th diet and have more profound effects on the body.
Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in numerous body functions, including brain function, as well as normal growth and development. They have also become popular because of their cardiovascular benefit. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. They can also help lower cholesterol, prevent cardiac arrhythmias and ADHD.
Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.
It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation when out of balance. That is why the ratio is so important. If the amount of omega-6 fatty acids outweigh omega-3 fatty acids, studies suggest that this can increase inflammation. The problem is that the typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in our diet, while omega-3 fatty acids are more rare. This makes supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids even more vital.
Why do we need to supplement?
There are a couple reasons why I suggest taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement daily. First off, the majority of us do not consume enough foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Foods high in omega-3 fats are cold water fish like salmon, anchovies and sardines, hemp and chia seeds, and walnuts. Even if we eat these weekly, most often the total amount consumed is not adequate to receive all its benefits.
Secondly, in order to receive the benefits from omega-3 fatty acids, they must be in the right balance with other fats called omega-6 fatty acids. You can think of them being on a teeter-totter. When one is too high, it causes an imbalance leading to a deficiency in the other. The issue is that most foods that we consume are high in omega-6, causing our omega-3 levels to be too low. Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids are vegetable oil (corn, soy, sunflower, grapeseed, sesame, peanut, safflower, cottonseed) – which most restaurant and prepared foods are cooked in. They are also found in salad dressings, most nuts and seeds, potato and tortilla chips, pastries, beef, chicken and eggs. Excessive amounts of these vegetable oils, or linoleic acids, can contribute to inflammation and result in heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis and depression, which is one reason you need to keep your consumption moderate.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- High Cholesterol: Omega-3 fatty acids promote higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which help support heart health. It has also been found that they can lower total cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol levels.
- High Blood Pressure: Several clinical studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. An analysis of 17 clinical studies using fish oil supplements found that taking 3 or more grams of fish oil daily may reduce blood pressure in people with untreated hypertension.
- Heart Health: Clinical evidence suggests that EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help reduce risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Fish oil has been shown to lower levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood), and to lower the risk of death, heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms in people who have already had a heart attack. Fish oil also appears to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots, which can clog arteries. Omega-3 fatty acids also help to protect against a stroke caused by plaque build up and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may have antioxidant properties that improve endothelial function and may contribute to heart benefits.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes often have high triglyceride and low HDL levels. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis + Osteoarthritis: Most clinical studies examining omega-3 fatty acid supplements for arthritis have focused on rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints. Several small studies have found that fish oil helps reduce symptoms of RA, including joint pain and morning stiffness. One study suggests that people with RA who take fish oil may be able to lower their dose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Laboratory studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids (and low in the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids) may help people with osteoarthritis. More study is needed. New Zealand green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus), another potential source of omega-3 fatty acids, has been reported to reduce joint stiffness and pain, increase grip strength, and improve walking pace in a small group of people with osteoarthritis.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): Several small studies suggest that EPA and fish oil may help reduce symptoms of lupus, an autoimmune condition characterized by fatigue and joint pain.
- Osteoporosis: Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may help increase levels of calcium in the body and improve bone strength. Some studies also suggest that people who do not get enough of some essential fatty acids (particularly EPA and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid) are more likely to have bone loss than those with normal levels of these fatty acids. In a study of women over 65 with osteoporosis, those who took EPA and GLA supplements had less bone loss over 3 years than those who took placebo. Many of these women also experienced an increase in bone density.
- Depression + Postpartum Depression: An insufficency of omega-3 oils has been linked to depression. Several studies show that people who took omega-3 fatty acids in addition to prescription antidepressants had a greater improvement in symptoms than those who took antidepressants alone. Other studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acid intake helps protect against postpartum depression, among other benefits.
- Bipolar Disorder: In a clinical study of 30 people with bipolar disorder, those who took fish oil in addition to standard prescription treatments for bipolar disorder for 4 months experienced fewer mood swings and relapses than those who received placebo. Researchers postulate that omega-3 fatty acids may inhibit neuronal signal transduction pathways in a manner similar to that of lithium and valproate.
- Schizophrenia: Preliminary clinical evidence suggests that people with schizophrenia take omega-3 fatty acids, they experience an improvement in symptoms.
- Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD may have low levels of certain essential fatty acids (including EPA and DHA). In a clinical study of nearly 100 boys, those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids had more learning and behavioral problems (such as temper tantrums and sleep disturbances) than boys with normal omega-3 fatty acid levels.
- Cognitive Decline: Several studies show that reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with increased risk of age-related cognitive decline or dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists believe the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is protective against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Skin disorders: In one clinical study, 13 people with sun sensitivity known as photo dermatitis showed less sensitivity to UV rays after taking fish oil supplements. In another study of 40 people with psoriasis, those who took EPA with their prescription medications did better than those treated with the medications alone.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Results are mixed as to whether omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two types of IBD. Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may help when added to medication, such as sulfasalazine (a standard medication for IBD). Others show no effect.
- Asthma: Studies examining omega-3 fatty acids for asthma are mixed. In one small, well-designed clinical study of 29 children with asthma, those who took fish oil supplements rich in EPA and DHA for 10 months experienced fewer symptoms compared to children who took placebo.
- Macular degeneration: A questionnaire given to more than 3,000 people over the age of 49 found that those who ate more fish were less likely to have macular degeneration, a serious age-related eye condition that can progress to blindness, than those who ate less fish. Similarly, a clinical study comparing 350 people with macular degeneration to 500 without the eye disease found that those with a healthy dietary balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as more fish in their diets, were less likely to have macular degeneration.
- Menstrual pain: In one study of 42 women, participants had less menstrual pain when they took fish oil supplements than when they took placebo.
- Colon cancer: Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids seems to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. For example, Eskimos, who tend to have a high fat diet, but eat significant amounts of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have a low rate of colorectal cancer. Animal studies and laboratory studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids prevent worsening of colon cancer. Preliminary studies suggest that taking fish oil daily may help slow the progression of colon cancer in people with early stages of the disease.
- Breast cancer: Although not all experts agree, women who eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids over many years may be less likely to develop breast cancer. More research is needed to understand the effect that omega-3 fatty acids may have on the prevention of breast cancer.
- Prostate cancer: Population-based studies of groups of men suggest that a low-fat diet including omega-3 fatty acids (from fish or fish oil) may help prevent the development of prostate cancer.
- Pregnancy and Lactation: Studies show an increased need for omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, lactation and infancy. A study of 9000 pregnant women reported that woman who consume omega-3 fatty acids have a 3.6 times lower risk of giving birth to a low-birth-weight-infant or premature delivery than those who did not. Another study has shown that women who supplemented with DHA after delivery had 28% more breast milk than a placebo group.
- Nephrotic syndrome: Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to lower triglycerides in patients with nephrotic syndrome. One study from the Mayo clinic found that supplementing with Omega-3 fatty acids can be effective in slowing down the progression of the disease.
- Autoimmune disease: Omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in the treatment of autoimmune disease (i.e lupus, dermatomyositis, nephritis, ms) and inflammatory diseases (i.e arthritis, psoriasis, atopic dermititis).
What are the supplement forms of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Both EPA and DHA can be taken in the form of fish oil capsules. There is also a vegetarian form which is extracted from krill and algae. Before you purchase a omega-3 fatty acid, be sure to buy a supplement made by established companies who certify that their products are free of heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, as well as chemical contaminants such as PCBs (come from poor quality fish). Also avoid products that contain potentially harmful other ingredients such as modified corn starch, and carrageenan.
My Favorite Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements
The following two products are my favorite omega-3 fatty acids supplements. They are of the highest quality and have no potentially toxic additives, fillers or filling agents.
#2. Most Important Supplement: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in many important body functions. It is best known for working with calcium in your body to help build and maintain strong bones, but it also contributes to the functioning of the reproductive system and the digestive system. Vitamin D is also involved in regulating the immune system and cells, where it may help prevent cancer. Your body stores vitamin D and makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Research is finding more and more connections to vitamin D levels and health, disease and cancer prevention, making it one of the most important suplements daily. Having optimal levels of vitamin D may prevent diseases, including breast and colon cancer, prostate cancer, high blood pressure, depression, and obesity.
Why do we need to supplement?
The reason is because we are not getting enough vitamin D from the sun, and diet is not an adequate source. In order to receive optimal levels of vitamin D, you would have to sunbathe daily at peak sun, with no sunscreen and 90% skin exposed. This means no sunscreen, no cover up, and 30 minutes of sunbathing in an area with peak sun rays, and no cloud cover. On top of all of that, people with darker skin tones do not absorb the sun’s rays as well as lighter toned people, making it more difficult to get vitamin D. So for example, a fair-skinned person may need only about 45 minutes of sunlight to get enough vitamin D while a person with dark skin may need up to 3 hours.
Production of previtamin D3 in your skin is highly individual and varies depending on several factors, including:
- Skin color, and current tan level
- Amount of time spent in the sun
- Weather conditions such as: cloud cover and pollution, ozone layer, surface reflection
- Latitude and altitude (elevation)
- Time of day
- Use of sunscreen
- Age: the skin of elderly individuals produces only half the vitamin D after exposure to the sun as that of a young person
Finally, we must remember that the body has to make vitamin D from the sun’s rays. When the skin is exposed to the sun, a chemical reaction happens in the skin which creates previtamin D. The previtamin D then goes to the liver and is turned into a new form of vitamin D that then must be activated by your body’s tissues. These tissues include the kidneys, brain, skin, breast, colon, cardiac muscle, immune cells, and more. So as you can see, we need a lot of organs to be functioning properly in order to make an active form of Vitamin D that can be put to use. By taking a supplement instead, we can skip all these processes and have an active form of Vitamin D that can be put to work right away.
Benefits of Vitamin D
- Osteoporosis: Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium, which you need for strong bones. Getting enough vitamin D throughout your life is important, since most bone is formed when you are young. Experimental and epidemiologic evidence supports the need for calcium and vitamin D supplementation to reduce the risk of fracture and osteoporosis. For post-menopausal women who are at higher risk of osteoporosis, taking vitamin D along with calcium supplements can reduce the rate of bone loss, help prevent osteoporosis, and may reduce the risk of fractures.
- Other Bone Disorders: Vitamin D protects against rickets and osteomalacia, softening of the bones in adults. Even in infants and adolescents, vitamin D supplementation can ensure higher bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis and other bone disorders.
- Prevention of Falls: People who have low levels of vitamin D are at greater risk of falling, and studies have found that taking a vitamin D supplement (700 to 1000 IU daily) may reduce that risk. In seniors, vitamin D may reduce falls by 22%.
- Parathyroid Problems: The four parathyroid glands are located in the neck. They make parathyroid hormone (PTH), which helps the body store and use calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D is often used to treat disorders of the parathyroid gland.
- High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): In population studies, people with low levels of vitamin D seem to be at greater risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those with higher levels of vitamin D. However, there is no proof that low levels of vitamin D cause high blood pressure in healthy people. Evidence about vitamin D and blood pressure has been mixed. When people with kidney disease or an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism) develop high blood pressure, low levels of vitamin D may play a role.
- Cancer: There is some evidence that getting enough vitamin D may lower your risk of certain cancers, especially of the colon, breast, prostate, skin, and pancreas. Laboratory studies show that vitamin D may have anticancer effects in test tubes. It is believed that vitamin D can protect cell proteins and membranes from oxidative stress that can lead to cancer. Population-based and laboratory studies also suggest that higher vitamin D levels are associated with a lower risk of skin cancer. Some research suggests that postmenopausal women who take calcium and vitamin D supplements may have a lower risk of developing cancer of any kind compared to those who did not take these supplements. One study suggests that taking calcium and vitamin D supplements together may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Population studies suggest that people who have higher levels of vitamin D in the blood have a lower risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): SAD is a type of depression that happens during the winter months when there’s not much sunlight. It is often treated with photo (light) therapy. A few studies suggest that the mood of people with SAD improves when they take vitamin D.
- Diabetes: Population studies suggest that people who have lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who have higher levels of vitamin D. One study found that giving infants doses of 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D during the first year of life may help protect them from developing type 1 diabetes when they are older. In addition, one study found that the use of vitamin D during pregnancy significantly reduced the frequency of type I diabetes in their children.
- Heart Disease: Population studies suggest that people with low levels of vitamin D have a greater risk of developing heart disease, including heart attack, stroke, and heart failure compared to people with higher levels of vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D may increase the risk of calcium build up in the arteries. Calcium build up is part of the plaque that forms in arteries when you have atherosclerosis and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Other population studies show that people with lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to have risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol.
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Population studies show that women who take at least 400 IU of vitamin D daily have a lower risk of developing MS. Higher levels of vitamin D in the blood seem to be associated with a lower risk of developing MS in white men and women, although the same may not be true of African American and Hispanic men and women. Patients with MS who are given vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium supplements have experienced a lower rate of relapse.
- Obesity: Population studies show that people who have lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to be obese compared to people with higher levels of vitamin D. One study also found that postmenopausal women who took 400 IU vitamin D plus 1,000 mg calcium daily for 3 years were less likely to gain weight than those who took placebo, although the weight difference was small. Women who were not getting enough calcium to start with (less than 1,200 mg per day) saw the most benefit.
- Other Conditions: Scientists think vitamin D has immune boosting effects. Preliminary research suggests vitamin D supplementation may help prevent and treat respiratory infections. It is postulated that supplementing with vitamin D may also help prevent the onset of a cold or flu.
- Overall Mortality: Population studies suggest that people with lower levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of dying from any cause.
What are the supplement forms of Vitamin D?
The most effective form of vitamin D for supplementation is vitamin D3. This can be found in multivitamins, or as an individual supplement. I recommend taking it as an individual supplement so that you can moderate your dosage easily. Most all forms of vitamin D3 come as a liquid, suspended in an oil. This is because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and needs fat in order to be absorbed and utilized by the body. If you are taking vitamin D that is not suspended in oil, or is in a multivitamin, make sure to take it with a meal that contains some source of fat (olive oil, avocado, salmon, butter etc.). Try to avoid the synthetic form of vitamin D, D2. Vitamin D2 has been associated with increased risk for toxicity.
*If you have an impaired ability to digest fats (which is common in gallbladder conditions) it will be more difficult to absorb vitamin D. In these cases it would be advised to also supplement with a digestive enzyme (one that contains lipase – to digest fats), and/or gallbladder support.
My Favorite Vitamin D3 Supplement
Pizzorno. Joseph and Murray. Michael. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Third Edition. Volume 2.
Vitamin D Council | The physiology of vitamin D
Vitamin D | University of Maryland Medical Center
Omega-3 fatty acids | University of Maryland Medical Center
Omega 3 Fatty Acids | Life Extension
Dr. Mercola. “How Much Sunshine Does it Take to Make Enough Vitamin D Perhaps More Than You Think”