It is always preferable to get all your nutrients from your diet, but in some cases, this is difficult to do. There are three supplements that I always have in my arsenal, these are Omega 3 fish oils, Vitamin D and a Probiotic. I feel these important to provide your body with, and are not easy to get sufficient amounts of through your diet for various reasons.
You don’t need to take supplements every day for the rest of your life; I certainly don’t. Depending on what you are addressing, fish oil can take about 3 months to show significant improvement. Vitamin D can be taken in relation to your sun exposure and/or fortified food consumption. For example, this lovely week of summer has made me put the Vitamin D in the back of the cupboard, wishfully thinking it can stay there until at least October! I take a probiotic as and when I am feeling a bit bloated or my digestive system is feeling a bit out of whack.
It’s important to get to know and listen to your body; many common symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, headaches, joint pain, skin conditions, mood swings, and fatigue are symptoms of pre-disease. They are signals your body is giving you that something is not right, and you need to address the cause before your body can no longer fight disease off with the tools it has.
People living in the UK are at high risk of Vitamin D deficiency, with up to 90% of the population developing a deficiency during the winter and spring months.
The main source of Vitamin D is the sun, which we don’t get too much of in this part of the world - and when we do, we are either indoors for most of it, or are covering up with clothing or sunscreen, both of which prevent the sun from working its magic. Natural food sources of Vitamin D are limited: oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna contain Vitamin D, but unless you are eating wild salmon daily you will not be providing your body with an adequate amount.
A few reasons to supplement Vitamin D
Only 10-15% of calcium is absorbed without Vitamin D, making it vital for the health of your bones and preventing osteoporosis later in life.
Vitamin D plays a large role in regulating cell growth and so can prevent the spreading of cancer cells. Studies report a 50% reduction in breast and colorectal cancer with Vitamin D sufficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency prevents the pancreas from secreting insulin which can increase the risk of type II diabetes.
With a wide distribution of receptors throughout the brain, Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to symptoms of SAD and depression, especially in the winter months.
Vitamin D is measured in International Units (IU) and there is a significant amount of research suggesting that a daily intake of 1000IU is needed to maintain healthy levels in our blood throughout the winter months. During the summer months, 5-10 minutes in the sun with arms and legs exposed provides approximately 3000IU of Vitamin D; however, using sunscreen as low as 8 SPF can reduce its production by up to 95%.
The balance of bacteria in your gut is vital to its health, and therefore to ours. It is well known that up to 80% of our immune system resides in our gut microbiota. Beneficial bacteria compete for their place with pathogenic bacteria (commonly known as “the bad guys”), and the bigger and stronger the army...well.
Certain foods feed certain bacteria - some are useful, and others, not so much. Once the bad guy army grows into a size that far outweighs the good guy army, they pretty much take over and run the place. The place, being you!
Did you know that your gut bacteria weighs more than your brain? In fact, there are more bacteria cells in your body than any other type of cell.
Changing the population of bacteria in our gut can improve our immunity, mental health and prevent obesity. And it is not that difficult to do.
Supplement with a good quality probiotic - Probiotic foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir and miso contain minimal amounts of bacteria; they are still beneficial, but likely not enough on their own to treat an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and make any significant change to your gut microbiome.
Feed the good guys – It is equally important to provide your body with food for the beneficial bacteria as it is to provide your body with the bacteria itself! Consume fibrous foods such as whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils, vegetables and fruit.
Starve the bad guys as much as possible – avoid or limit simple carbohydrates such as white flour, bread, cereals and processed foods.
Include variety in your diet to prevent any single population of bacteria monopolising your insides - prioritising food variety means getting all your nutrition is simpler, but it can also prevent your gut bacteria from telling you what to eat. We programme our bacteria to crave certain foods by providing the foods initially - once the bad bacteria take over and call the shots, we’re pretty screwed.
Don’t give the wrong guys the power!
When choosing a probiotic make sure it has 7 billion plus live organisms, as many are destroyed by digestive acids and enzymes while making their way down to the colon. Getting the balance right is individual and may need some trial and error. Consider your symptoms after 12 weeks and try something else if there has been no improvement. Mix it up - different species and bacteria strands are useful for different things, so it’s good to shake things up in there and make sure your bacterial army is ready to fight when needed.
Fish oil - omega 3
The topic of fat is a complicated and controversial one. The problem isn’t solely the consumption of saturated fats; it is also the lack of or insufficient consumption of essential fats.
Rather than worrying yourself about what to avoid, it is, therefore, more productive to focus on including the essential fats in your diet, one of these being omega 3.
Our body heavily relies on fats to function - all our cells are surrounded by a layer of fat! The flexibility of this layer of fat (connected to whether it is saturated or unsaturated) determines how well nutrients are able to pass in and out of our cells as well as how neurotransmitters and hormones are able to communicate with our cells. This can affect our mood, our cognitive function, hormone balance.
Omega 3 is made up of ALA, EPA and DHA; ALA is available from foods such as walnuts, chia, hemp and flaxseed, and therefore accessible to herbivores and carnivores alike. However, ALA needs to be converted to EPA and DHA to properly benefit our hearts, immunity, and brain health and its conversion rate is poor. Yet, unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA in our diets through good quality food sources such as salmon, tuna, mackerel etc. There is also the issue of pollutants in the lesser quality food sources making supplementing a better option.
What to do if you are vegetarian or vegan?
Because of the poor conversion rate mentioned above, it is more important for you ensure you consume the recommended ratio (4:1) of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids in your diet. The problem is when your body is processing these fatty acids it uses the same metabolic process and the same co-factor nutrients required for its metabolism. Therefore there is competition, no different from the bacteria issue discussed above. If you are consuming way more omega 6 than omega 3, it could mean the conversion rate is even lower.
Many foods that contain omega 3, also contain omega 6 although some like hemp, chia and flax seeds and oils; mung beans, winter squash, leafy greens, wild rice, melon and mango have the perfect 6:3 ratio and are worth making staples in your diet. Supplementing is also an option for you as there are vegan options available sourced from algae; however, the ones I have found contain quite low amounts of EPA/DHA. Another potential source is seaweeds like Spirulina and Chlorella, which not only provide omega 3 but are also high in protein and contain many other essential vitamins and minerals; a nourishing addition to your morning smoothie, vegan or not!
The above being said, there is more to consider when considering taking supplements. The quality of the supplements and the health of your gut as well as interactions with other medications and nutrients will determine the efficacy of the supplements you are taking.
I’ll write more about this and what you can do about it, in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, try to keep a note of how you and your digestive system feel before and after meals for a few days - what we call the ‘food and mood’ diary. Are you bloated after certain foods; do you get headaches, or feel tired? Are you constipated or do you have diarrhoea regularly? How are your mood, your energy levels etc. Having this information will make it easier for you to assess what you may need to address.
Love, peace and nourishment
Disclaimer: Information in this article is based on wellness support and not on specific health conditions. Please consult your GP and/or health practitioner before taking any supplements to ensure there are no contraindications with health conditions or other medications you may be taking. Alternatively, please feel free to get in touch and I will be happy to provide you with recommendations based on your individual circumstances.
Ola is passionate about making nutrition simple and accessible to everyone. She is particularly interested in helping vulnerable population groups transform their relationship with food and simplify the information overload about nutrition. She offers wellness support within her community and also provides online nutrition counselling. More about her and her current offerings can be found at www.nutritional-intelligence.com; on Facebook or Instagram