Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?

Supplements Are Part of a Holistic Lifestyle

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

need for supplementsThe headlines about supplementation are so confusing. Are they useful, or are they a waste of money? Will they cure you, or will they kill you? I feel your pain.

I have covered these questions in depth in my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, but let me give you a quick overview today. I call it: “Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?” I created the graphic on the left to illustrate why I feel responsible supplementation is an important part of a holistic lifestyle for most Americans. Let me give you specific examples for each of these categories.

 

Examples of Poor Diet

No Fast FoodYou have heard the saying that supplementation fills in the nutritional gaps in our diets, so what are the nutritional gaps? According to the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many Americans are consuming too much fast and convenience foods. Consequently, we are getting inadequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, D, E and C. Iron is considered a nutrient of concern for young children and pregnant women. In addition, folic acid, vitamin B6, and iodine are nutrients of concern for adolescent girls and pregnant women.

According to a recent study, regular use of a multivitamin is sufficient to eliminate all these deficiencies except for calcium, magnesium and vitamin D (J.B. Blumberg et al, Nutrients, 9(8): doi: 10.3390/nu9080849, 2017). A well-designed calcium, magnesium and vitamin D supplement may be needed to eliminate those deficiencies.

In addition, intake of omega-3 fatty acids from foods appears to be inadequate in this country. Recent studies have found that American’s blood levels of omega-3s are among the lowest in the world and only half of the recommended level for reducing the risk of heart disease (K.D. Stark et al, Progress In Lipid Research, 63: 132-152, 2016; S.V. Thuppal et al, Nutrients, 9, 930, 2017; M Thompson et al, Nutrients, 11: 177, 2019). Therefore, omega-3 supplementation is often a good idea.

In previous editions of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have talked about our “mighty microbiome”, the bacteria and other microorganisms in our intestine. These intestinal bacteria can affect our tendency to gain weight, our immune system, inflammatory diseases, chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases, our mood—the list goes on and on. This is an emerging science. We are learning more every day, but for now it appears our best chances for creating a health-enhancing microbiome are to consume a primarily plant-based diet and take a probiotic supplement.

Finally, diets that eliminate whole food groups create nutritional deficiencies. For example, vegan diets increase the risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and long chain omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study reported that the Paleo diet increased the risk of calcium, magnesium, iodine, thiamin, riboflavin, folate and vitamin D deficiency (A. Genomi et al, Nutrients, 8, 314, 2016). The Keto diet is even more restrictive and is likely to create additional deficiencies.

Examples of Increased Need

pregnant women taking omega-3We have known for years that pregnancy and lactation increase nutritional requirements. In addition, seniors have increased needs for protein, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have also shared recent studies showing that protein requirements are increased with exercise.

Common medications also increase our need for specific nutrients. For example, seizure medications can increase your need for vitamin D and calcium. Drugs to treat diabetes and acid reflux can increase your need for vitamin B12. Other drugs increase your need for vitamin B6, folic acid, and vitamin K. Excess alcohol consumption increases your need for thiamin, folic acid, and vitamin B6. These are just a few examples.

Vitamin D is a special case. Many people with apparently adequate intake of vitamin D have low blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. It is a good idea to have your blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels measured on an annual basis and supplement with vitamin D if they are low.

More worrisome is the fact that we live in an increasing polluted world and some of these pollutants may increase our needs for certain nutrients. For example, in a recent edition of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study reporting that exposure to pesticides during pregnancy increases the risk of giving birth to children who will develop autism, and that supplementation with folic acid during pregnancy reduces the effect of pesticides on autism risk. I do wish to acknowledge that this is a developing area of research. This and similar studies require confirmation. It is, however, a reminder that there may be factors beyond our control that have the potential to increase our nutritional needs.

Examples of Genetics Influencing Nutritional Needs

nutrigenomicsThe effect of genetic variation on nutritional needs is known as nutrigenomics. One of the best-known examples of nutrigenomics is genetic variation in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene.  MTHFR gene mutations increase the risk of certain birth defects, such as neural tube defects. MTHFR mutations also slightly increase the requirement for folic acid. A combination of food fortification and supplementation with folic acid have substantially decreased the prevalence of neural tube defects in the US population. This is one of the great success stories of nutrigenomics. Parenthetically, there is no evidence that methylfolate is needed to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in women with MTHFR mutations.

Let me give you a couple of additional examples:

One of them has to do with vitamin E and heart disease (A.P. Levy et al, Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004). Like a lot of other studies there was no significant effect of vitamin E on cardiovascular risk in the general population. But there is a genetic variation in the haptoglobin gene that influences cardiovascular risk. The haptoglobin 2-2 genotype increases oxidative damage to the arterial wall, which significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. When the authors of this study looked at the effect of vitamin E in people with this genotype, they found that it significantly decreased heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths.

This has been confirmed by a second study specifically designed to look at vitamin E supplementation in that population group (F. Micheletta et al, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 24: 136, 2008). This is an example of a high-risk group benefiting from supplementation, but in this case the high risk is based on genetic variation.

Let’s look at soy and heart disease as a final example. There was a study called the ISOHEART study (W.L. Hall et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82: 1260-1268, 2005 (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/6/1260.abstract); W.L. Hall et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83: 592-600, 2006) that looked at a genetic variation in the estrogen receptor which increases inflammation and decreases levels of HDL. As you might expect, this genotype significantly increases cardiovascular risk.

Soy isoflavones significantly decrease inflammation and increase HDL levels in this population group. But they have no effect on inflammation or HDL levels in people with other genotypes affecting the estrogen reception. So, it turns out that soy has beneficial effects, but only in the population that’s at greatest risk of cardiovascular disease, and that increased risk is based on genetic variation.

These examples are just the “tip of the iceberg”. Nutrigenomics is an emerging science. New examples of genetic variations that affect the need for specific nutrients are being reported on a regular basis. We are not ready to start genotyping people yet. We don’t yet know enough to design a simple genetic test to predict our unique nutritional needs. That science is 10-20 years in the future, but this is something that’s coming down the road.

What the current studies tell us is that some people are high-risk because of their genetic makeup, and these are people for whom supplementation is going to make a significant difference. However, because genetic testing is not yet routine, most people are completely unaware that they might be at increased risk of disease or have increased nutritional requirements because of their genetic makeup.

Examples of Disease Influencing Nutritional Needs

Finally, let’s consider the effect of disease on our nutritional needs. If you look at the popular literature, much has been written about the effect of stress on our nutritional needs. In most case, the authors are referring to psychological stress. In fact, psychological stress has relatively minor effect on our nutritional needs.

Metabolic stress, on the other hand, has major effects on our nutritional needs. Metabolic stress occurs when our body is struggling to overcome disease, recover from surgery, or recover from trauma. When your body is under metabolic stress, it is important to make sure your nutritional status is optimal.

The effects of surgery and trauma on nutritional needs are well documented. In my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, I discussed the effects of disease on nutritional needs in some detail. Let me give you a brief overview here. It is very difficult to show beneficial effects of supplementation in a healthy population (primary prevention). However, when you look at populations that already have a disease, or are at high risk for disease, (secondary prevention), the benefits of supplementation are often evident.

For example, studies suggest that vitamin E, B vitamins, and omega-3s each may reduce heart disease risk, but only in high-risk populations. Similarly, B vitamins (folic acid, B6 and B12) appear to reduce breast cancer risk in high risk populations.

Who Benefits Most From Supplementation?

Question MarkWith this information in mind, let’s return to the question: “Who benefits most from supplementation? Here is my perspective.

1) The need for supplementation is greatest when these circles overlap, as they do for most Americans.

2) The problem is that while most of us are aware that our diets are not what they should be, we are unaware of our increased needs and/or genetic predisposition. We are also often unaware that we are at high risk of disease. For too many Americans the first indication they have heart disease is sudden death, the first indication of high blood pressure is a stroke, or the first indication of cancer is a diagnosis of stage 3 or 4 cancer.

So, let’s step back and view the whole picture. The overlapping circles are drawn that way to make a point. A poor diet doesn’t necessarily mean you have to supplement. However, when a poor diet overlaps with increased need, genetic predisposition, disease, or metabolic stress, supplementation is likely to be beneficial. The more overlapping circles you have, the greater the likely benefit you will derive from supplementation.

That is why I feel supplementation should be included along with diet, exercise, and weight control as part of a holistic approach to better health.

The Bottom Line

In this article I provide a perspective on who benefits most from supplementation and why. There are four reasons to supplement.

  1. Fill Nutritional gaps in our diet

2) Meet increased nutritional needs due to pregnancy, lactation, age, exercise, many common medications, and environmental pollutants.

3) Compensate for genetic variations that affect nutritional needs.

4) Overcome needs imposed by metabolic stress due to trauma, surgery, or disease.

With this information in mind, let’s return to the question: “Who benefits most from supplementation? Here is my perspective.

  1. A poor diet alone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to supplement. However, when a poor diet overlaps with increased need, genetic predisposition, or metabolic stress, supplementation is likely to be beneficial. The more overlap you have, the greater the likely benefit you will derive from supplementation.

2) The problem is that while most of us are aware that our diets are not what they should be, we are unaware of our increased needs and/or genetic predisposition. We are also often unaware that we are at high risk of disease. For too many Americans the first indication they have heart disease is sudden death, the first indication of high blood pressure is a stroke, or the first indication of cancer is a diagnosis of stage 3 or 4 cancer.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is DNA Testing Valuable?

What Is The True Value Of DNA Tests? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Genetic TestingDNA testing is hot! DNA testing companies claim they can tell you your disease risk and personalize your diet and supplement program – all based on the sequence of your DNA.

On the other hand, most reputable medical sources say these DNA testing companies overpromise and underdeliver. They tell you that diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations based only on your DNA sequence are often inaccurate.

So, what should you believe? At this point you are probably wondering:

  • Is DNA testing valuable or is it a waste of money?
  • Is there a way to make DNA testing more accurate?
  • What is the true value of DNA testing to you, the consumer?

I will consider these 3 questions in my article below. But first let me share two stories about DNA testing, one true and the other fictional.

Perspectives on DNA Testing

When the human genome was first sequenced in 2003, it took 13 years and cost millions of dollars. That was an nutrigenomicsexciting time. Many of us in the scientific community thought we were on the verge of a revolution in human health and longevity. We would soon be able to tell individuals their risk of developing various diseases.

Even better, we would be able to tell them the kind of diet and supplementation they needed to avoid those diseases. We would be able to personalize our nutritional recommendation for every individual based on their genome – something we called nutrigenomics.

How naive we were! It has turned out to be much more complicated to design personalized nutrition recommendations based on someone’s genome than we ever imagined.

Today an analysis of your genome requires hours and costs less than $200. That represents a tremendous advance in technology. However, we are no closer to being able to make personal nutrition recommendations based on our DNA sequence today than we were 18 years ago.

Why is that? Let me share a fictional story because it provides a clue. In 1997, when I was still a relatively young scientist, I saw a film called GAATACA. [If you are looking for an entertaining film to watch, it is still available on some streaming services.]

This film envisioned a future society in which parents had their sperm and eggs sequenced so that their children would be genetically perfect. In that society the term “love child” had been redefined as a child who had been conceived without prior DNA sequencing.

The hero of this film was, of course, a love child. He was born with a genetic predisposition for heart disease. He was considered inferior, a second-class citizen of this future world.

Without giving away the plot of the film (I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment for you if you are thinking of watching it), he overcame his genetic inferiority. With a strict regimen of diet and physical fitness he became stronger and healthier than many of his genetically perfect peers.

This is when I first began to realize that our DNA does not have to be our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.

You might be wondering, “How can this be? Why doesn’t our DNA determine our destiny” I will answer that question in two parts.

  • First, I will share what experts say about the value of DNA testing.
  • Then I will put on my professor hat and discuss “Genetics 101 – What we didn’t know in 2003” (When the genome was first sequenced).

Is DNA Testing Valuable?

SkepticAs I said above, most scientists are skeptical about the ability of DNA testing to predict our ideal diet and supplementation regimens. For example, here are two recent reviews on the current status of DNA testing. [Note: These scientists are using “science speak”. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the terms. I will explain their message in simpler terms in the next section.]

One review (C Murgia and MM Adamski, Nutrients, 366, 2017) published in 2017 concluded: “The potential applications to nutrition of this invaluable tool [DNA sequencing] were apparent since the genome was mapped…However, fifteen years and hundreds of publications later, the gap between genome mapping and health practice is not yet closed.”

“The discovery of other levels of control, including epigenetics [modifications of DNA that affect gene expression] and the intestinal microbiome complicate the interpretation of genetic data. While the science of nutritional genomics remains promising, the complex nature of gene, nutrition and health interactions provides a challenge for healthcare professionals to analyze, interpret and apply to patient recommendations.”

Another review (M Gaussch-Ferre et al, Advances in Nutrition, 9: 128-135, 2018) published in 2018 concluded: “Overall, the scientific evidence supporting the dissemination of genomic information for nutrigenomic purposes [predicting ideal diet and supplement regimens] remains sparse. Therefore, additional knowledge needs to be generated…”

In short, the experts are saying we still don’t know enough to predict the best diet or the best supplements based on genetic information alone.

Genetics 101 – What We Didn’t Know In 2003

GeneticistIn simple terms the experts who published those reviews are both saying that the linkage between our DNA sequence and either diet or supplementation is much more complex than we thought in 2003 when the genome was first sequenced.

That is because our understanding of genetics has been transformed by two new areas of research, epigenetics and our microbiome. Let me explain.

  1. Epigenetics has an important influence on gene expression. When I was a graduate student, we believed our genetic destiny was solely determined by our DNA sequence. That was still the prevailing viewpoint when the human genome project was initiated. As I said above, we thought that once we had our complete DNA sequence, we would know everything we needed to know about our genetic destiny.

It turns out that our DNA can be modified in multiple ways. These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but they can have major effects on gene expression. They can turn genes on or turn them off. More importantly, we have come to learn that these DNA modifications can be influenced by our diet and lifestyle.

This is the science we call epigenetics. We have gone from believing we have a genome (DNA sequence) that is invariant and controls our genetic destiny to understanding that we also have an “epigenome” (modifications to our DNA) that is strongly influenced by our diet and lifestyle and can change day-to-day.

2) Our microbiome also has an important influence on our health and nutritional status. microbiomeSimply put, the term microbiome refers to our intestinal microbes. Our intestinal bacteria are incredibly diverse. Each of us has about 1,000 distinct species of bacteria in our intestines. 

Current evidence suggests these intestinal bacteria influence our immune system, inflammation and auto-immune diseases, brain function and mood, and our predisposition to gain weight – and this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

More importantly, our microbiome is also influenced by our diet and lifestyle, and environment. For example, vegetarians and meat eaters have entirely different microbiomes.

Furthermore, the effect of diet and lifestyle on our microbiome also changes day to day. If you change your diet, the species of bacteria in your microbiome will completely change in a few days.

If you are wondering how that could be, let me [over]simplify it for you:

    • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food.
    • Different gut bacteria thrive on different kinds of fiber.
    • Different plant foods provide different kinds of fiber.
    • Whenever we change the amount or type of fiber in our diet, some gut bacteria will thrive, and others will starve.
    • Bacteria grow and die very rapidly. Thus, the species of bacteria that thrive on a particular diet quickly become the predominant species in our gut.
    • And when we change our diet, those gut bacteria will die off and other species will predominate.

Finally, our microbiome also influences our nutritional requirements. For example, some species of intestinal bacteria are the major source of biotin and vitamin K2 for all of us and the major source of vitamin B12 for vegans. Other intestinal bacteria inactivate and/or remove some vitamins from the intestine for their own use. Thus, the species of bacteria that populate our intestines can influence our nutritional requirements.

Now that you know the complexity of gene interactions you understand why we are not ready to rely on DNA tests alone. That science is at least 10-20 years in the future. Companies that tell you otherwise are lying to you.

What Is The True Value Of DNA Tests? 

The TruthBy now you are probably thinking that my message is that DNA tests are worthless. Actually, my message is a bit different. What I, and most experts, are saying is that DNA tests are of little value by themselves.

To understand the true value of DNA tests, let me start with defining a couple of terms you may vaguely remember from high school biology – genotype and phenotype.

  • Genotype is your genes.
  • Phenotype is you – your health, your weight, and your nutritional needs. Your phenotype is determined by your genes plus your diet and your lifestyle.

With that in mind, let’s review the take-home messages from earlier sections of this article.

  • The take-home message from the two stories in “Perspectives on DNA Testing” is that our DNA does not have to be our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.
  • The take-home message from “Genetics 101” is that while the genes we inherit do not change, the expression of those genes is controlled in part by:
    • Epigenetic modifications to the DNA. And those epigenetic modifications are controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.
    • Our microbiome (gut bacteria). And our microbiome is controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.

Now we are ready to answer the question, “What is the true value of DNA testing?” There are actually two answers to this question. You have probably guessed the first answer by now, but you will be surprised by the second.

  1. DNA testing can only indicate the potential for obesity, the potential for nutritional deficiencies, and the potential for disease. But whether that potential is realized depends on our diet and lifestyle. Therefore, the true value of DNA testing comes from adding a comprehensive analysis of diet and lifestyle to the DNA test results. That includes:
    • Questionnaires that assess diet, lifestyle, health goals, and health concerns.

For example, your genetics may indicate an increased need for vitamin D. This is a concern if your vitamin D intake is marginal but may not be a concern if you are getting plenty of vitamin D from your diet, supplementation, and sun exposure.

    • Direct measurements of obesity such as height and weight (from which BMI can be calculated) and waist circumference (belly fat is more dangerous to our health than fat stored elsewhere in our body).

For example, most Americans have a genetic predisposition to obesity, but not everyone is obese. If you are overweight or obese, your nutrition and lifestyle recommendations should include approaches to reduce your weight. If not, these recommendations are not needed, even if you have a genetic predisposition to obesity.

    • Blood pressure and blood markers of disease risk (cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar).

For example, you may have genetic predisposition to high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If either of these are high, your recommendations should include nutrition and lifestyle approaches to lower them. However, if you are already keeping them under control through diet and lifestyle, no further changes may be necessary.

2) While the scientific community now knows the limitations of DNA testing, this information has not filtered down to the general public. This brings me to the second value of DNA testing. Several recent studies have shown that people are much more likely to follow recommendations based on DNA testing than recommendations based on dietary questionnaires, blood markers of disease, or even recommendations from their physician.

The Bottom Line

DNA testing is hot! DNA testing companies claim they can tell you your disease risk and personalize your diet and supplement program – all based on the sequence of your DNA.

On the other hand, most reputable medical sources say these DNA testing companies overpromise and underdeliver. They tell you that diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations based only on your DNA sequence are often inaccurate. They are of little value if they are only based on DNA testing.

So, what is the true value of DNA testing? To answer that question, we need to know two things:

1) Our DNA is not our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.

2) While the genes we inherit do not change, the expression of these genes is controlled in part by:

    • Epigenetic modifications to the DNA. And those epigenetic modifications are controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.
    • Our microbiome (gut bacteria). And our microbiome is controlled by our diet and our lifestyle.

With this information in mind, we are ready to answer the question, “What is the true value of DNA testing?” The true value of DNA testing is tw0-fold:

1) It comes from adding a comprehensive analysis of diet and lifestyle to the DNA test results. This includes:

    • Questionnaires that assess diet, lifestyle, health goals, and health concerns.
    • Direct measurements of obesity such as height and weight (from which BMI can be calculated) and waist circumference (belly fat is more dangerous to our health than fat stored elsewhere in our body).
    • Blood pressure and blood markers of disease risk (cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar).

2) In addition, several recent studies have shown that people are much more likely to follow recommendations based on DNA testing than recommendations based on dietary questionnaires, blood markers of disease, or even recommendations from their physician.

For more details and explanations of the statements in “The Bottom Line”, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor