Taking Supplementation Seriously Part IV
In past articles, we presented the case for insuring nutritional sufficiency of the essential vitamins and minerals through supplementation. There is little debate that these micronutrients are requisite for human survival, and that their supplementation may be an apt course for some. A healthy diet also provides several other nutritionally-beneficial elements which, like the vitamins and minerals, are not always present at optimal levels and thus can potentially benefit from supplementation.
Here is a list of five dietary supplements that are worth considering as additions to the multivitamin. They are not meant to represent the "best" or "most useful" of the supplement field (which has little meaning given the individuality of metabolism); rather, these choices represent common dietary constituents that primarily function to broadly improve health and well-being (as opposed to addressing a single aspect of it). Each has a defined, critical role in normal human metabolism, and all but one are only obtainable through the diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids and whey protein are sources of essential fatty and amino-acids, the two remaining classes of essential nutrients after the vitamins and minerals. Fiber supplements provide this oft-deficient dietary macronutrient, which along with probiotic bacteria are a major determinant in intestinal function and the maintenance of healthy gut microflora. Supplementing with the nutritionally non-essential Coenzyme Q10 can augment the levels of this general purpose fat-soluble antioxidant and critical component for cellular energy generation, which may be of particular significance for older consumers.
Note that this list is a starting point; there are many additional dietary supplements that truly "supplement" the diet with nutrients that are often missing or suboptimal (phytonutrients such as carotenoids, isothiocyanates, and polyphenolic antioxidants are notable examples), as well as several well-studied natural ingredients that address specific health concerns but may not be "normal" constituents of the diet (herbal supplements such as milk thistle or saw palmetto fall into this category).
Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish, shellfish, algae, or seed oils that have well-established roles in human nutrition, both as building blocks for the cell membranes of the brain, and as precursors to the human body's own natural anti-inflammatory system. Sufficient intake of omega-3s has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, may facilitate healthy levels of circulating cholesterol and triglycerides, and may help maintain a healthy heartbeat and blood pressure. A balanced inflammatory response also relies on sufficient omega-3 fatty acids for the synthesis of endogenous anti-inflammatory factors.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a constituent of seed oils from flax, perilla, and chia, is an essential nutrient for humans. The principle omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from marine oils are not considered essential to human nutrition (we can make these from dietary ALA), but there is evidence some people may have trouble synthesizing sufficient levels of these fatty acids on their own, making them a good supplement choice. Omega-3 fatty acids from krill (a cold water crustacean) are in a potentially more bioavailable form (phospholipids) and contain high levels of the fat soluble antioxidant astaxanthin. Initial studies of krill oil suggest it may have a more potent lipid-lowering effect than other cold-water fish oils, meriting its choice as an omega-3 source.
Whey Protein. It's not a capsule, and might be better described as a food product, but whey deserves consideration for increasing the amount of high-quality protein and essential amino acids in the diet. Whey protein is the "soluble" protein fraction from milk, and is commonly sold as a concentrate (most often about 70 percent protein with very low amounts of milk sugar or fat) or isolate (>90 percent protein, usually fatand lactose-free ), as well as in flavored pre-mixes or ready to drink beverages. Diets which are higher in protein have been associated with better glycemic control, normalized blood lipids, and have been shown to promote greater fat reduction, thermogenesis, and energy expenditure than high carbohydrate or high fat diets. Protein can also be more satiating than other macronutrients. "Fast proteins," like whey, are quickly digested and absorbed, which results in large, rapid increases of amino acids in the bloodstream following a meal, signaling fullness. Compared to other common protein supplements (soy, casein), whey exhibits superior appetite suppression when taken with a meal as 25 percent of total calories.
Many of the health benefits of whey have been attributed to its high concentration of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), a group of three nutritionally essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine). BCAAs serve as muscle fuel (which is why whey is often considered a “sports” supplement), but they may also stimulate the bodies basic satiety response. BCAAs also aid in fat loss, preserve lean body mass, and may help to lower insulin levels following a meal.
Probiotics: Probiotics are living microorganisms, which upon ingestion in sufficient numbers, exert health benefits beyond general nutrition. Probiotic bacteria and yeast can reside on the surfaces of mucosal tissues (such as the gastrointestinal or upper respiratory tract) and provide a living barrier to environmental insults. Probiotic bacteria function in a variety of ways; they can inhibit the growth or block the attachment of rival pathogenic bacteria, they can improve the barrier function of mucosal membranes (providing protection from pathogens or toxins), they bolster immune function, produce vitamins, and enhance mineral absorption. Probiotic bacteria can play significant roles in systemic detoxification by trapping and metabolizing harmful dietary compounds or heavy metals. The production of the short chain fatty acids by probiotic bacteria in the intestines (from the fermentation of dietary fiber) improves the detox function of the liver and skin; this may also contribute to some of the anti-carcinogenic properties of dietary fiber.
Probiotic supplements come in a myriad of forms and formulations, encompassing a wide variety of bacterial species and potency (probiotic potency is expressed in colony forming units—CFU—which is a measurement of the number of bacteria per serving.) A good starting point for general health maintenance would be a multi-strain product (having more than one type of bacteria) at a moderate potency (3–10 billion organisms); this is similar to the probiotic intake from a diet that contains fermented foods.
Fiber Supplements: Fibers are polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates) that are indigestible by humans, yet have some significant roles in general health maintenance. The bulk of fiber and its resistance to digestion lend it satiating properties in the stomach; these same properties also cause it to increase the bulk of stool and hasten the transit of digested food through the intestines. This increase in gastric motility helps to minimize exposure of colonic epithelial cells to potential carcinogenic compounds or other dietary toxins. Dietary fibers can bind up bile acids and cholesterol, and prevent them from being re-absorbed; this facilitates the body’s ability to rid itself of excess cholesterol. Some fibers can also be specifically digested (fermented) by beneficial colonic bacteria into short chain fatty acids (like lactate or butyrate), which have their own health benefits throughout the body. Fermentable or prebiotic fibers (such as inulin and fructooligosaccharides) are available as supplements as well and are an appropriate complement to probiotics.
There is convincing evidence that fiber intake reduces the risk of colon and breast cancers and cardiovascular disease; it has also been associated with healthy body weight, serum cholesterol levels, blood sugar control, and blood pressure. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of adults in the United States do not get the daily recommended intake of fiber, which is 38 grams/day for men 19–50 (30 grams/day for men over 50) and 25 grams/day for women 19–50 (21 grams/ day for women over 50). Even a modest increase to 20 grams a day from average current dietary levels has been estimated to reduce the rate of colorectal cancer by 40 percent. The fiber in our diets is heterogenous, containing several types of gums, pectins, lignans, cellulose, beta-glucans, fructans, and digestion-resistant starches. A good choice in fiber supplements would contain a mixture of multiple fiber types.
Coenzyme Q10. Despite being the only member of the list that isn’t a nutritionally essential nutrient or a major component of the diet (young, healthy people can make sufficient CoQ10 for their metabolic needs), the potential health benefits of CoQ10 merit its consideration as part of a supplement regimen, especially in older consumers. CoQ10 is a fat-soluble substance that is an essential component of the energy production system in cells. It is found in each cell in the body, but is particularly concentrated in tissues which have large energy requirements (like the heart). There are also substantial amounts of CoQ10 in the blood, protecting circulating lipids (LDL and HDL) from oxidative damage. Supplemental CoQ10 has been the subject of numerous studies, particularly in applications for improving cardiovascular health (as in subjects with chronic heart failure, exercise-induced angina, or hypertension); it may also be protective of the cardiovascular system in diabetics. CoQ10 continues to be the subject of academic research, and is beginning to find acceptance as a supplement amongst mainstream medical practitioners.
The average diet contains only a small amount of CoQ10, which is generally poorly absorbed (by some estimates, as little as two to three percent of dietary CoQ10 is absorbed). Variability in absorption also appears to be age-dependent; case reports suggest decreased fractional absorption in older patients. Several "enhanced absorption" strategies and products have been developed to overcome this hurdle, with improved uptakes verified by clinical data. Recently, the second naturallyoccurring form of CoQ10 (ubiquinol) has been introduced into the supplement market (CoQ10 supplements have typically been in the form of ubiquinone.) Ubiquinol is absorbed more efficiently than ubiquinone, especially in individuals who have difficulty absorbing CoQ10.
Kevin M. Connolly, PhD
Kevin M. Connolly, PhD received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Brown University, and doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA. Before consulting for the dietary supplement industry, he spent 15 years in basic biochemistry research elucidating such diverse mechanisms as bacterial antibiotic resistance and collagen synthesis. He contributes to several online and print publications, and is a frequent guest on radio health programs throughout the country. When not writing, he teaches undergraduate biochemistry.