The term ‘supplement’ can either be a noun or a verb, implying something that completes or ehances something else, or in the case of a verb context, to add an extra element. In the health industry, we really use the term in both contexts or sometimes both at the same time. We may supplement our horse’s or even our own diet with a supplement, using both the noun and verb, which is commonplace. However, what are we really doing and what are we trying to achieve? Through a better understanding, we may be able to arrive at that goal a little sooner and even reduce end costs in the long term.
In my eyes, a nutritional supplement is intended to supply or add to something that is missing from the current diet. In the case of the health condition Scurvy, we may need to supplement with added vitamin C, which can be done through actual food or through synthetic form. The end goal here is to increase the amount of vitamin C to the diet and mitigate the disease associated with deficiency. In today’s day and age, disease associated with actual deficiency of a particular nutrient is uncommon, but yet not unheard of. We do hear about cases of Scurvy and Rickets here and there, but the majority of the average population in developed nations receive adequate levels of those nutrients to avoid those conditions. One thing to keep in mind here, which is important, is that those conditions are often a result of very low levels of nutrient in the body, really reflective of almost zero intake within the diet. Essentially, in order to avoid Scurvy or Rickets, we only need to consume a low level of those nutrients.
The interesting thing, to me, is that the body demands much higher levels of certain nutrients on a day to day basis, which are often not met. We may consume enough vitamin C to avoid outright Scurvy, but the levels may not be high enough to support basic cellular function associated with a high stress work position. Even something like Vitamin D has been explored over the past few decades, determining that we actually need to consume higher levels than previously thought in order to support normal cellular function and reduce incidence of certain diseases. Bottom line is that with certain health conditions and stressful lifestyles, not to mention environmental influences, we may actually need to consume higher levels than previously determined in order to maintain overall health.
Health supplements are rampant in today’s society and truth be told, many people are not sure what they should or should not be taking. The majority of supplements are supplied in the artificial or synthetic form, including vitamins and minerals. In contrast, most foods provide those nutrients in their naturally occurring form, which are believed to be better digested and assimilated by the body due to naturally present cofactors within the food source. We may take that daily vitamin/mineral supplement we purchase at the grocery or health store, but is it truly enough and overall, what is our purpose in taking it?
The goal is to supplement the body with nutrients that we may not be consuming enough of through a typical diet. In reality, I personally believe that food should be our main source of nutrition, but this is not always the case, especially in today’s society of eating on the run, processed foods and fast foods. Often these diets are nothing but empty calories, providing little to no nutritional value, but actually contributing to various health conditions in both animals and people. Many people and animals on poor diets are advised to supplement, as the lack of nutrients is contributing to health ailments, but is this the way to go? Why not just change the diet to what it should be and supplement as needed? One concern is that even with a well balanced diet, are we consuming enough nutrients? Especially considering soil nutrient depletion and commercialized farming practices? This concern is real and has been verified, supporting the need for additional supplementation to different extents.
The fact is that once a disease sets in and impacts health, often the demand for nutrients is much higher than perceived. A typical vitamin/mineral supplement providing basic levels may not be enough and in fact, may actually contribute to some conditions due to the synthetic nutrients and additives that may be present. It has been noted in many cancer studies that there is no benefit to those patients with daily use of a vitamin/mineral supplement. However, many of those same patients benefit highly from an improved overall diet which is balanced in addition to fruit and vegetable smoothies. The difference is whole food supplementation compared to artificial. One is well received by the body while the other is not. With some conditions, we do benefit from use of synthetics as this is the only means we have of achieving high levels within the patient. Right off the top, we have many conditions which respond well to very high levels of vitamin C intake and some neurological conditions that respond to vitamin E.
Overall, our goal is to allow the body to heal through the provision of nutrients. That being said, we do need to understand that is it not just a deficiency state which is going on within that patient, but there is also an ‘excess’ situation, which is creating a higher demand for those nutrients. That ‘excess’ situation could be a poor diet, lacking in nutrients. It could also be environmental factors including stress which are increasing the demand for certain nutrients in order for the body to function properly. No different that working manual labor all day and seeing an increase in your appetite. The body is expelling energy, trying to maintain balance and thus needs increased nutrients to allow it to work. The same goes for a high stress lifestyle, which results in increased demands by the body to cope with the negative changes that are occurring. If we truly want to regain health on various levels, we must not only provide nutrients but also curb the drains on the body which are creating the increased demand.
With this being said, supplements are used daily with people, pets and horses. In many cases, results are not seen by the patient or owner, but are continued as a daily habit, which can be expensive. The goal should be to understand the problem at hand, supplement accordingly and make changes to reduce demands on the body. Again, to me, the best source of nutrients is through the use of food, which includes herbs. Food not only supplies those nutrients naturally, but many foods also have medicinal like activity, helping to control negative pathways in the body but also promoting positive ones. You don’t get those same results with synthetic supplements. Too many benefits from food and herbs to avoid them.
As we see and understand a certain condition, we can create a strategy to aid in managing that problem. However, that strategy may not be the best solution for the long term, meaning that if you start on one supplement and it is helping, this does not imply that it is the best solution for years to come. Ideally, we want to provide for that body helping it to heal and recover, but we are ideally also curbing negative impacts on the body and improving the overall diet. So, in the beginning, we may need a high level of various herbs to aid that patient, but as things change and improve, that daily requirement is likely to go down as long as other factors are controlled.
I think that one of the biggest mistakes that I see, at least with horses, is that many owners continue with various supplements on a daily basis, year after year. They believe they are doing right by their horse, but in some cases, these efforts may actually contribute to health problems. This might explain why so many owners that are supplementing, sometimes over-supplementing, actually continue to have problems with their horses. When I consult with these types of cases, it is hard to determine if what they are doing is correct or should be discontinued. In many situations, I think the patient is undergoing undue stress on a physical or emotional level, which is creating more demand than they are providing. Considering this, the solution is often thought to add more to the regimen, when in fact this is incorrect in my opinion. More often than not, it is a matter of addressing the outside influences, reducing the demands and providing more targeted therapies based on the presenting problems. If we do this correctly, then often the patient is improved in a short period of time, but often we need to adjust for the long term. Some cases may require 2 or more supplements initially, dependent on the problems at hand, but our goal is not to depend on all of those supplements for the long term. The goal is to provide for the body to heal and if we do this correctly, then usually we have the regimen widdled down to 1 or maybe 2 supplements, usually whole food or herb based, for the long term. When we compare this to what they were doing originally, the cost savings and hassle can be dramatically reduced in most cases.
As a case example, we may have a horse or person with immune compromise which has contributed to an infection or even other illness. The goal in the short term is to enhance or support that immune response, reduce outside influences or strains and overall support that patient. In some we may use high levels of mushrooms, glutamine and other amino acids or even vitamin C in addition to a well balanced diet. As the patient improves, this does not mean that we need to continue that regimen, but actually tailor it to their needs as hopefully, the body has strenghtened and negative influences controlled. If we were to continue that same regimen, in some cases, we can actually inflict some harm on the body through over-regulation of certain cellular pathways beyond normal.
The one exception to this rule is the case in which the condition is so chronic that damage has occurred, which places added strain and demand on the body often permanently. This may be poor circulation due to scar tissue, a damaged organ that is not functioning correctly or a joint that has remodeled permanently with arthritis. In those situations, which are common unfortunately, we may still be able to reduce our daily regimen over time, but the requirements by the body will likely still be high. There is no changing that situation, but rather we just have to accept it.
Overall, I believe that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in any given situation. If a current regimen is working for you, your pet or your horse, then by all means stick with it. However, if despite your regimen, you are still experiencing problems or highly dependent on medications, then there is a change that needs to be made and room for improvement. The only way to improve or change is through knowledge of what you are trying to accomplish and the best means of doing this. Don’t supplement just because you think you should or because someone else is doing it. Through this mentality, you may actually be creating more harm than good.
All my best,
Tom Schell, D.V.M.
Nouvelle Research, Inc.