It was observed centuries ago that sailors deprived of fresh fruit and vegetables on long voyages became ill with scurvy. Now of course, not many of us today have to live on salt-preserved meat and dry, weevil infested biscuits, and no doubt our modern Western diets are usually sufficient to protect us against disease. But for how many of us do they provide truly optimal health?
Those unfortunate sailors of old were quickly restored to health when given foods rich in Vitamin C, and we’re all well aware today of the crucial importance of including the full range of vitamins in our diets.
But what’s less often appreciated is that the vital functions of these vitamins are inextricably bound up with those of the equally vital minerals we require. Senate Document 264 (74th US Congress, Second Session 1936) was unequivocal on the point: “ ..vitamins control the body’s appropriation of minerals, and in the absence of minerals they have no function to perform. Lacking vitamins, the system can make some use of minerals, but lacking minerals, vitamins are useless.”
In fact human beings require around 60 different minerals for optimal health, and although it’s true that many of these are present in our bodies only in minute amounts, it doesn’t follow that these trace minerals are unimportant.
To give just one example the ageing process within the body is to a great extent driven by the action of so-called free radicals. These are the unwanted but entirely natural by-products of normal metabolic processes in cells, but if left unchecked they will damage and even eventually destroy those same cells. Chief amongst the body’s weapons against the free radicals are the potent anti-oxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione, and the manufacture of these enzymes within the body is highly dependent on the working together of an abundant supply of vitamins B and C with trace minerals manganese, copper and zinc.
But Senate Document 264 noted that 99% of Americans were deficient in necessary minerals and in the light of the continued intensification of farming methods it seems highly unlikely that the situation has improved in the intervening years. Indeed, the 1992 Earth Summit reported that mineral concentrations in US farm soils were 85% lower than those of a hundred years ago.
The figures for other wealthy Western nations are almost as alarming, and the problem doesn’t just lie in the soil. The modern prevalence of highly refined grains, and the treatment of fruits and vegetables with preservatives, dyes, pesticides and even radiation is a proven disaster for vitamin and mineral retention in our food, as well as a significant toxic assault with which the human organism simply wasn’t designed to cope.
Of course this crisis in the quality of our food should in no way prevent us from seeking to eat as healthily as possible, but as Senate Document 264 noted; we are no longer likely to be able to obtain all the nutrients we need from our food alone. In the case of minerals in particular, said the report, our stomachs are simply not big enough to accommodate all the fruits and vegetables we would need to eat, so depleted of nutrients have our foods become.
Many physicians nevertheless insist that a balanced and varied diet including all the main food groups should generally provide adequate nourishment. And in a sense of course they’re right. In an ideal world if everybody ate three well balanced meals a day, including an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, there might indeed be no need for supplementation.
But even orthodox medical opinion will often concede the validity of supplementation for those suffering from specific conditions – the use of iron in the treatment of anaemia is perhaps the best known example. So if supplements can be used as treatments for the ill, might they not also be used as a means of improving the health of those who while displaying no clinical symptoms are in sub-optimal health.
This is not to say that supplementation can offer any guarantee of health. But just as most of us are happy to pay relatively small sums for insurance against an extremely unlikely but potentially catastrophic loss, it’s a question of weighing the odds and balancing the risks.
People tend to be influenced more by their personal experience than any amount of scientific research, and the millions who’ve taken the view that it’s worth paying a little each day for this very inexpensive form of health insurance have made supplements a multi-billion dollar industry.
And it’s never been simpler or more convenient to take a comprehensive mineral supplement. The days of the foul tasting, tough to swallow and absorb, “horse pills” may soon be coming to an end if, as advocates claim, as little as a fluid ounce of a modern liquid supplement may provide all your requirements and more.