Have you ever wondered where the recommended daily amounts (RDA) of vitamins/minerals come from? I have, and it makes me slightly depressed when I think about it. First some stats to get you in “wtf, really?” mode:
- In Ecuador research found 80% of children deficient in vitamin D3
- In the UK a study on 45+ year olds found 87.1% deficient in winter (bit lower in summer)4
- A study on magnesium found 68% of people ingested too little magnesium a day5 Now for those with some basic biology knowledge, it should surprise you that children in Ecuador (near the equator) are so deficient in a vitamin that is made by the human body when exposed to sun. To anyone it should come as at least a mild surprise that such high numbers of people have too little of such basic things as magnesium and vitamin d.
If you suspect you are deficient in something, go get it tested. Personally I'd start with vitamin d. Don't take high dosage supplements without testing, your doctor can get any tests you need.
The “recommended” daily amount
The way these amounts are created differ slightly in countries. But they are usually based on one or both of two things:
- The amount you need to not get ill
- Average/normal intake in a country Alarm bells should be going off in your head right now. There are clear problems with the above premises:
- Not being visibly ill is not the same as functioning optimally
- Average/normal intakes are not necessarily good intakes But of well, how bad can it be…
Magical pill gives children 15 extra IQ points
Sounds kind of like in the "Limitless" movie (highly recommend that one).There have been a number of studies that illustrate why the above matters so much. The setup of these studies were simple:
- Take a group of children
- Give them a placebo or ‘Pill X’
- Measure their IQ before and after
The results are staggering (feel free to disagree): Pill X gave kids 3 to 16 extra IQ points on their tests. These researchers weren’t feeding kids weird synthetic chemical compounds, pill X was a simple multivitamin1. Let me re-stress what I said before: not being visibly ill is not the same as functioning as well as you could.
I have a problem with RDA’s
The above should show you why. The Dutch government (my country) is particularly funny. They are of the opinion that a healthy lifestyle will get you all the vitamins and minerals you need and that you do not need supplements. Never mind that the majority of the population doesn’t have the time/money to buy/cook/eat in a balanced and optimal way. It goes up to the point where our government considers a blood value of 30 nmol/L normal, whereas academia days anything under 80 is insufficient, and below 50 is blatantly insufficient6.
We evolved naked and out in the sun
Now we live with 90% of our skin covered all day, and we spend a lot of time inside. Even if you live in a sunny place, how much light do you really get? We and our governments forget where we came from. We assume our bodies are perfectly well equipped to deal with 21st century life. Well, our bodies are not. Put your scope wider than the past generation. Our societies change really quickly, but our bodies change really slowly.
But shouldn’t we have adapted by now?
This weekend I was sparring with my mother on this topic (love you mum) and she said something intriguing: “But surely by now the people in the northern European countries have evolved to deal with this low sun / vitamin d levels?” To those with the same thought, congratulations you have a sharp mind. You’re wrong though, no hard feelings.
Evolution works like this:
- A generation is born with certain genes/traits
- The individuals that get kids pass on their genes
- The next generation will have more genes of the parents that had more kids
In other words “fitness” in evolution is about how many kids you have. If you compete with someone with different genes, you win a ‘round’ of evolution by having more kids that the competing genetic alternative. There is the crux of the whole story: For a gene/trait to spread into the population it needs to increase your chance of having kids.
Let’s say we have monkey family A and monkey family B. Family A has genes for big muscles, family B has genes for small and weak muscles. Family A (big muscles) can have many children because:
- They can feed them
- They can fight off predators
- They are more desired by the opposite sex Family B has way fewer kids because:
- They can’t climb high enough to get food
- They can’t fight off predators
- None of the males are desired by the females Result: After a couple of generations the family B (weak) gene group will have died out. The stronger A family will have out competed them.
What about vitamin d?
There are two options as to why we haven’t evolved to deal with low sunlight and vitamin d:
- The mutation for ‘strong’ vitamin d genes didn’t arise yet
- ‘Strong’ vitamin d genes don’t help you get more children Genes don’t spread through the human race based on whether they make us healthy or happy. They spread based on whether they help you get more children. Arguably we didn’t evolve in circumstances where better vitamin d genes made us better at having children.
I am fully aware that the evolution argument of this article is only one way of looking at things. Feel free to have another view. The conclusion however is very simple: You were not designed/evolved to deal with the way you are living now. “Common sense” or “healthy living” are not ways to advise people. They don’t mean anything and lead to people just meddling about, walking around tired/brainfogged/grumpy because they lack basic nutrients.
What I do
First off, I’m not telling you to do what I do. It is a decision I made based on my best judgment. If you are going to supplement, consult a professional like a doctor (though don’t just take their word for it). That said, there are some things I do on a regular basis:
- High dose multivitamin in the morning (time released)
- Magnesium powder in my tea (NEVER use Magnesium oxide, it’s a low quality laxative)
- 10,000 UI vitamin d every day
Why the obscene dose of vitamin d? A 2014 research found that it is an effective way of safely raising vitamin d levels2. Don’t do stuff like this unless you know what you are doing. If you miscalculate you risk hypercalcemea. I get my vitamin d supplements at iherb.com. Mostly because high dose supplements are hard to get in the Netherlands, and they ship cheaply across the world.
- Harris E, Kirk J, Rowsell R, et al. The effect of multivitamin supplementation on mood and stress in healthy older men. Hum Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. 2011;26(8):560-567. doi:10.1002/hup.1245.
- Kearns MD, Alvarez JA, Tangpricha V. Large, single-dose, oral vitamin D supplementation in adult populations: a systematic review. Endocr Pract. 2014;20(4):341-351.
- Mokhtar R, Hamer D, Griffiths J, et al. Prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in high Andean Ecuadorian children (804.13). FASEB J . 2014;28 (1 Supplement ). Available at: http://www.fasebj.org/content/28/1_Supplement/804.13.abstract.
- Hyppönen E, Power C. Hypovitaminosis D in British adults at age 45 y: nationwide cohort study of dietary and lifestyle predictors. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(3):860-868.
- King DE, Mainous III AG, Geesey ME, Woolson RF. Dietary magnesium and C-reactive protein levels. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005;24(3):166-171.
- Grant WB, Holick MF. Benefits and requirements of vitamin D for optimal health: a review. Altern Med Rev. 2005;10(2):94-111.