Very often, though not always, I find that patients require nutritional supplements in order to achieve noticeable and measurable results in their presenting condition. This is true whether the condition is chronic or acute.

The quality of the supplements used is certainly important; just as the quality of food you eat is important. However, in addition to the quality, another distinction can be made amongst supplements. That is: Is it a whole-food or synthetic source? And, by the way, which one do I want?…OK, let’s first assume the quality is superior from either source, thus not a variable. Although some may argue that whole-food derived supplements are inherently of higher quality. Again, we’re going to assume a level playing field with quality.

So, what’s the difference? Basically, food-based supplements are derived from a whole-food source, while synthetic supplements are synthesized in a laboratory and not necessarily derived from a food-source. So, a company that makes whole-food nutrients will take fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. and concentrate a portion (say the vitamin C) of the food into a tablet. The final product winds up being a concentrate of a food with a specific amount of a certain nutrient, after the fiber, carbohydrate, protein, etc. is removed. Now, there is one more distinction necessary to make. A supplement can be derived from a food-source, but the ingredient(s) can still be isolated to contain only certain compounds from that food.

Let’s take vitamin C for example. Vitamin C is a whole complex which contains ascorbic acid, bioflavanoids (including “p”, “j”, and “k” factors), tyrosinase, and ascorbigen. As you can see, ascorbic acid is only one portion of the entire vitamin C complex. However, the industry decided that (only) ascorbic acid is necessary to be present in order to say a supplement contains “vitamin C”. Therefore, most supplements that claim to be vitamin C, only contain ascorbic acid. However, whole-food based supplements include the entire vitamin C complex in addition to the ascorbic acid. So the point is that a supplement may be naturally derived from food, but still not be a “whole-food complex”. For example, the “vitamin C” in a supplement may originally be had from cherries (a food which contains the entire vitamin C complex), but the supplement still only contains ascorbic acid (again, lacking the bioflavanoids, tyrosinase, ascorbigen, etc.) because that’s the only portion they wanted to isolate.

The same example can apply to vitamin E. Whole-food vitamin E contains alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols; xanthine; selenium; lipositols; and factors named “E1”, “E2”, “F1”, and “F2”. Typically however, most “vitamin E” on the market only contains alpha tocopherol. Lately, researchers have begun to see the importance of the other factors, and now you can find a mixed tocopherol (containing alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherol) “vitamin E”. Keep in mind that this is still not a true “whole-food” vitamin E, because it doesn’t contain all the factors of the vitamin E complex. And again, it can still be derived from food, but then the tocopherols can be isolated out of the vitamin E complex, while still calling it “vitamin E”.

In this article, I am distinguishing between “whole-food” nutrients (i.e.: containing all the vitamin factors), and isolated nutrients (e.g.: ascorbic acid).

I think it’s safe to say that most people agree we should be getting all of our nutrients from the food we eat. Unfortunately this is not easy given the modern-day industrial agricultural methods. Through these methods, the soil becomes quickly depleted of nutrients, and food winds up losing (or never having) the nutrients that they have contained since the dawn of their existence. So now comes the debate. If we should get all of our nutrients from food, shouldn’t our supplements be (concentrated) whole-food.

One camp claims that when we ingest ascorbic acid, the body “robs” the other factors naturally contained in the vitamin C complex (from other areas of the body) in order to make it whole again. Again, they are saying that if you ingest ascorbic acid, your body will scour for ascorbigen, bioflavanoids, tyrosinase, etc., in order to put the whole vitamin C complex back together in the body. Then they go on to explain how this can actually create deficiencies in the long run; because you are constantly “robbing” different areas of your body to turn the ascorbic acid into vitamin C complex. The same goes for vitamin E and any other nutrient that is originally contained in a complex.

One more thing about whole-food supplements… They often contain very small amounts of the nutrient(s). For example, a whole-food vitamin C tablet may contain only 5mg of vitamin C; while an isolated ascorbic acid supplement (marketed as vitamin C) may contain 500mg per tablet. Now recall, the 5mg supplement contains the entire vitamin C complex, while the other contains 500mg of ascorbic acid only.

The “whole-food camp” says that 5mg is all that is necessary to supplement (or perhaps 10-5mg tablets/day), where the “isolated-nutrient camp” says that that dose is way too low. One reason it is considered to be too low of a dose is because most of the research has been done on isolated supplements, like ascorbic acid, not whole-food complex supplements.

So now what? Most research has been done on isolated nutrients, but we should really be getting the entire complex as nature intended. “She” did in fact put the vitamin C complex in the orange, not just the ascorbic acid.

My take…it depends… Fortunately, I use applied kinesiological manual muscle testing methods to determine what a patient will respond to best. This is done by using muscle function analysis as an indicator of the nervous system, and then “challenging” the person with different types of nutrients (whole-food or isolated) to see how the nervous system responds. This is my preferred approach to see what will work best. From a logical perspective, I’d like to think that everyone will respond best to a whole-food complex because we are intended to get our nutrients from whole foods. However, this is not always the case. Some people do better with an isolated nutrient in high doses, as opposed to a whole food complex nutrient in relatively low doses.

At the end of the day, I’d say that I prescribe a mixture of both types to most patients. Unfortunately, there are not very many scientific research studies done using whole-food complexes. Without the literature, it can be difficult to compare. Considering that most research is done using “isolated nutrients” (and most of the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry sells these), we can conclude that “isolated nutrients” do work to provide a specific outcome. From my own clinical experience, along with the experience of my peers, whole-food complexes also work to provide a desired outcome.

Fortunately, I use in-office methods that help me to determine what will work best for a patient. One option is to take both an isolated supplement along with a whole-food complex in order to “balance it out” and make sure you are getting everything, assuming you need the isolated supplement in the first place. Another option is to use whole-food complexes in cases where there is no specific ailment that needs treating, such as taking a whole-food multi-vitamin. However, whole-food complexes certainly work to help specific ailments as well.

In conclusion, I aim to provide the patient with what will work best for him/her based on in-office testing methods. Sometimes it’s only whole-food complexes, sometimes it’s isolated supplements, and sometimes it’s both. I jump between the two “camps” depending on the patient I’m treating.

Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology

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