The foundations of health: the top 3 supplements to support optimal health

When we refer to the ‘foundations of health’ we are talking about creating a solid foundation upon which we can build. Our concept of the foundations of health is centred around the three fundamental components which contribute to supporting optimal health and wellbeing.

From a nutritional perspective, a multivitamin and mineral, probiotic and essential fatty acid supplement can collectively form the foundation of health and help to build wellness from within. Let’s explore each of these three foundations in more depth…

The nutrition gap

The term “nutrition gap” first came into use in the 1990s and describes the difference between the levels of nutrients the average person, eating a reasonable Western diet is obtaining from food, compared to the levels of nutrients identified by research as being required for optimal health.

Professor Bruce Ames hypothesised that if you are depleted in just one nutrient, your body will go into a triage response where it will prioritise survival over long-term health1, so the nutrition gap can create a hidden hunger which, unlike the hunger that comes from a lack of food, often has no immediate warning signs, but the chronic lack of vitamins and minerals can greatly impact on our long-term health.

The nutrition gap can have a detrimental effect on health and susceptibility to disease and can increase the risk of many conditions as well as accelerating chronic disease and ageing2.

Here in the UK, there are nutritional deficiencies across all groups of the population3 but even in those eating an optimal diet, there are several different factors that could be contributing to the nutrition gap:

Skip to Key Takeaways

Sedentary lifestyle – Our ancestors expended about 4000 calories as opposed to an average of 2000 today, therefore they consumed a greater amount of food to meet their energy requirements. As we are now consuming fewer calories, we are also consuming far fewer vitamins and minerals, despite our requirements changing very little.

Food choices – the typical western diet is high in refined, processed foods that are low in nutrients and provide empty calories.

Modern farming methods – intensive farming and soil depletion, as well as the transport and storage of our food will all decrease the levels of micronutrients, so even those who eat a diet rich in plant-based wholefoods may not be achieving optimal intake of certain nutrients.

Food processing – processing of food severely depletes nutrient content i.e. milling of flour reduces calcium, magnesium, zinc and folate and damages the structure of the nutrients. Ultra-processed foods and drinks, which tend to be energy dense, high in saturated and trans fats, added sugar and sodium, but lower in fibre and micronutrients, are thought to make up the majority of energy intake in high-income countries4.

Lifestyle choices – there are several lifestyle factors that can deplete certain nutrients:

  • Smoking – reduces vitamin C and beta-carotene. Cadmium (found in cigarettes) reduces the bioavailability of selenium and zinc. It is also associated with reduced levels of most B vitamins5.
  • Alcohol – chronic alcohol use can affect the absorption of several nutrients, including the water-soluble vitamins B1, B2, B6, B9, C, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as minerals including calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and selenium6.
  • Medication – several prescribed medicines can affect our nutrient levels. Some examples include proton pump inhibitors, which inhibit gastric acid production and affect nutrient absorption, including iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamin C and B127, and female contraceptive pills, which can deplete vitamins B, C, E and the minerals zinc, magnesium and selenium8.
  • Stress – psychological stress has been shown to cause depletions in several micronutrients, including magnesium, zinc, iron and vitamin B39.

Poor digestive health – this will reduce our ability to absorb nutrients from our diet. Our nutritional status is not only reliant on what we eat, but what we are able to digest and assimilate. Adequate stomach acid is essential for cleaving minerals from their chelated molecules to be absorbed, it is also needed to activate proteases for protein absorption.

So, if stomach acid is reduced, this can have a direct impact on nutrient availability. Likewise, fat soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K need adequate bile and lipase for emulsification and absorption. Our gut bacteria can synthesise a number of nutrients such as folate, B2, B12 and vitamin K46 but can be easily disrupted, as we will talk about later.

Why we need to supplement

So, we see that many people are not consistently achieving the levels of nutrients needed for optimal health and protection, and bridging the nutrition gap with a well-formulated multivitamin and mineral supplement is a safe and effective approach.

The benefits of taking a multivitamin supplement

Vitamins and minerals are not synthesised by the human body, and therefore need to be obtained through a healthy diet – but as we have discussed, this is not always the case. The consequences of micronutrient deficiencies in the population are widespread and optimal nutrition is known to positively contribute to both mental and physical performance.

B vitamins – these eight water soluble vitamins are excreted in urine, so require daily replacement through the diet. B vitamins perform coenzyme functions essential to the biochemistry that underpins energy, fat and protein metabolism, cell growth and function, particularly within the brain and nervous system, as well as DNA synthesis and repair47. An adequate supply of all the B vitamins is required for energy production and deficiency in any of them can inhibit this process, with potentially sever metabolic and health consequences48,49. Cytoplan multivitamin and mineral formulas provide an excellent dose of the B vitamins.

Some studies examining the health benefits of multivitamin and mineral formulas:

In pregnancy, it is recommended to start a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing 400mcg of folate 3 months prior to conception until completion of breastfeeding to minimise the risk of congenital birth defects and support maternal health7. Supplementing with a multivitamin before and during pregnancy is also associated with a reduced risk of autism spectrum disorder in the offspring50.

Older adults are at an increased risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies that contribute to age-related immune system decline, but supplementing with a multivitamin and mineral has demonstrated improvements in immune outcomes, such as the length and severity of illnesses, in those over the age of 5551.

While vitamin C is likely to be the first nutrient that comes to mind when looking to support immunity, it is now well established that our immune system needs multiple specific micronutrients, including vitamins A, D, C, E, B6, and B12, folate, zinc, iron, copper, and selenium, which play vital, often synergistic roles at every stage of the immune response. It has been suggested levels of nutrients above the NRVs may be required for proper immune function and even marginal nutrient deficiencies may impair immunity. Evidence suggests that supplementing with a multivitamin and mineral formula with the aforementioned nutrients may modulate immune function and reduce the risk of infection10.

Just some of the other studies examining multivitamin and mineral supplementation have displayed the following benefits:

  • improving symptoms and quality of life in those suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome11
  • improvements to memory in older adults, thus holding promise as a safe and accessible approach to maintaining cognitive health in older age12
  • support both pain control and healing following surgery, and offer a safe and inexpensive addition to recovery protocols13

It is important to be mindful that not all multis are made equally. You should ensure that a multi vitamin and mineral is formulated to elevate intake to optimum and that those nutrients are in a bioavailable form.

Cytoplan specialise in Wholefood and Food State™ nutrients. The principle of this is that nutrients are presented to the body in the same form that they are found in food. These forms of nutrients have been demonstrated to be highly bioavailable and well tolerated. In addition, Cytoplan’s multivitamin and mineral supplements are formulated to ensure optimal nutrient intake and bridge the nutrition gap.

What about NRVs?

Something we get asked regularly is why are the levels of most of the nutrients in our multivitamins higher than the NRV? When the National Academy of Sciences drew up the NRVs (formerly RDAs), it never claimed that these represented nutrient intakes designed to achieve optimal health. Instead, they were intended as a ‘safety net’ with the specific purpose of preventing diseases of overt deficiency.

In his work, Health Defence, Dr Paul Clayton ponders the mystery as to why many people mistakenly believe that NRVs are levels of intake that will give rise to optimal health2. Similar recommendations exist across the developed world, but despite this guidance, low intake of micronutrients is prevalent in apparently healthy populations14. Evidence suggests that this is particularly the case in the young, the elderly and middle-aged adults exposed to occupational pressures, such as students, working professionals, multi-tasking parents and those with an active lifestyle15.

Why should you include a probiotic supplement?

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, suggested that all disease begins in the gut, and modern medicine continues to demonstrate that very often, this is indeed the case. If you look through the enormous amount of literature surrounding the gut microflora, you will find some connection with almost any condition you can think of16.

There are approximately 100 trillion microbes in the human gut, which are often referred to as the gut flora, microflora or microbiome. The gut is a complex ecosystem where our gut flora, nutrients and our own cells should coexist in a symbiotic partnership: we provide nutrients for the microbes that inhabit our gut and, in return, they help us maintain the health of our gut. In many of us, however, this partnership can become easily disrupted through a range of different factors of our modern western lifestyles:

Food choices – like all healthy ecosystems, a rich diversity of bacterial strains in the microbiome is optimal and supportive for health – and conversely, a loss of species diversity is a common finding in many chronic diseases. In general, the more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiome and the greater the corelation with health, however, dietary diversity in Western societies has been lost during the last 50 years due to economic pressures for greater food production to support a growing population, which is having a detrimental effect on our microbiome21.  As well as the lack of diversity, the food additives and artificial sweeteners so prevalent in processed foods, can alter our microbiome and promote dysbiosis22.

Medication – a range of medications can have a detrimental effect on the microbiome. Antibiotics have broad spectrum of action that impacts on healthy microbes, in addition to the harmful bacteria. This negatively affects the composition of the gut microbiota, disturbing metabolism, and the absorption of nutrients18 and disruption to the microbiome can occur even after short term antibiotic use19. Other commonly prescribed medications such as proton pump inhibitors, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and laxatives can all influence gut microbiome composition and function20. 

Stress – the brain and the gut are intrinsically linked through the gut-brain axis and supporting the microbiome has been suggested as a therapeutic strategy for a number of mood disorders23. Stress can detrimentally affect our gut health in a number of ways; its accompanying inflammation can encourage the growth of pathogenic bacteria, promote intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and promote unhealthy food cravings which, as mentioned, can promote dysbiosis24.

Sedentary lifestyle – regular physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle, and as well as its well-known benefits to areas such as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health, can also induce positive changes in our microbiome25. Unfortunately, here in the UK we have become less and less active. Half of women and a third of men in England today are not active enough to stay healthy – with around 1 in 4 people doing less than 30 minutes activity per week26, which could be contributing to our poor gut health.

This list is by no means exhaustive and most of us will be exposed to dietary and lifestyle factors that have the potential to disrupt our microbiome – but what does this mean for our health?

Our microflora supports many essential processes within the body, such as assisting in digestion, vitamin production, modulation of the immune system, resistance to colonisation of pathogens, improvement of the intestinal barrier, and production of metabolites that act locally (antimicrobials, enzymes, organic acids) and remotely (neurochemicals, hormones)24. With that in mind, it becomes clear that that our gut flora plays a pivotal role in all areas of health, and when it is imbalanced, the health effects can be far-reaching.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, commonly referred to as “friendly bacteria” that help to support a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. In the healthy population, probiotic supplements offer a safe and effective way of modulating gut microbiota and host health, although those with diagnosed health conditions should always discuss supplementation with a trained practitioner. Different probiotic strains exert their effects in several ways that often work together, so we always recommend a multi-strain probiotic for the most benefit27.

Essential fatty acid supplement benefits

The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have become well known in recent years particularly for their properties which support cardiovascular, joint and brain health. There are two fatty acids that are known to be essential to human health, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid and linoleic acid (LA), an omega 6-fatty acid. Neither can be synthesised by the body, so adequate levels must be obtained from the diet28.

The long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which exert several health benefits can be synthesized from ALA, although this conversion is often inefficient29. When we also bear in mind that ALA and omega 6 fatty acids are metabolised by the same pathway, the high level of omega 6 present in the modern western diet can competitively interfere with the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA30 – suggesting a need for dietary or supplement sources of EPA and DHA to prevent deficiency.

The human body needs not only sufficient levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, but also a suitable ratio between the two. Traditional palaeolithic diets are estimated to have exhibited a 4:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, but our modern diets, with high levels of sunflower and corn oils, processed convenience foods and reduced oily fish consumption are estimated to be closer to a ratio of 20:1 – and this imbalance is thought to be contributing to many of the inflammatory chronic diseases that are common in the Western world31.

Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in the functioning of all cell membranes throughout the body36. They provide the initial starting point for hormones that regulate the relaxation and contraction of artery walls and blood clotting32 and can also help to reduce inflammation and therefore the risk of chronic disease33. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and can therefore support cognitive function34 and have an impact on all aspects of immunity35. They are crucial for all stages of life, but of particular importance in preconception, pregnancy, and childhood years.

Let’s have a look at some of the conditions that, according to the scientific literature can be supported by supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids:

Depression and anxiety – EPA and DHA can help to modulate brain homeostasis, and therefore mood, through their role in the modulation of membranes, neurotransmission, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and the promotion of neuroplasticity and neuroprotection36.  Supplementing with EPA and DHA has demonstrated beneficial effects on both depression and anxiety37,38.

Hypertension – the most frequent chronic disease globally, high blood pressure affects up to 35% of the adult population but is largely modifiable through dietary and lifestyle changes39. Both long- and short-term studies have identified associations between increased omega-3 consumption and lowered blood pressure in those with hypertension40.

Osteoarthritis – supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has demonstrated a significant reduction in pain and improvement in joint function in those suffering with this condition, which is a leading cause of disability worldwide41.

Skin conditions – inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis can benefit from well-balanced nutrition and additional anti-inflammatory support from fatty acids. Interestingly, the long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA appear to exert the highest potential for diminishing inflammatory processes when combined with the omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose, starflower and blackcurrant seed oil, and this combination could be particularly beneficial for inflammatory skin conditions42.

While it is certainly possible to obtain EPA and DHA through diet, where they are mainly found in cold-water oily fish such as salmon, sardines, halibut and mackerel, it is not always practical, or desirable to do so. It is also important to consider the source of the fish, as farmed salmon is lower in omega 3 and higher in omega 6 fatty acids when compared to wild-caught salmon43.

The NHS recommends eating at least 1 portion of oily fish (around 140g) per week but that girls and women of childbearing age, and especially those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should consume no more than 2 portions weekly. This is because of the concern about contamination of fish with heavy metals, PCBs and other pollutants44.

Certain population groups such as vegans and vegetarians could benefit from taking an omega 3 supplement from algae in order to achieve adequate levels of EPA and DHA. In pregnancy and breastfeeding it also may be prudent to take an omega 3 supplement, partly because of the risk of contaminants in oily fish to the health of the baby, and partly because of the essential role of DHA in the development of the baby’s retina and brain cells45. Finally, those with certain health conditions discussed above could benefit from supplementing with therapeutic levels of EPA and DHA.

Please note that there are contraindications between omega 3 supplements and some medications, so it is always worth checking with a medical professional or our team of nutritional therapists on nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk in the first instance.

Key takeaways

  • From a nutritional perspective, a multivitamin and mineral, probiotic and essential fatty acid supplement can collectively form the foundation of health and help to build wellness from within
  • We have identified a “nutrition gap”, which describes the difference between the levels of nutrients the average person, eating a reasonable Western diet is obtaining from food, compared to the levels of nutrients identified by research as being required for optimal health.
  • Bridging the nutrition gap with a well-formulated multivitamin and mineral supplement is a safe and effective approach.
  • NRVs don’t represent nutrient intakes required to achieve optimal health. Instead, they were intended as a ‘safety net’ with the specific purpose of preventing diseases of overt deficiency.
  • Our gut microbiome can support several essential processes in the body but can easily become disrupted through a range of dietary and lifestyle factors.
  • Probiotics, or “friendly bacteria” offer a safe and effective way of modulating gut microbiota and host health in the healthy population, although those with diagnosed health conditions should always discuss supplementation with a trained practitioner.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids play several essential roles throughout the body and can support anti-inflammatory pathways.
  • The ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is important. Traditional diets are estimated to have exhibited a 4:1 ratio, but our modern diets are estimated to be closer to a ratio of 20:1 – and this imbalance is thought to be contributing to chronic disease.
  • Omega-3 supplement are contraindicated with some medications so always check with a medical professional or practitioner before supplementing.

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Last updated on 17th January 2024 by cytoffice


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4 thoughts on “The foundations of health: the top 3 supplements to support optimal health

  1. Clear advice on the most effective and necessary supplements to take to support our health today. The scientific research underpining the advice is fully cited, reassuring and appears to be objective and not solely focussed on promoting sales. Thank you.

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