The news about diet and health gets pretty confusing even for readers and writers of The Optimist Daily. Hardly a week goes by without new research showing the important benefits of a (new) vitamin, mineral or herbal supplement. Then there’s another report arguing that you should be able to get all the nutrients you need from your daily diet and that supplements may in fact be dangerous or needless.

Despite the confusion and contradiction, half of the adults in the U.S. take supplements on a daily basis. But in many bathrooms and kitchens there’s a cupboard full of containers with more pills than anyone can swallow on a daily basis. So, what do you do?

Unfortunately, your confusion is not going to be solved surfing the Internet. There are many studies—and many interested parties—and everyone can find arguments in favor or against any supplement.

As is almost always true in life, you have to trust your instincts and intuition. You know best what’s best for you. At the same time, it’s helpful to hear the advice of an expert. That’s where The Optimist Daily can help. We spend time researching and vetting experts to the best of our ability providing you with information you can trust—and saving you time—while we know that there are always other credible perspectives.

To sort through the supplements confusion, I contacted Dr. Mark Miller. Miller received a PhD in physiology & pharmacology at the University of Adelaide in Australia and spent three decades in academic medicine researching inflammation, cardiovascular health, gastroenterology, pediatrics, fetal development, nutrition, cancer and traditional medicines. Today, Miller, who is a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and a certified nutrition specialist, advises companies and consumers about how supplements can help maintain health and/or support the resolution of core health problems.

Miller is convinced that even a healthy diet and regular exercise are not enough to optimize health today. “There are gems and pearls of nutritional information that lead to improved quality of life and longevity”, he says. He points out that traditionally the science of nutrition has been based on avoiding diseases of deficiency. In the 18th Century English explorer Captain Cook noted that scurvy could be prevented by consuming limes on long sea voyages. Limes are a great source of vitamin C. The “lime therapy” was negating the deficiency of vitamin C that led to scurvy.

Some 250 years later, modern medicine still “mainly discusses nutrition as an approach to avoiding a disease of deficiency,” says Miller. However, he argues that we can—and should—do much more. “We can use nature and dietary components to optimize our health.”

From the decades of his own research, Miller has learned that natural products can be very effective in solving major health problems. But, according to Miller, “it is much easier and more effective to prevent disease.” That’s why he proposes to use natural products for “health optimization.” To that extent we need to understand, according to Miller, the pharmacological relationship between “dose” and “response”—how much of a certain component is needed for a specific response, and how much is too much that leads to toxicity? And that research is available (see Mark Miller’s Top 4 supplements below).

Chronic inflammation is the biggest driver for poor or less optimal health. Miller: “We used to think that all bacteria were germs and that we needed to kill them. That’s crazy talk. The willy-nilly use of antibiotics has undermined public health. As a result, we have cleaned out the healthy bacteria in our digestive system that provides the biggest part of our immune response. And we have replaced these good guys with bad guys and we have even made the bad guys super bad guys. Instead, we should nurture the community of bacteria that you received from your mother and that live in and on you.”

Miller stresses that inflammation as such is not a bad process. It’s a mobilization of the immune system to restore health. Inflammation is needed to clean up debris and when that’s done the repair job can begin.

Miller’s academic career turned a corner when he discovered that nature abounds with products that “grab a hold of the inflammation switches that lie on your genes and turn them off”. The end result is that “the inflammatory process dissipates and repair mechanisms come in and restore balance—and health”.

Inflammation can be caused by so-called free radicals, atoms that have lost electrons.
Free radicals occur naturally within the body, and for the most part, the body can manage their detoxification. But external factors such as pollution, unhealthy diets, stress or certain medications, can trigger an overproduction of free radicals. That can lead to a chain reaction of inflammatory processes that further damage the body. That’s why you read so much about the importance of “antioxidants;” substances that scavenge free radicals.

Mark Miller started doing free radical research in the 1980s. He’s particularly enthusiastic about a new supplement that only recently started to make the headlines: Astaxanthin. This natural carotenoid gives salmon and certain shellfish their orange color and is a very powerful scavenger of free radicals. Miller: “Obviously, most consumers can’t care less about the structure of a certain substance. But that can be of critical importance.” He points out that astaxanthin anchors at both ends of a cell. “It creates a perfect bridge” that prevents free radicals hitting—and damaging—the cell. Miller explains that other antioxidants, like vitamin E or CoQ10, only partially anchor on the cell membrane and that makes them less successful in scavenging the free radicals. “There is no use having a bridge that goes half way across and then makes a right hand turn.”

Mark Miller knows that a good diet is key to maintaining a healthy digestive system, preventing or reducing inflammation and managing free radicals. He eats berries, prebiotic foods, and cold water fish and drinks (green) tea. In general, more colors mean more benefits. But he also knows from (his own) research that he can optimize his health when he makes sure het gets the right doses of the powerful nutrients through adding supplements to his daily diet. Miller is less concerned about when you take the supplements and in which combinations: “Compliance is a bigger problem. I’m less worried about any negative interactions than about forgetting taking them at all.”

Here’s “Dr. Mark Miller’s Top 4” science-based natural products that are hard to source from diet alone:

1. Astaxanthin
This pink carotenoid is hard to get from your diet. To get the desired 6 mg a day you would need to eat 4-12 salmon steaks daily. Crabs, shrimp & lobsters are not going to fill the void as their astaxanthin is within the shells, which we discard typically. Do not even think of matching your needs by eating flamingoes…

2. Omega-3 fatty acids
You can get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet but there are two primary issues that you must face. First: The vegetable sources are nowhere nearly effective, as they are not converted to the crucial EPA or DHA fatty acids with any degree of efficiency. The crucial metabolites of EPA/DHA compete with the omega-6 fatty acid in your diet and drive the health benefits of omega-3s. So, vegetable sources are not effective in this regard.

How much cold water fish—the primary source of omega-3s—are you getting in your diet? To fully maximize the health benefits, you need 4g of omega-3s a day (look for supplements containing only omega-3, not with omega-6 in addition).

3. Probiotics
It is very difficult to get enough “friendly” bacteria from your diet alone. There are several constraints. First: Individual foods that contain these friendly bacteria contain just a few, usually one, species but a healthy diverse microbiome contains over a thousand species. Topping up one or two species is inadequate.

Secondly, in food the bacteria have no special tools to get past the bacterial-killing role of the stomach, its primary function. So, only limited numbers get past the stomach to colonize the intestines. The acclaimed probiotic benefits of yogurt mostly do not get out of the store as the bacteria die off in the containers. Only very fresh yogurt has benefits.

Thirdly, you must remember: Location, location, and location. Bacterial species set up shop in different parts of the intestines. So a species that prefers the upper small intestine it is not going to help function in the lower small intestine, and forget about the colon.

There are “prebiotic” foods (dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic and more) that support a healthy microbiome because they feed the good bacteria. However, you need to a probiotic supplement to help restore a healthy profile to all of the intestines, large and small. You need good numbers and diverse species to help win the bacterial wars.

4. The anti-inflammatory natural products with epigenetic actions
Nature provides several products that switch off chronic inflammation processes. These are probably not part of your daily diet because they are geographically and culturally distant, or the dose is simply not enough to leverage the benefits. You need a higher concentration to get the desired results. The list below can be used singularly or in a combination that suits your needs. Some products focus on blending the ingredients for additional benefits.

• Cat’s claw (a vine from the Amazon): 100-300 mg/day;
• Berberine (a root from India, China & Southeast Asia): 500-1000 mg/ 3x day with meal;
• Boswellia: 200 – 500mg/day;
• Polyphenols: Dose varies with form e.g. catechins from green tea, anthocyanins from berries, proanthocyandins from grape seed extracts: 300-1000 mg/day;
• Turmeric: Use a branded curcumin complex that has clinical data to support improved absorption: 500 – 1500 mg day;
• Cinnamon: 1000 -1500 mg/day.

Past Editions of The Optimist View:

Every day I make a decision not to give up (April 9, 2017)

We can reverse global warming… and we’re doing it (April 2, 2017)

A Supreme Court hearing, today’s truths and the bestselling book of all time (March 26, 2017)

Every crisis is also an opportunity (March 19, 2017)

Ubuntu or why we cannot be human alone (March 12, 2017)

We are saving so much oil so quickly… (March 5, 2017)

Cultivating peace and an economy of sharing: toward a more just society (February 26, 2017)

Global warming: The air pollution bypass (February 19, 2017)

Democracy? Let’s do it. (February 12, 2017)

Trains, Power, and Trump (February 5, 2017)