A good swig of common sense is the best medicine….

Watercolour, Sand and Sea, Roslyn Ross, 2012

I am increasingly convinced the first dose of medicine we need when contemplating health decisions is a swig of common sense.

Take supplements for instance. Or don’t. I have always been interested in health, body/mind and natural ways of maintaining and restoring health and a very long time ago I was introduced to supplements.

Now, at an early point I will just say I am not so much opposed to supplements in natural, non-synthesized form, as I am questioning efficacy and potential for harm. There is also the cost factor – they are hugely expensive and one would need to feel assured that they are doing good and not doing harm to countenance that cost.

And for all those who take supplements and feel certain they ‘make me feel better’ all well and good. I suspect the reasons for that would be one  or a combination, of the following:

a. you have been fortunate to find, choose or be prescribed, the quality supplements which are right for you, which you are taking in the appropriate dose and which are suited to your particular body;

b. the placebo effect is powerful and placebo is involved with every pill we take, much to the chagrin of pharmaceutical companies where the placebo or ‘sugar pill’ consistently outperforms their drugs, so the supplements through the power of mind over body are actually doing you good – or at least no great harm;

c. you are robust and the supplements are not detrimental to your health and ‘doing something’ makes you feel better as does ‘doing something which you believe is natural’ makes you feel better.

Although one of the major problems with supplements, as with prescribed drugs, is that they are mostly not natural at all. Not only are they not natural in any true sense as a medical treatment, but mostly they are not at all natural in form or substance.

I did take some for a time and then, as is my wont, began researching them after a dose of common sense had me thinking: But how can these really work given that assimilation of nutrients from food is a complex process involving many different factors and a combination of ingredients in the food itself?

And, if someone is deficient in nutrients because of diminished physiological function then how will the body get nourishment from something so artificial and unnatural if it cannot get it from food? In other words, there is a lack of logic in the reasoning that says if your body cannot adequately digest and assimilate to get the nutrients it needs from food that it can get it from a supplement.

How, if the digestion and assimilation function is compromised anyway, can the body get the nutrients it needs from a pill where it must complete the even more daunting task of extracting ‘nutrients’ from something which is artificial in form and in application?

Or, if the reasoning is, I am too busy to care about what I eat or how I eat so I will just swallow a bucket-load of supplement pills every day, then good health is not a priority and you won’t be reading this.

But, taking another swig of common sense, given that supplements, like any medicinal creation, are condensed and potentized versions of nutrients found in food, who is to say what impact they will have in and on the body? In addition, our body digests and assimilates to extract nutrients in a process involving foods that are more complex, and which contain more extensive combinations, than  will ever be found in any pill.

We have evolved over millennia, and no doubt were created in the first place, to get the nourishment we need from food, so, how can an artificially created and concentrated collection of vitamins and/or minerals be properly assimilated by the body and, in the doing, provide nutrition in the same way that food can?

Common sense would make us question the entire theory of vitamin and mineral supplements if we have some understanding of physiology and even more so when we understand that more than 90% of such supplements are made from synthesized materials.

So, not only are supplements asking your body to digest and assimilate materials consumed in an artificially created form, in ways alien to that which food would deliver or require, but it is also asking your body to do so with something synthetic, an imposter in essence, masquerading as something natural.

In recent decades the supplement industry has gone from strength to strength, riding on the back of lazy, indulgent, medically driven health practices sourced in a philosophy of, ‘don’t think about your body or your health in any serious or committed way, just pop a pill and get on with life.’

Or death as the case may be for it always seemed to me, applying liberal doses of common sense, that if vitamin and mineral supplements were artificial in form and in application then at best they might do little or nothing and be excreted in potent and expensive form,  and at worse they might do harm, if not prove deadly.

On this count, scientific research may be on the right track and many people may be literally flushing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars down the toilet every year. And no, I don’t believe the supplement industry is a hoax, any more than the pharmaceutical industry is a conspiracy or fraud – both reflect attitudes of the times, sourced in a science/medical driven industry of ‘quick fix,’ ‘one size fits all,’ ‘body as a machine or bag of chemicals’ approach.

And yes, of course there could be funds directed toward discrediting the supplement industry by Big Pharma but I doubt it for the simple reason that supplements are really a part of Allopathic medicine, in form, function and theory and are really no threat either to modern medicine or Big Pharma. They fit very neatly indeed into the Allopathic system.

And because of this, supplements can be studied more easily within the limited paradigm of science/medicine in ways for instance that medical methodologies like Homeopathy and Acupuncture cannot. Supplements, therefore, can be studied with less distortion within the scientific system.

The reason why supplements are potentially dangerous is the same reason that prescribed drugs are potentially dangerous. So, scientific research, as always should be considered and weighed up along with all the rest, bearing in mind the distortions which are likely given the emphasis on the material and mechanistic.


Excerpt: On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.

These findings weren’t new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. Still, in 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements.

In 1994, the National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with Finland’s National Public Health Institute, studied 29,000 Finnish men, all long-term smokers more than fifty years old. This group was chosen because they were at high risk for cancer and heart disease. Subjects were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither. The results were clear: those taking vitamins and supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those who didn’t take them — the opposite of what researchers had anticipated.

In 1996, investigators from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, studied 18,000 people who, because they had been exposed to asbestos, were at increased risk of lung cancer. Again, subjects received vitamin A, beta-carotene, both, or neither. Investigators ended the study abruptly when they realized that those who took vitamins and supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who didn’t.

In 2004, researchers from the University of Copenhagen reviewed fourteen randomized trials involving more than 170,000 people who took vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene to see whether antioxidants could prevent intestinal cancers. Again, antioxidants didn’t live up to the hype. The authors concluded, “We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality.” When these same researchers evaluated the seven best studies, they found that death rates were 6 percent higher in those taking vitamins.

In 2005, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine evaluated nineteen studies involving more than 136,000people and found an increased risk of death associated with supplemental vitamin E. Dr. Benjamin Caballero, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “This reaffirms what others have said. The evidence for supplementing with any vitamin, particularly vitamin E, is just not there. This idea that people have that [vitamins] will not hurt them may not be that simple.” That same year, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association evaluated more than 9,000 people who took high-dose vitamin E to prevent cancer; those who took vitamin E were more likely to develop heart failure than those who didn’t.

In 2007, researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined 11,000 men who did or didn’t take multivitamins. Those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.

In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.

On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women and found that those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron died at rates higher than those who didn’t. They concluded, “Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.”

Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E, selenium, both, or neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent greater risk of prostate cancer.


It is entirely possible, that carefully prescribed supplements produced with natural ingredients could be of use as a medical treatment but that also applies to Allopathic medicines. The problem with both is that they are in the main synthesized and they operate on a premise that the body can be treated from a material and mechanical perspective which ignores the full complexity of body function, and never more so than when it comes to digestion and assimilation.

And yet people think nothing of buying over-the-counter supplements, just as they do over-the-counter medications when both are potentially doing more harm than good. Worse, some may also liberally dose their children with such experimental ‘medicines,’ if the multivitamins for children market is anything to go by.

And there is no doubt that with a long history of herbal medicine people equate the two and believe it is safe when the reality is that anything, in material form, can be dangerous. Herbal medicine can also be dangerous and should be taken on the advice of a professional or with caution but herbal medicines are at least natural and one is consuming a set dose of a natural product – although check this is so – in natural form. It is a concentrated essence of a natural ingredient. Or it should be. Here again though, proceed with caution because unless you consult a practitioner qualified in herbal medicine you may well be doing your body more harm than good.

Supplements like herbal medicines are not harmless and should be used with caution. And never more so than with children and those who are already taking prescribed medications.

In 2011, the Iowa Women’s Health Study of over 38,000 women found the use of multivitamins was associated with a 2.4 per cent increased risk of death. 


Despite being labelled ‘natural’, over 90 per cent of vitamin supplements on sale are synthetic.

New evidence is emerging that these unnatural forms of vitamin could do more harm than good. 


According to the Organic Consumers Association in the USA, man-made vitamins cannot be used by the body in the same way as natural versions.

‘In nature, vitamins come packaged with many other molecules including minerals and cofactors,’ explains Dr Phillip Maffetone, nutritional researcher and author of ‘The Big Book of Health and Fitness’.


‘These enable the body to use them. Since synthetic vitamins are isolated and are not recognised by the body, they are often excreted in urine or stored in fat.’ 


In addition, synthetic vitamins may produce harmful side-effects. The synthetic version of vitamin A, retinol palmitate, for example, is significantly more toxic than the natural form.

In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008, adults taking 1000mg of synthetic vitamin C (ascorbic acid) each day developed problems with energy metabolism.



While advances have been and are being made in science/medicine they often fall short because they are sourced in a materialistic and mechanistic paradigm. And yes, biology and physiology matter, but the complexity and interconnectedness of the human body is not going to be appreciated fully until science/medicine can expand its belief system beyond the purely material and mechanical.

The supplement theory industry is sourced in similar beliefs even though it often ‘sells’ itself under the label natural and seeks to make a case that it is different to pharmaceutical drugs. In some ways it is and in others it is not because while supplements may not be medication in the same way, they are medicinal, and they do use a similar methodology, resort to synthetic materials, and base treatment on taking an artificial ‘food’ in an artificial way where efficacy is questionable and a potential for harm must be present.

The question, as with so much of modern medicine, is ‘how much harm.’ And the answer, as with so much of modern medicine is, ‘it is hard to say’ because there is no generic human for which a generic treatment can be guaranteed either to help or not harm – everyone is different and just as one person is robust enough to take medication without too many problems, and another is not, the same applies to supplements.

In other words you don’t know and you probably can’t know and you won’t know until knowledge develops enough to interpret when something has been detrimental. And never more so than with self-prescribing. Self-prescribing is always risky with any treatment which has an unknown capacity to effect, and no accountability to a practitioner with enough knowledge to monitor ongoing treatment and any effects.

And the less natural something is the more side-effects can be expected. They may not be as dramatic or recognisable as those from pharmaceuticals, but they will be there.

Excerpt: According to the Organic Consumer’s Association, “at least 95% of all vitamins manufactured today contain some synthetic ingredients.” This is important when you consider the fact that compounds work synergistically, interacting to produce benefits that are much more powerful than one nutrient working alone. Isolating a nutrient and reproducing it synthetically is not giving the body what it needs.

In his book, Supplements Exposed, Brian Clement, PhD states that science cannot create synthetic nutrients that exactly duplicate or replace naturally occurring nutrients.

Examples of single, synthetic nutrients causing potential health problems

Beta-carotene is one such isolated nutrient that may be actually made from acetylene gas. As this vitamin is part of the carotenoid family, it is never found alone in nature. It is not surprising that studies have sometimes found negative health results from using single vitamins in their synthetic form.

Vitamin E is another supplement where it is important to obtain the natural form (d-alpha tocopherol), made from vegetable oil. The synthetic version (DL-alpha tocopherol) is an inferior product and not as useful to the body as the naturally sourced one.


And while synthetic supplements are always likely to be problematic, don’t kid yourself that natural and organic supplements are safe either. Because the fact is, we don’t know!

Food is our best medicine but anything can be harmful if you consume too much of it. Even too much water can be bad for health and is capable of killing you, no matter how pure it might be. Moderation in all things is important for anything, even food.

As a supporter of anything which is closest to nature, I am also well aware that the word nature or natural has become a marketing tool par excellence and its mere presence makes people feel that a product cannot do harm. This is simply not true and never more so than in the case of supplements or even foods and dietary recommendations.

Used in the wrong way or to excess, even natural, organic foods are capable of harm. Extreme diets and excess amounts of fruit and vegetable juices, no matter how organic, can do more harm than good. Too much of one particular food, often a factor in diets, can be detrimental to health. 

‘Variety is the spice of life,’ is particularly crucial when it comes to food and good health.

Nature never planned for us to drink litres of wheatgrass juice; consume huge quantities of crushed fish or seafood in the form of oil or to ingest high potencies of any Vitamin or Mineral and particularly not in synthetic form. And what nature has provided, and that with which we have evolved through millennia, is going to be that which we are able to best digest, assimilate and absorb.

When the word natural appears, too many people seem to think that more is better, when as always, less is more is a wise and sensible approach to anything. Moderation in all things, is a maxim sourced in common sense and one which needs to be applied particularly in terms of our body and our health because in truth, while we continue to learn from both Allopathic and non-Allopathic medical methodologies, we really know so very little about how our body works.

People may have taken a small dose of herbs or even minerals in medicinal form throughout history, but only in recent times have we subjected our bodies to experimental forms of concentrated vitamins and minerals, both natural and synthetic. Common sense suggests that there must be a capacity to do harm, if taken in too high a dose, to lesser and greater degrees, depending upon individual physiology.

And perhaps never more so than in the most medicated age in history where more people than not take some supplements, from a few to many, and where, over the age of forty in the developed world at least, most are on one or more prescribed synthetic drugs, with the number increasing with every decade,  and no real understanding not only of the contra-indicative factors for supplements for each individual, or prescribed drugs for each individual, but the contra-indicative factors and possible side-effects for the combination of the two forms of medication.

If your body is having problems getting the nourishment it needs then there are a multitude of ways, more economical ways, less potentially dangerous ways, to change that situation. Less is more on all counts and the healthiest diet will remain, that which contains high levels of naturally produced, locally sourced, and varied across the board, freshly prepared foods…… served with a liberal seasoning of common sense.

About rosross

Editor, writer, poet.
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