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SAGE ADVICE: Food As Medicine

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by Iris Gage

“Dear Iris,

I have been taking supplements for many years now and they are taking a toll on my wallet.  Is there another way I can get the nutrients I need?” – K. Skomitz

You’re sitting in a cafe on a rainy afternoon with a close friend. While sipping on your green tea and catching up, your friend tells you about how she started to take a vitamin C supplement. “I read online that vitamin C can boost my immune system, so I drove to the natural food store and bought a bottle. I just started to take it; I think it’s helping,” says your friend with such glee and admiration. Hmmm, I have been getting sick a lot, you think to yourself, maybe I need vitamin C also? After your meetup, you beeline it to the natural food store and buy a bottle of vitamin C that’s on sale. Great, healthy me, here I come!

While supplements can be effective at filling nutrient gaps not supplied by the diet, they are not the panacea they can appear to be. For example, our bloodstream can only absorb roughly 200 mg of vitamin C at any given time. If we take a 1000 mg supplement, the body will try to excrete the excess, taxing our body, and possibly leading to toxic levels if consumed routinely. The same goes for nearly all vitamins and minerals. Plus, a number of studies question the benefits of supplements altogether. No one, however, questions the health benefits of a better and more varied diet. Whole foods should be our first line of medicine, like the adage suggests, “nature knows best.”

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Below are five essential nutrients and some corresponding foods that pack a replenishing punch:

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant and supports our body’s connective tissue. Vitamin C also increases the absorption of other nutrients, like iron, protects the heart, and boosts the immune system. Foods that are highest in vitamin C include: black currant, amla berry, red and green pepper, cilantro, rose hips, kiwi, and broccoli.  Some of the most common signs of vitamin C deficiency are bruising easily, bleeding gums, and getting sick often.

Lack of Vitamin B12 is thought to be one of the leading nutrient deficiencies in the world. This overlooked vitamin does many wonderful things for us: It regulates mood and energy levels, keeps skin looking young and vibrant, modulates energy levels, supports digestion and absorption, increases memory, and much more. Foods high in vitamin B12 include: animal liver, fish (salmon, trout, sardines, herring), turkey, dairy, lamb, and egg yolks. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you are at a higher risk for vitamin B12 deficiency and have to be super diligent about getting enough in your diet, with fortified foods and supplements. Contrary to what you might hear, soy products aren’t a good source of B12, as it is an inactive form of the vitamin.

Calcium is interestingly the most abundant mineral in the body, and roughly 99 percent is stored in our teeth and bones (then released into the bloodstream as needed). Not only is calcium paramount for bone and teeth health but also for the nervous system and muscle contractions. Without calcium, our nerve communication would be far less optimal. Some foods that are high in calcium include sardines (with bones), yogurt or kefir, nettles, raw milk, kale, and almonds. In order to absorb calcium efficiently, we need to also have magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K. I like to think of this group as inseparable best friends. This is a superb example of why it is so important to get nutrients from food instead of isolated supplements.

Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and a crucial electrolyte. Like calcium, most of our magnesium is stored in the bones, along with muscles and tissue.  Magnesium’s role in our bodies is never ending, from insulin metabolism and muscle contractions to DNA synthesis and blood pressure regulation. Unfortunately, it is possible to be deficient in magnesium even with a healthy diet, so it’s important to know you are eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods, such as spinach, swiss chard, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, basil, and black beans. Note: magnesium oil, a topical form, is readily available for people with moderate to severe magnesium deficiencies.

Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte that is essential for maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance. It’s the third most abundant mineral in the body and is supportive to the kidneys, heart, muscles, and brain. Potassium also helps the body stay hydrated because of its friendship with sodium (if that’s confusing, look up the word osmosis). Foods high in potassium are: avocado, acorn squash, sweet potato, salmon, apricots (sulfite free), and coconut water. Notice how I didn’t include bananas? Marketing has done a great job at making the banana associated with potassium. The truth, however, is that it’s relatively low on the list of foods high in potassium.

Iris Gage is a registered clinical herbalist and owner of the Grian Herbs Apothecary in Montpelier.

Have a health-related question you would like Iris to answer in this column? Then email mail@grianherbs.com or stop by the apothecary.