Why Your Vitamins May be Making You Tired or Giving You an Upset Stomach

Could your vitamins be hurting more than helping?

by Virginia Hopkins

Interview with Larry Permen

Raise your hand if you’ve stopped taking vitamins because they upset your stomach or make you tired. If you raised your hand, you have a lot of company.

It may seem obvious that taking vitamins is good for your health, but that’s not always the case. Most studies of people taking vitamin supplements show conflicting benefits, and some have been shown to be harmful. Nearly all of the health claims that are made for vitamins and supplements are based on diet research done with foods. For example, a series of excellent studies done on vitamin E supplements and heart disease not only showed no benefit, in some cases heart disease increased. Does that mean vitamin E is bad for us? Not at all, it just depends on what form of vitamin E you’re using. Research on people whose diet is high in vitamin E shows it has numerous health benefits.

As these distressing facts have dawned on the vitamin industry over the past few years, one possible solution has come in the form of food-based supplements. I spoke to Naturopath Larry Permen from Ventura, California about these issues. Permen has had great success incorporating food-based supplements into his practice.


“I distinguish between nutriceuticals, which are isolated vitamins and minerals found in potencies and forms you would never find in nature, and foodaceuticals or food-based supplements, which come much closer to how we get our nutrients from nature.

Rock Calcium vs. Food Calcium
One of the best examples is calcium. Calcium nutriceuticals are literally made from rock—they’re essentially chalk. But in its raw rock form, calcium isn’t acidic enough to be absorbed well—estimates are that only 5 percent of it is absorbed. So if you take 1500 mg of rock calcium, at best you’re actually getting about 75 mg. Over the years the vitamin industry has added various acidifying substances to calcium to make it more absorbable. For example, calcium citrate is calcium plus citric acid, calcium gluconate is calcium plus gluconic acid and calcium lactate is calcium with lactic acid added. But even acidified, you still only absorb 30 to 37 percent of rock calcium.

If you take a food-based calcium, which is readily absorbed, you only need about 100 mg to absorb 75 mg.

People are designed by nature to acquire their minerals through food, not from rocks. Plants do know how to absorb an inorganic mineral like rock calcium and convert it into a living, organic mineral. Then a human can eat the plant—or the animal that’s eaten the plant— and digest and metabolize the organic mineral, which is easily absorbed and excreted.

High Potency Vitamins can Drain Your Energy
But absorbability isn’t the only issue with the nutriceuticals. What you don’t absorb well, you don’t excrete well either. Rock calcium for example can stick to the arteries, form stones and spurs, and be a building block for fibroids and cysts. These highly potent substances can be hard on the digestion and on the liver. If you’re taking supplements on an empty stomach, you haven’t had a chance to start the digestive process, you haven’t broken it down with your teeth and saliva. Even when you take them with food, if you have any kind of digestive challenge at all, which most people over the age of 35 do, supplements can take an enormous amount of energy to process and you can feel really tired after you take them. Then the liver has to process them and that can also make you tired. When people see me for the first time, they often arrive with a couple bags of supplements. In most cases I immediately take them off 95 percent of them. They return a week or two later and their energy is way up, just because they stopped taking all those supplements!

With food-based supplements, you can take a lot less, you absorb them much more readily, and you excrete them more effectively. With the synthetic supplements, you have to take high dosages because your body isn’t using them efficiently.

Ascorbic Acid by Itself can Suppress the Immune System
Let’s take vitamin C as another example. Ascorbic acid, typically known as vitamin C today, is really one form of vitamin C, made famous by Dr. Linus Pauling. Ascorbic acid is a good example of being on the right track but on the wrong train. Ascorbic acid is typically made from high fructose corn syrup or some kind of sugar, and acetone. Ascorbic acid in its natural form does have an acidic nature, but its acetone form is much worse. So what science has done to make ascorbic acid less acidic is buffer it with some type of rock like calcium carbonate. Ascorbic acid plus calcium carbonate is the idea behind Ester C. Now we have a chemical buffered by a rock to make something that’s not as detrimental to the body. The problem is that it’s still just one isolated form of vitamin C. A lot of people take vitamin C as ascorbic acid for their colds or flu, which can actually suppress immune function and make them feel worse. It’s the bioflavanoids, the rosehips—which are food—in the supplement that can actually help the immune system. Even better, if you eat an orange, you’re going to get many forms of vitamin C packaged with hundreds or thous ands of other beneficial phytochemicals.

The vitamin industry hasn’t embraced food-based supplements more enthusiastically for a couple of reasons. First, they’re more expensive to make and rocks are incredibly cheap—the typical markup on a rock mineral supplement is 1000 percent, and it can be as high as 2000 percent. Second, the American public is convinced that more must be better, so if you see a 1500 mg calcium supplement for $10, and a 100 mg calcium supplement for $15, which are you going to choose? Unless you’re a very sophisticated shopper, you’re going to choose the cheaper, higher potency calcium.

Less can Be More
High potency can often be equated with potential toxicity. If you think about it, we have evolved over millenia as a species eating simple foods with relatively small amounts of nutrients per serving. We aren’t equipped to process highly potent chemicals every day, even if they are essential vitamins and minerals. Ideally you want to aim for getting the most results from the least amount of supplement, because the less energy you expend on digesting and processing a nutrient, the more energy you can spend on repair and regeneration. Research has shown that in cultures with a low incidence of osteoporosis, people typically consume about 300 mg of calcium daily from vegetables.

I’m not saying that the nutriceuticals have no benefit, they certainly do have their place. For example, it’s hard to get L-carnitine and CoQ10 from food, but both can be very useful nutrients for building and supporting good health.

The Sensible Approach to Good Nutrition
The best way to approach good nutrition is to first eat high quality foods that are pesticide free, hormone free, ripe, and organic if possible. That’s number one. Then you want to avoid the poisons—sugars, highly processed foods, white bread, pasta, things from a can, a package or a box. Next you want to make sure you’re digesting what you’re eating. In my practice I primarily use plant enzymes to support digestion, and then use food-based supplements if needed.

Larry Permen is a board certified Naturopath and president of Broadmoore Labs in Ventura, CA. He can be reached at 800-822-3712.

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