Voluntary Poison: A Brainwashed Love Story

An Analytic Look At Drugstore Vitamins 

When I first moved away from my parents' house, my mother was constantly asking about how well I was eating. Although I've always downplayed the extent of my crappy food habits, I would admit that maybe I wasn't eating enough fruit or swallowing enough combined bean-and-rice protein for a vegetarian, and, with a frown, Mom would adamantly take me to the drugstore for a box of one-a-day vitamins. It was insurance, we figured, to make sure I was at least getting all my necessary vitamins and minerals. While there are only a few amino acids (proteins) that can be bottled, and science has yet to come up with a way to synthesize phytochemicals, vitamin supplements have been in circulation since the forties. They're a healthy way to buffer our standard American diets. If it were up to the opinion of mothers and dietitians everywhere, we'd all be popping a pill with our breakfasts every single morning.

As of the last few days, and much to the chagrin of the guy who usually does the shelf-stocking in the drugstore where I work, I've been going through the racks of supplements and checking expiry dates, stacking them neatly in rows, and trying to match the bottle with their haphazardly placed labels on the shelves. Being as the career I'm working towards can involve a lot of vitamin recommending, I took a moment or two when I came across something a little more vague than your basic "niacin" or "B complex" and read the labels on the bottles with fancy "Centrum Pronutrients Bone Health"-type names, wondering, okay, what's in this that makes it "great for bone health"? While certain supplements gave me obvious answers (calcium, vitamin D, etc.), others had me balking and wanting to hide the container behind one of its less dangerous brethren in hopes that nobody would ever buy and ingest the contents of its cheerfully sky-blue packaging. I'd had the same enlightened moment at home shortly before seeing a naturopath last week, and had trashed my tea cupboard in an inspection frenzy, wondering, "What on earth have I been ingesting?" 

We'd had a conversation early in the school year about multivitamins, and my classmates had been delighted to inform each other of the fancy brands they bought, rated five out of five stars and costing slightly less than their firstborn for thirty capsules. I kept quiet about my drugstore-brand pills, because as full as they were of good intentions, I knew they weren't the greatest, and could predict the judgmental, pitying looks and suggestions that would follow should I mention them. In their mostly-colourless bottle, my Compliments Century Complete tablets were a once-a-day dose of thirteen vitamins, six minerals, and one of the few capsule-able phytonutrients, lutein. As an overview, it sounds like a decent mix, but as my eyes traveled to the "non-medicinal ingredients" list, I became more and more horrified and promptly dumped what was left of the bottle in the compost. As a simple introduction, the "we're not food!" list included:

- Croscarmellose Sodium, an emulsifier that expands up to twenty times its size when exposed to water. It not only steals fluid from your body to do so, but can cause the vitamins contained within to be released in your stomach instead of your small intestine (which actually does 99% of the digesting in your body; elementary school lied to you), can create blockages in your digestive tract in large amounts, and can promote yeast overgrowth in your bowels.

- FD&C Yellow #6, a dye derived from coal tar that causes hyperactivity in children and can toxify the crap out of your liver and gastrointestinal tract. The EU has made it mandatory for this additive to have a warning label.

- Hypromellose, another emulsifier that's most commonly found in eye lubrication drops like Genteal. 

- Microcrystalline Sucralose, which, if my dissection of words is up to par, is basically "really small crystals of Splenda", and anyone who's been keeping on top of the world of sugar alternatives is aware that this little chemical can basically freak up every part of your body, from your thyroid gland to ovaries to liver, kidneys, and eyes.

- Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, which involves not only GM soy (which I try to avoid, because it can act as a crazy estrogen in the body) but partial hydrogenation, the act of forcing hydrogen into fat to make it more stable (think margarine), thereby creating trans fats, which our bodies have no idea how to deal with. Leads to cancer and screwed up sex hormones, among other things.

- Polysorbate 80, another emulsifier that some folks have allergies to and people with Crohn's Disease can be really hurt by. Has been proven to eff up the reproduction of and cause cancer in rats, is a skin and eye irritant, and is in most shampoos and toothpastes, as well as ice cream. Yum yum.

- Silicon Dioxide, most commonly known as sand. Seriously. Silicon is wonderful for us in its natural form, but when bonded with those two oxygen molecules it becomes an eye, lung, and skin irritant and can cause inflammation in the body.

- Titanium Dioxide, my personal favourite, because it's the specific reason I switched to a natural deodorant. That's right, folks, my multivitamin contained the same heavy metal your antiperspirant uses to plug up your pores and stop you from sweating. There's a lot of debate on the safety of this one, because it is naturally occurring, but there're a lot of suggestions that maybe ultrafine particles of razor-sharp titanium could be a little hard on our squishy insides and it's probably a carcinogen. 

Unluckily for me, this was only the first level of unending horror I found in the friendly-looking bottle of Century Complete. Conveniently, somewhere between my naturopath visit and my stocking shelves, I picked up Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal by Melanie Warner and puked my way through the chapter entitled "Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again", which explained how things like Froot Loops and Wonderbread are made completely devoid of anything healthy and then fortified with synthetic vitamins created in China out of things like petroleum. The likelihood of any of those lovely vitamin supplements you're taking being sucked out of an actual head of broccoli or an orange are nil to nothing, my duckies. The vitamin D in your milk comes from lanolin, the grease made in Australian sheep wool. The calcium quantity in milk is likewise half due to the calcium phosphate (gathered from rocks or synthesized by adding calcium hydroxide to phosphoric acid) dumped into it. Vitamin C is made of ten rounds or so of acids, sugars, and fermentation, finished off with a dousing of hydrochloric acid, the same chemical our stomachs use to dissolve food. Vitamin B1 comes from coal tar.

Understandably, the thought of avoiding the vitamins health culture pushes like crazy can sound a little backwards, because what's a malnutritioned old lady to do if her calcium pills are full of carcinogens? She still needs to keep her bones strong, and she just doesn't have the appetite for multiple meals of yogurt every day. If the aforementioned list of additives wasn't a good hint, many supplements are not only not well used by our bodies, but honestly can't be digested. There are many documented instances of seniors excreting "horse pills" completely in tact, because their systems couldn't break them down. This isn't exclusive to the older generation, either; in our first-world societies of obese persons and overindulgence, our digestive systems in general are all beat to crap, and have enough trouble trying to consume Kraft Dinner. We simply can't deal with food that isn't food.

I won't say that every human condition can be fixed by diet, but certainly a large percentage of vitamin or mineral deficiencies can. If you're lacking a nutrient, it's either because A) your body can't absorb it, in which case you should see a doctor to find out why, or B) you're not eating it. When I began losing weight, experiencing brain fog, starving for carbs, and being cold all the time, I realized I was lacking a very crucial macronutrient - protein - and specifically the eight different "essential" amino acids it's made of. Plant foods have varied kinds of amino acids, and animal sources have all eight. I was eating very little of either. Instead of doing the math on which amino acids I lacked and spending a fortune on individual shots of 5-HTP or a sketchy bottle of "branched chain amino acids" from a bodybuilding supplement store, I bought a carton of eggs and ate them like it was going out of style. Three days later I feel like a different person. Food trumps pills.

Checking the ingredient list of every single supplement you're taking can be exhausting and overwhelming, as I realized while stocking shelves. Nobody's diet is perfect, and sometime you have to take a synthetic whatever to live on in relative health (hence my taking Vitamin D pills knowing they come from somewhere weird). But in the interest of not ingesting the same chemicals as are in your antiperspirant, consider keeping an eye out for the following:

1) Avoid ingredients that sound like chemicals. You don't go to the grocery store to buy a cup of Polysorbate 80 for baking, after all. If you don't recognize it, do a quick Google search before you start ingesting it. Despite what we'd all like to think, vitamin companies don't necessarily care how good for us their product is, as long as we buy it.

2) Do not ingest heavy metals. Good for the ears, but not good for the gob. Be wary of anything that sits on the Periodic Table. Some minerals are totally harmless, but others can be extremely detrimental to your health. Eat nothing containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, titanium, silver, gold, or arsenic, and be cautious of anything with iron, copper, zinc, aluminum, beryllium, manganese, and/or cobalt.

3) The less ingredients it has, the better. In my mind, a supplement should have only three things: the vitamin/mineral/herb, a container (which may have multiple ingredients, but should be generally composed of either cellulose or gelatin), and maybe something to make it go down smoothly (usually magnesium stearate).

4) Avoid shopping at the drugstore. This isn't to say that organic food shoppes are automatically better; I've gotten excellent-quality omega 3 fish oils at the drugstore where I work. The thing is, drugstores stock cheaper brands of supplements because their clientele is unlikely to want to spend much money on pills that won't relieve their symptoms right away. Always check to see what's in your vitamin and let it play a factor in how much you spend on it. As in the case of the probiotics I bought for GF, I would prefer to spend a little more for fewer tablets that were just germs and capsules than more tablets chocked full of strangely-named and unnecessary milk powders.

5) If it looks or tastes like candy, it's not helping. Almost all of the Vitamin C and multivitamin capsules you'll see marketed to kids will be either gummies or chewables, usually formed into fun shapes (and in some cases include temporary tattoos and stickers). Take one look at the ingredients of these and you'll see a list that goes, "Sugar, sugar, Splenda, sugar, chemical colour, Vitamin A, sugar, weird gummy emulsifiers, preservatives." Not only are these full of things you shouldn't be feeding to an already hyperactive three-year-old, but they're a waste of money. You could spend $15 on a tub of Flintstone vitamins to make sure your child gets her Vitamin C, and unintentionally pump her full of chemicals and mood-altering artificial colours, or you could buy a box of nectarines for $5. There are cases in which a fun-tasting vitamin may be the only option - with a picky or unwell senior, for example - but try to find the best bang for your buck and remember #3.

6) Liquids > everything else. If you can find a liquid fish or flax oil, I guarantee it'll work ten times better than "horse pill"-sized tablets for getting your omega EFAs into you. This one I can attest to personally.

7) You should feel a difference! I take four specific supplements every morning, and I notice when forget to. Instead of feeling awake and well, I'm overly anxious, easily depressed, broody, and unfocused. While vitamins are not stimulants and shouldn't have you feeling wired, they are meant to help - if you don't feel like it's doing anything, it's probably not. Stop wasting your money.

8) Alligators Don't Eat Fat Kids. Vitamin A (alligators), Vitamin D (don't), Vitamin E (eat), Omega Essential Fatty Acids (fat), and Vitamin K (kids) are all fat-soluble substances that our bodies store and therefore need less often than water-soluble vitamins. Taking large quantities of these can actually make you sick. Remember this when shopping for any multivitamin, unless you've been specifically told by a naturopath or other licensed practitioner to take more. The less of these a multivitamin contains, the better.

9) You don't need multivitamins! I still struggle to understand why my class full of health nuts are so insistent on taking these supplements, because if you're eating well, you should have no need to plug yourself full of synthetic food bits. It's interesting to note that professional athletes aren't actually allowed to take multivitamins; they're so unregulated that it's considered doping. If you believe you need to take a supplement because your diet stinks or is lacking something, consider first changing what you eat. It may be a little harder to do, but there's a significantly lesser chance of you poisoning yourself with a rutabaga than there is with a synthetic, chemical-bound pill.

In the end, the most important thing is to listen to your body. You know you better than anyone else!

In health,
- Leah

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