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BIOHACKS: What’s the deal with nutritional supplements? It’s not how it seems.

In many ways, biohacking is nothing new. Rather, it’s an age-old practice rebranded for the 21st century, a catchy new name that’s amenable to hashtaging and other sorts of sloganizing. That goes for both of its forms. Body optimization by way of exercise and pill popping goes back at least as far as the nascent vitamin industry. Realistically, you can look to all sorts of traditional medicines for ways of improving our limitations artificialls. And artificial enhancements? While it’s a far cry from Stark Industries, the glasses that have adorned people’s noses for hundreds of years are technically… enhancements. Turns out, we’ve been baby cyborgs longer than we’ve known. That said, not all biohacks are created equal. Case in point, vitamins.

If ubiquity was any indication of a nutritional supplement’s effectiveness, you’d think they were the most effective health inventions ever invented. If they’re everywhere, they must be good, right? Not so fast. Truth is, as prevalent as they are, their benefits are still being investigated. At best, some vitamins are believed to have beneficial effects. At worst, if taken in excess, they can be seriously harmful.

Vitamins are essentially organic compounds that the human body needs but either does not produce or produce enough of. The molecules play central roles in biochemical reactions in the body, most often as catalysts. Normally, a modern balanced diet should provide enough nutrients that supplements are unnecessary. And that’s a good thing since the list of essential vitamins is pretty lengthy. In the interest of expediency, we’ve nicked a handy list of vitamins and their functions from MedlinePlus:

  • Vitamin A helps form and maintain healthy teeth, bones, soft tissue, mucous membranes, and skin.
  • Vitamin B6 is also called pyridoxine. Vitamin B6 helps form red blood cells and maintain brain function. This vitamin also plays an important role in the proteins that are part of many chemical reactions in the body. The more protein you eat the more pyridoxine your body requires.
  • Vitamin B12, like the other B vitamins, is important for metabolism. It also helps form red blood cells and maintain the central nervous system.
  • Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant that promotes healthy teeth and gums. It helps the body absorb iron and maintain healthy tissue. It is also essential for wound healing.
  • Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” since it is made by the body after being in the sun. Ten to 15 minutes of sunshine 3 times a week is enough to produce the body’s requirement of vitamin D for most people at most latitudes. People who do not live in sunny places may not make enough vitamin D. It is very hard to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. You need calcium for the normal development and maintenance of healthy teeth and bones. It also helps maintain proper blood levels of calcium and phosphorus.
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant also known as tocopherol. It helps the body form red blood cells and use vitamin K.
  • Vitamin K is needed because without it, blood would not stick together (coagulate). Some studies suggest that it is important for bone health.
  • Biotin is essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates, and in the production of hormones and cholesterol.
  • Niacin is a B vitamin that helps maintain healthy skin and nerves. It also has cholesterol-lowering effects at higher doses.
  • Folate works with vitamin B12 to help form red blood cells. It is needed for the production of DNA, which controls tissue growth and cell function. Any woman who is pregnant should be sure to get enough folate. Low levels of folate are linked to birth defects such as spina bifida. Many foods are now fortified with folate in the form of folic acid.
  • Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is essential for the metabolism of food. It also plays a role in the production of hormones and cholesterol.
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2) works with the other B vitamins. It is important for body growth and the production of red blood cells.
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1) helps the body cells change carbohydrates into energy. Getting enough carbohydrates is very important during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is also essential for heart function and healthy nerve cells.
  • Choline helps in normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. Lack of choline can cause swelling in liver.
  • Carnitine helps the body to change fatty acids into energy.

Dosage is a very important factor to consider when taking multivitamins, particularly when it comes to taking too much. They fall under two categories depending on their solubility. Water soluble vitamins are naturally flushed out by the human body and are generally not harmful. However, their fat soluble counterparts are a different story. Because our bodies cannot clear them out as efficiently, there is a danger of them accumulating in the liver. Vitamin D toxicity… iron toxicity

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Beta-carotene and vitamin A, which can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Also, Vitamin K, which can reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners.

A team of scientists at Johns Hopkins reviewed the literature on the efficacy of nutritional supplements, focusing on three recent studies that investigated the effects of vitamins on heart disease, cancer, and cognitive decline. What they found was damning and led to an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine with the not-so-subtle title, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.” 

The reviewers concluded that multivitamins fail to reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline (e.g. memory loss and slowed-down thinking) or an early death. They went further, highlighting the fact that in some studies, vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements appear to be harmful, especially at high doses.

More recently, researchers did a review of less than a year’s worth of literature regarding vitamins and COVID-19 and whether supplements helped prevent disease. They concluded that “The previous studies show that D and A vitamins demonstrated a higher potential benefit, while Selenium, Copper, and Zinc were found to have favorable effects on immune modulation in viral respiratory infections among trace elements.” 

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Either way, whether you decide to carry on popping pills or you don’t, remember one thing: nothing can replace a nutrient-dense, healthy diet. Supplements are called supplements for a reason. They’re meant to be supplementary.



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