Choosing a Paleo diet and eating more in tune with how we’ve evolved provides the body with a robust amount of essential protein, healthy fats, gluten-free carbohydrates and nutrient dense veggies. An ancestral approach to eating also provides your body with key nutrients, vitamins and minerals the way nature intended. Does this mean that supplementation is unnecessary if you’re following a Paleo lifestyle? It’s a complicated question.
Most articles and blogs about supplements inevitably discuss the benefits or drawbacks of multi-vitamins. Research shows that if you eat a diet centered around the most nutrient dense foods – quality meats, veggies and fats – you’ll likely already be achieving a therapeutic dose for most vitamins and minerals. When intake is at a supra-physiological dose (that can never be found in nature), too many vitamins can actually put you at risk of chronic disease. Does this mean if you’re following a Paleo diet you don’t need any supplements?
Let’s look at the two most common instances where supplementation might still be a good idea, vitamin D and omega-3 fats. In both of these cases, although a Paleo diet is a great place to start, for many people this may not be enough.
SHOULD YOU SUPPLEMENT WITH VITAMIN D?
Vitamin D is classically known as an essential nutrient for bone health and immunity, however new research shows this fat-soluble vitamin has much more profound impacts on your health and well-being.
How important is vitamin D? Dr. Michael Holick, physician and vitamin D expert sums it up. “Imagine what would happen if a drug company came out with single pill that reduces the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, PMS, depression and various autoimmune conditions? There would be a media frenzy the likes of which has never been seen before! Such a drug exists… it’s the sun.”1, 2, 3
Vitamin D is different than other vitamins because it’s created under your skin when ultraviolet light from the sun interacts with a specific enzyme to form cholecalciferol or vitamin D3. However, exposure to daily sunlight is no longer the norm as we are cooped up in cubicles all day and the deeply ingrained ancestral benefits of light exposure are overlooked.
It’s estimated that up to 70% of the American population is deficient in vitamin D (defined as blood levels below 20ng/mL or 50 nmol/L), or suffering from vitamin D insufficiency, a level above a diagnosed deficiency but still not sufficient for good health (measured as 20-32 ng/mL or 50-80nmol/L). 4
If you live in a northern climate with a true winter season, or north of the 49th parallel, it’s very difficult to achieve the required blood levels of vitamin D from food alone. While cold-water fatty fish, eggs and mushrooms are good foods sources of vitamin D, in the dead of winter they’re likely not enough. Adding a supplement can be highly beneficial.
The standard medical recommendation for vitamin D drops is 1,000-2,000 IU per day, however in the darkest winter months you may need a higher dose. Remember, always get your blood levels tested and work with a doctor if you’re thinking of supplementing with more than the recommended dose. The normal range is typically between 32-50ng/mL (80-125nmol/L) and for athletes new research suggests achieving levels greater than 40ng/mL (100nmol/L) to support superior performance and recovery.5 Be sure to take your vitamin D supplement with a meal that includes fat for optimal absorption.
SHOULD YOU SUPPLEMENT WITH FISH OILS?
Extra long-chain fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the omega-3 ‘all-stars’ when it comes to supporting overall health and combating chronic disease. While most people know the benefits of omega-3 fats for cardiovascular health, many don’t realize they also help reduce the risk of diabetes and depression, protect against mental stress, and even support athletic performance by improving muscle protein synthesis and controlling excessive inflammation.
How important are omega-3 fats? In 2013, the Cardiovascular Healthy Study found that people with the highest omega-3 (e.g. EPA and DHA) levels in their blood had the lowest overall mortality rates.6 In short, the more omega-3 fats you consume, the less chance you have of dying from absolutely any cause. The good news is they are found in abundance in a Paleo diet (e.g. grass-fed meats, wild ocean fish, farm fresh eggs). However, modern day living and long, busy days might mean you’ll benefit from extra support.
If you’re prone to low mood or depression, or cope with regularly high stress levels fish oils could well be an important key to improving your brain health. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found people experiencing depression had consistently lower levels of essential fatty acids in their blood. When subjects supplemented with fish oils they had significant improvements in their Hamilton Rating Scale, a recognized evaluation system for depression.7 The British Journal of Nutrition also discovered that supplementing with fish oils helps reduce the adrenal over-activation associated with high levels of mental stress.8
Rates of diabetes and pre-diabetes have never been higher, and constantly being on the go is just one factor that can lead to snacking on convenience foods that are high in processed carbs and sugars. A recent study of fish oil supplementation effects on blood sugar and insulin levels over a 3-week period found significant improvements in insulin function in those with elevated levels.9
Of course, it’s not enough just to increase your omega-3 intake. It’s far too easy to obtain excessive amounts of omega-6 type fats in today’s world, whether from processed foods, restaurant eating, or convenience snacks. The beauty of adopting a Paleo diet is that it often naturally restores this common imbalance. However, the impacts of modern living may still leave you short.
Unless you’re eating 1-2 pieces of cold, deep-water fatty fish daily, it’s best to add an omega-3 supplement rich in EPA/DHA. Fish oil is the richest in EPA and DHA, however krill oil, sea oil, and sea algae are all viable options as well. Aim to supplement with 1,000-1,500mg of combined EPA and DHA daily.
If you’re an athlete and training intensely fish oil supplementation can be a game changer. Supplementation can lead to an amazing 50% increase in the up-regulation of mTOR, the genetic signaling pathway that stimulates lean muscle growth, leading to significant increases in muscle protein synthesis and muscular hypertrophy.10 If you’re serious about your training, adding extra omega-3 fats to your sports nutrition arsenal is important.
A Paleo diet is a great way to cover all your bases on the nutrition front. However, depending on your genetics, where you live, how busy you are, and your lifestyle, diet may not be enough to correct low or insufficient levels of vitamin D and omega-3 fats. Adding these two supplements into your regime, particularly throughout the winter months, may be the fix you need to improve your health, productivity at work and performance in the gym.
- Holick M.Vitamin D Deficiency:What A Pain It Is. Mayo Clin Proc 2003 78(12):1457-59
- Holick, M. Article Review: Vitamin D Deficiency. NEJM Medical Progress. 2007, 357:266-81.
- Holick, M. Shinning A Light On Vitamin D-Cancer Connection IARC Report. Dermato-Endocrinology, 2009 1(1):4-6
- Hanley D, Davison, K. Symposium: Vitamin D Insufficiency: A significant risk Factor in Chronic Disease and Potential Disease-Specific Biomarkers of Vitamin D Insufficiency: Vitamin D Insufficiency in North America. J Nutr 2005, 135:332-37.
- Koundourakis, N et al. Vitamin D and Exercise Performance in Professional Soccer Players. Plos One. 2014 Jul 3;9(7):e101659.
- Mozaffarian D, Lemaitre RN, King IB, et al. Plasma phospholipid long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults. A cohort study. Ann Intern Med 2013; 158:515-525.
- Su K, Huang S, Chiu C, Shen W. Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder. A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 2003;13(4):267-271.
- Delarue J et al. Fish oil attenuates adrenergic overactivity without altering glucose metabolism during an oral glucose load in haemodialysis patients. Br J Nutr. 2008 May;99(5):1041-7.
- Delarue J et al. Interaction of fish oil and a glucocorticoid on metabolic responses to an oral glucose load in healthy human subjects. Br J Nutr. 2006 Feb;95(2):267-72.
- Smith GI et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78.