Fear of infections, fatigue and the ability to perform fills the shelves in organic food stores, pharmacies and supermarkets with promises on a magnitude of 1001 Nights. The percentage of selling space used for dietary supplements such as vitamins is ever-growing; some businesses and distribution systems for vitamins are expanding as if they held the promise of drinking from the fountain of eternal youth. Vitamin packaging shows people on bikes, laughing children and the vital elderly, while images of multi-armed deities, mystical symbols and green nature figure on organic products.
Is it about peace of mind? Do we really believe we strengthen ourselves with factory sealed products that have found their way to us, in most cases from laboratories in China? Who needs this stuff anyway? Is there really a lack of nutrient supply? Are we undernourished? Or incorrectly nourished? Do we lack essential vitamins and minerals (magnesium!) after doing exercise? Or when we eat at a restaurant (vitamin C! multivitamins A-Z!) Or is our self-prescribing what’s actually unhealthy?
Introspection precedes reaching for pills. In most cases it ends with an unsettling message: I’m tired. I wasn’t always like this. My eyes are red, my patience thin. But why? I probably have a vitamin deficiency
What isn’t taken into consideration: the life style of late bedtimes, depleting workdays and the workouts after, the overall exhausting search for the perfect work-life balance. Instead some strange condition gets diagnosed as requiring treatment. Or more proactively: my girlfriend is sneezing, so I’d better take some vitamin C.
Along with all the promises of relieving us of our neuroses (illness! aging!), and improving our beauty (skin! hair!), there is the argument that vitamins, in particular A, C, and E, are capable of bonding free radicals. Free radicals are aggressive metabolic products that cause our cells, and thereby our selves, to age. Cell aging means that metabolic processes can no longer be executed so seamlessly; that is, cells lose the ability to renew themselves. This is how cancer begins. Newer studies have proven this to be absolutely true. These vitamins are indeed capable of rendering free radicals harmless.
However: our body is an evolutionarily adapting vehicle, and too many free radical captors lead to a free radical deficiency. Free radicals not only have harmful effects. In fact, they attack cancer cells in formation and eliminate bacteria – a truly biological fine-tuning.
Taking high doses of vitamins to reduce free radicals leads to a paradoxical condition in which our immune system is less capable of eliminating harmful bacteria. Our thoughtless self-diagnoses and self-therapy have caused more damage, destabilizing our natural equilibrium.
The danger of overdosing on vitamins as they occur in nature, embedded in secondary plant materials, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, as they are found in fruits and vegetables, is slight. Whereas what you gain in terms of enjoyment and joie de vivre while doing your weekly shopping is huge! And spending time outdoors brings us into contact with sunlight. Vitamin D? Check! Basket in hand, we enjoy the sensuous colors of the market harvest, the opulent scents of fresh fruit, colorful vegetables, the smooth and rough textures of turnips, cabbage, pumpkin and lettuce. Now that’s amazing.
I think a sensually stimulating effect of fresh produce does more for our health than a quantifiable amount of colored, industrially produced dietary supplement. I think that a walk outside does more for our fatigue than a pill. I think a conversation with friends strengthens our immune system more than vitamins A to Z. And I am convinced that too many vitamins just adds more to the excesses already present in our lives, that more “more,” “better,” “further” weakens our attentiveness to the sensations of life’s interconnection, that sometimes less really is more, that the ups and downs of life deserve more leeway.
Manuela Heider de Jahnsen is a medical therapist of the Traditional Chinese and Ayurveda Medicine. She is the author of the standard reference “Das große Handbuch der chinesischen Ernährungslehre“ (The Big Manual of Chinese Dietetics). Besides being a lecturer, she runs a surgery in Berlin, specialized in nutritional advice, yoga therapy and acupuncture. For us, she considers common health opinions, starting with detox. How good are self-prescribed cures really?