Written by Katie Kemble
Are you in the 64 to 81 percent of Americans who take supplements? Among climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts, supplement use is especially high, taken for performance enhancement and health improvement. Do you realize, though, that vitamins and other supplements may not help and can even pose dangers? In the past year, information on vitamin use has whipsawed.
While scientists are continually finding disease-fighting substances in plants, they're also finding that the benefits can't be replicated in pills, powders or beverages. In fact, recent research has found that high-dose supplements can increase the risk of developing cancer and worsen cancer outcomes.
Phytochemicals occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, and work synergistically to help prevent cancer. However, when they are isolated in supplements, they not only lose benefits, the results are now thought to be potentially hazardous. Ongoing research is looking at how supplements work, their interactions, and whether purer products can be developed that are more similar to plant sources.
Climbers should aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone, with some exceptions: athletes with poor diets (those who are anorexic, eat fast foods or have other unhealthy practices) may require supplements. Vegans and folks over 50 may need supplemental B12, or foods fortified with B12. Calcium is also needed for good bone health, especially in menopausal women.
Another exception is vitamin D, which is actually a prohormone. It's difficult to get adequate vitamin D from the sun if you are living north of 35 degrees latitude in the winter (e.g., above San Francisco; Springfield, Missouri; and Washington, D.C.). Risk factors for vitamin D3 deficiency include elderly populations, being shut-in, dark skin, and use of sunscreen. It takes 30 minutes with SPF 15 to obtain the same benefits as eight minutes of sun without sunscreen. Fifteen to 20 minutes of UV light generates about 3,000 IU of D3. Nutritional insufficiency requires treatment with 800 to 1000 IU of vitamin D3 daily. If you are concerned, have your vitamin D level checked, a simple lab test.
Some people may wish to take D3 only in winter. You may think that because you are a climber and go outside, you don't need it, but a person with a desk job who uses sunscreen may well need it without knowing it. If you use SPF 30 sunscreen and have an indoor day job, strongly consider taking vitamin D3.
Research suggests that vitamin D may have a cancer-protective effect, by promoting regular programmed cell death and inhibiting blood supply to cancer cells: Breast, colon, prostate and leukemic cells are especially affected. It's very difficult to get enough vitamin D from foods. Vitamin D3 is found in animals and fish (and sunlight) and vitamin D2 solely from plants.
The American College of Sports Medicine and other groups strongly contend that physical activity, athletic performance and recovery from exercise are enhanced by optimal nutrition more than anything else. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and other cancer organizations also recommend meeting nutritional needs through diet alone and avoiding or minimizing use of supplements. They also recommend daily exercise (30 to 60 minutes), a plant-based diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. Implementing all three may prevent fully a third of all cancers.
The bottom line is to pay attention to what you're eating and include five-plus servings of fruit and vegetables per day, limit red meat, exercise, and avoid supplements with the exception of vitamin D3. These lifestyle modifications will benefit your health more than any supplement.
Katie Kemble, DNPc, a family nurse practitioner and longtime climber, is director of the Ease Cancer Foundation in Cashmere, Washington.