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  • Necessities for Optimal Health - Martin MacDonald

    With the summer now over (it never really began did it?) people are less concerned about being beach ready and are often a little worse for wears after their holiday indulgences. Olympic and Paralympic athletes are probably coming off a 1-2 month post-season ‘binge’ and its time to get re-focussed. With the winter months not far away, optimal health and immunity are back in fashion! So lets take a look at some nutritional nuances that might be worthwhile giving some attention.

    I’m going to start in the most obvious place of all, Vitamin D! If you’ve not heard of the health benefits of Vitamin D this is likely the first nutrition article you’ve ever read. Vitamin D is the buzzword in the world of health and fitness at the moment and despite the fact that some individuals have gone a bit silly with their recommendations, its still a worthy topic. I routinely get clients checked for Vitamin D levels now and almost without fail they come back somewhere in the deficient-insufficient range (<40ng/mL). If you’re not already aware, Vitamin D, or 25-hydroxyvitamin D (which is what we measure in the blood), is being called a hormone due to the fact that that there are receptors for it on a large variety of cells in the body such as muscle, fat, intestinal and immune cells. When we don’t have enough Vitamin D, these cells don’t work properly; we struggle to lose body fat, we don’t get the most out of our training, we get ill more easily and so on and so forth.

    We have historically gotten our Vitamin D needs through its synthesis in the skin when it is exposed to the sun; however, with our increasingly ‘indoor’ lifestyles as well as the widespread use of sun cream when we do see the sun, this is proving inadequate. I have also written previously about Vitamin D needs being dependent on skin pigmentation, and therefore those individuals with darker skin will need much higher doses of Vitamin D to get into the adequate (40-50ng/mL) and optimal (50-80ng/mL) ranges. In that particular study, the only individuals that got near the appropriate levels were those of European ancestry (light skin colour), in California, getting ~90 min of sun per day with ~35% of their body exposed! Now you can probably see why those of us who live in the UK are destined to be deficient unless we do something about it.

    With regards to dosing, I’ll start with a quote I put in my eBook:

    “Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the season of the year…” Hippocates

    The best idea is to get your levels tested and you can then work from there. There is small risk with Vitamin D supplementation that you could overdose due to it being fat-soluble, however toxic intakes are likely to be very high. When you get lots of sun (when you go on holiday and don’t use sun cream all the time) you might want to taper your supplementation. In the depths of the British winter you might want to increase it accordingly. An appropriate daily dose is somewhere between 2000-4000IU for most people; this will go someway to correcting even the most deficient of individuals but typically a clinical deficiency is treated with 5000-10000IU per day with the lower end of this range perhaps being appropriate for the aforementioned British winter.

    Moving from one obvious topic to another: Omega 3 Fish Oils. More specifically we are interested in the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These fatty acids are able to exert such profound effects due to their capability to alter the lipid composition of cell membranes, impacting cellular metabolism, signal transduction, and regulating gene expression! A quick pubmed search on fish oil and health will bring up over 3000 papers! I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the strength of research behind supplementation with EPA and DHA. Although the main topic here is optimal health, its worth noting that recent studies are even showing that supplementation with fish oil (4g/day) enhances the sensitivity of skeletal muscle to amino acids and insulin in both elderly AND young healthy individuals whereby the stimulation of protein synthesis by amino acids is significantly increased. Increased strength gains in elderly women simply through the addition of 2g of fish oil per day to a strength-training program have also been shown!

    So as not to completely brush over the benefits of supplementation with EPA and DHA I’ll just list a few common uses. Those with pre-existing cardiovascular issues can benefit but would generally want to be aiming for over 1000mg of EPA plus DHA. Pregnant and lactating women are warned against high consumption of oily fish due to the possible heavy metal contamination. Therefore supplementation with a low heavy metal content fish oil can be an excellent alternative. Some promise has been shown with improving cognitive function and visual acuity in infants. Controlled trials using fish oil have shown significant benefit in decreasing disease activity in chronic inflammatory diseases so those with joint issues would be well advised to taper doses upwards to find their sweet spot.

    These two supplements are things that should be taken year round but might need extra focus during the high stress winter months. It is likely that Zinc and Vitamin C need no introduction when it comes to immunity. There is still controversy around role of these two supplements in athletic populations for performance enhancement and reduction in the incidence of illness but there is a host of both experimental and anecdotal evidence that suggests, during times of stress or increased likelihood of infection, it may be pertinent to supplement with these two.

    With busy lifestyles, a lack of sleep, a lack of sunlight and certain dietary preferences many individuals are not getting the nutrients they need. Those with weight loss or body composition goals are also often restricting their variety of food intake. One thing that has popped up on my radar of late is magnesium; historically I’ve rarely supplemented with it myself or with clients. One of the best sources of magnesium is leafy green vegetables, notoriously under consumed in the average diet; other sources include nuts, seeds and whole grains. Good little paleo eaters who consume loads of dark green leafy veg will always be fine but with the limitation of wholegrains and nuts by some paleo enthusiasts who aren’t so keen on their veg, it can become an issue. Similarly, those who are eating a more typical processed food diet (as over 50% of my clients are when they come to see me) can have exceptionally low intakes of this amazing mineral!

    The reason I had never supplemented clients with it was due to blood levels more often than not coming back as normal. However, after much reading it seems that blood levels are typically well regulated and it is the magnesium levels elsewhere that are becoming depleted. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to measure intracellular magnesium so have had a slow learning curve of case by case basis supplementation and symptom analysis. So far it’s been useful for muscle twitches, constipation (not to do with deficiency), blood pressure issues and headaches but there are a host of other things it is beneficial for. As I mentioned, beware of high dose magnesium supplementation, if you’re not constipated its going to push you far the other way if you’re not careful – this effect tends to happen with doses of 400mg+.

    As a final note, by significantly improving your diet i.e. getting rid of highly processed foods that contain added sugars, heavily processed vegetable oils and other additives, you actually retain more of the nutrients you put in. Insulin resistance and high sugar intakes are known for depleting the bodies stores of vitamins and minerals therefore simply getting these things under control will improve your overall health in more ways than one.

    Martin MacDonald is MyProtein’s expert nutritionist. You can read more of Martins work on his website www.Mac-Nutrition.com or follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/MacNutr) and/or Twitter (www.Twitter.com/MacNutrition) for regular updates.

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