My Supplements for Chronic Illness
After ten years of chronic illness, I’ve finally leaned into the idea of supplementing to optimise health.
I prioritise my health by following a wholefood plantbased lifestyle, protecting my downtime so I get enough rest, and now following a supplementation and health food regime. It took a while to get here.
Despite the facts that about 50% of people in developed countries supplement, deficiencies are statistically more prevalent in omnivorous diets, and the global supplement industry is valued at $233 billion, vegans still cop a lot of flack for supplementing as “evidence” that eating plants is “unnatural”.
The statin industry alone is worth $29 billion, but for some reason vegans supplementing B12 to maintain perfect blood tests is a problem. I suppose this bias had weeded its way into my brain and that is why I had resisted including supplements in my daily routine.
Across the world, everyone will have at least 2-3 vitamin or mineral deficiencies naturally. When we grow up on standard Australian or American diets, that number increases to seven average deficiencies due to dangerously low levels of fruits, vegetables and legumes. There are just so many reasons we might want to supplement whether it’s dietary insufficiency, difficulty with absorption due to genetics or gut health, or simply targeting a specific health issue. Supplements are great for naturally restoring the body to a healthy balance.
But for the people who are actually against supplementation because a well-balanced vegan diet should cover every vitamin or mineral needed? I feel you, and I don’t actually disagree. I have been working on the diet aspect for five years and you can read how I’m doing here. I don’t recommend we lean on supplements in the place of nutrition.
When supplementing, there’s always the risk you’re doing more harm than good. Especially if you’re not vigilant on the brands you buy from, or when the impacts of above average levels of a nutrient haven’t been tested. In an ideal world we would all have access to a broad variety of plants and the education to navigate our health issues responsibly, with adequate medical help. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to shop around for a nutritionist, naturopath or dietician I trust. Plus, I currently live in Micronesia and my healthcare is kind of on hold. So for me? I am very open to experimenting with supplements for chronic health issues that haven’t been resolved by diet (yet), and taking things as they come.
It goes without saying, I am just sharing what supplements I own in this blog. I am not sharing advice on what supplements you should take. Some of these have been prescribed and some are at my own whim, so use your best judgment and consult a pro. Plus I encourage you to Google any claims I’ve made about a supplement and check it out for yourself! I am not a dietician.
This post is long, so jump to the headings that you’re interested in.
40% of Americans are deficient in B12, so no this isn’t just a vegan supplement! This recent study found there was no statistical evidence of vegans having more B12 deficiencies than people on other diets. B12 comes from bacteria and is found in dirt. Animals cannot produce their own B12 and must get this nutrient from the Earth somehow.
Our primate cousins and other mammals get their B12 by eating bugs, dirt and poop. Modern humans mostly get their B12 by supplementing livestock then eating them to get it secondhand. Vegans choose to receive their B12 by supplementing directly. Of these three options, one seems like a clear winner to me!
B12 is an important nutrient that helps produce our DNA and keep our blood healthy. The symptoms of low B12 typically present as feeling weak and tired, so it’s one of those important nutrients to get checked if you have unexplained fatigue or crankiness. The reason it’s recommended to include this supplement into your daily routine as soon as you go vegan is that the body can live off its B12 stores for up to ten years, but once it runs out if a deficiency was left to go on you could damage your brain or have children with birth deformities.
It’s good to get your blood tested before you start supplementing to see where you’re starting from. Best practice if you are under 65 is to supplement 250mcg of cyanocobalamin per day or 2500mcg per week, depending on the dose of the supplement you find. To absorb as much B12 through our food as we do through our supplements we’d need to consume six teaspoons of nutritional yeast per day, making supplementation a much easier and more affordable option.
There are three forms of B12 but probably only two you’ve heard of: cyancobalamin and methylcobalamin. While methyl is most easily available in supplements this link talks about why we choose cyan over methyl. Tim took methylcobalamin for a long time but a Doctor pulled him up on abnormal blood tests and put him on 500mcg of hydroxocobalamin per day to get him back where he should be. Dr Greger from Nutrition Facts doesn’t recommend methyl because it’s less stable and hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as cyan, with some studies showing people showed no improvement of B12 levels on methyl (such as Tim). If you get B12 shots, they’ll be cyan.
D3 is another supplement recommended for daily use to maintain optimal levels and just avoid the unnecessary risk. This is because we just don’t get enough sunshine to make up for what we’re lacking when we rely on eating animal products (i.e. Getting the Vitamin D secondhand that the animals got from the sun). Over 50% of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D with that number increasing to 70% of the elderly population and 90% of people of colour. Another common deficiency that clearly isn’t linked to vegetarianism and is much more strongly linked to lifestyle and melanin levels. Vitamin D3 supplements are sourced from either animal or plant sources, so we have the option of vegan or non-vegan supplements. Vitamin D2 is from fungi and while proven to get similar results as smaller daily doses, D3 has stronger evidence of the ability to quickly turnaround deficiencies and increase our lifespan. Until anybody proves otherwise, it’s currently considered best practice to supplement with D3.
There’s still some debate on whether the industry standard for measuring Vitamin D “deficiency” is at all accurate or just how much we need to supplement (watch this video), but Dr Greger recommends that 2,000 IU (International Unit = potency) per day is more than sufficient for 85% of the population. For people that get a lot of sun, 1,000 IU per day would also be plenty. You just have to ensure the supplement specifies it’s vegan, or it may be sourced from lanolin (sheep’s wool). This is the reason many foods like cereals that are supplemented with D aren’t vegan.
I am currently taking RealDose Essentials Vegan Vitamin D3 at 1,000 IU per day because I have pale skin and live close to the Equator, but I’ll get tested later this year and increase to 2,000 IU if needed.
Calcium & Magnesium
Calcium and magnesium are two minerals I supplement together on recommendation of a naturopath based on my hair mineral analysis. I have never been deficient in either, but both minerals are linked to the symptoms I experience. Plus, these minerals are issues for most people. One study showed that almost 70% of Americans are calcium deficient, and dependent on the study its reported that 50-80% of Americans are low in magnesium.
Specifically, I had a low calcium to potassium ratio which can be linked to insomnia, anxiety and a lowered immune system. This could be because A) I was eating 6 bananas a day, B) I have difficulty absorbing calcium, or C) Both of the above. Low calcium absorption is sometimes caused by overactive adrenals, and I definitely was living with adrenal fatigue. It’s a theory that chronic fatigue syndrome is due to faulty calcium receptors in the cells. So all these results made perfect sense. To rectify this, the naturopath recommended the calcium supplement as well as my regular D supplementation. (K2 is often used to increase calcium absorption but it hasn’t been recommended to me directly.)
Secondly, I had a high sodium to magnesium ratio which was a red flag. I wasn’t including salt in my food at all (although I was eating a ton of tomatoes), so this suggested it wasn’t that I had too much sodium but rather too little magnesium. Magnesium is a supplement I have taken on and off for years because it is directly linked with chronic fatigue and sleep quality. Deficiency can present as low energy, muscle cramps, irregular heartbeat and depression. Inability to absorb magnesium could be a contributor to my overall health problems so it was recommended I include this daily supplement, but I also focus on consuming lots of magnesium rich foods by eating 1.5 cups of legumes a day, and even adding liquid minerals into my water. I’m basically not afraid to overdo it on the magnesium and will include it in my water, food, supplement routine and even put in on my skin through sprays or creams to boost my levels as high as possible.
I take Blackmores CPMP (calcium phosphate 130mg, magnesium phosphate 65mg) three times a day, but if you don’t have access to practitioner dispensed supplements, you can explore what supplements you can find.
Another supplement recommended by my naturopath is silymarin, or milk thistle. After looking at my results he could determine I had liver issues which is normal for people that have taken birth control. I don’t know enough to explain how he figured that out from my levels, but he pretty much nailed my health issues and told me things I’d been trying to communicate to Doctors for years, and said I should start to feel an immediate improvement after taking milk thistle.
Milk thistle is a standard herbal remedy used in conjunction with modern medications to treat liver conditions like cirrhosis or jaundice. In my research what I’ve learned is you basically shouldn’t take any liver cleansing protocol seriously unless it includes milk thistle, but of course being a herb there are limited studies compared to manmade medications and more extensive research is needed to conclude anything definitively. The month I took milk thistle, before I had a break while waiting for my next order, I did experience increased energy levels and reduced acne. So I really think there’s something to this.
The third supplement prescribed by my naturopath is sodium sulfate (US spelling). Our bodies have seven electrolytes, and sodium is an important one. It’s a key ingredient in dissolvable electrolyte tablets or Gatorade. Sodium sulphate (British spelling) splits into both sodium ions and sulfate ions to rebalance our electrolyte levels. The purpose of sodium sulfate is to go along with my milk thistle in regulating function of my liver. The benefit is that it regulates water movement and nerve impulses, so may relieve my symptoms of bloating and IBS by relieving some of that water retention and helping things flow more smoothly (rather than spasmodically).
This supplement might seem confusing since my sodium level was testing as too high compared to my magnesium level, but my sodium was never above a safe level and I’m also taking that 195mg of magnesium a day! Plus, my blood pressure is low and I consume a below average amount of sodium in my diet (I’ve actually been adding refined salt back into my diet since moving to Micronesia) so I’m not at risk of suffering negative side effects of additional sodium. Especially when living in the tropics and needing to drink more than 2L of water a day, I am more than safe to supplement with sodium ions and also drink the occasional Gatorade. But I will totally get tested later on this year to check this is all still true!
I’ve been trying so many ways of improving my gut health so I can’t yet attest to whether this supplement is a “solution” while there are so many other factors contributing to a slow improvement in my health, but I’m happy to put this option on your radar if you have similar problems so you can take to a naturopath or do your own research on whether it is appropriate for you. There’s a lot of research I need to keep doing to better understand this because there is a link between low blood pressure, liver dysfunction and low sodium levels but it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation and I don’t yet know which is the core symptom that has to be treated to reduce the other two.
I have Blackmores S.S. 69 with a dose of 585mg of sodium sulfate per day.
The fourth and final supplement via my naturopath is Women’s Qi. This supplement contains eight herbs traditionally used to reduce PMS symptoms and regulate periods. I need this one because my PMS can be debilitating and in August I had a week off work and ended up on a drip in the hospital. Personally, I haven’t noticed any huge life-changing benefits of taking this supplement so I may not continue use long-term, plus it has less strong scientific evidence of its benefit to the underlying health concerns I have as compared to milk thistle or sodium sulfate. This may be frustrating to the creators of this product because many benefits of supplementation can take months to come to fruition and I recognise that incorporating all these roots into my diet is probably nothing but beneficial. Yet with so many supplements to balance my tight budget between, if I don’t notice immediate benefits it’s hard to make a commitment! (If money wasn’t an issue I’d probably take this until menopause.)
I would still recommend thinking about this or a similar supplement for anyone dealing with period pain, irregular periods or other menstrual issues because it’s clean, vegan, and I totally trust the recommendation from my naturopath. The brand is Oriental Botanical Women’s Qi and dosage is 1-2 pills per day.
Lysine, an essential amino acid (i.e. protein), is a supplement I learned about from Oh Dear Drea who is one of my favourite bloggers. Lysine is mostly used in the treatment of cold sores by starving the intestines of a specific amino acid that feeds viral infections, and Drea is using it to suppress the shingles virus. Once I started looking into it, it seemed like a good option for Tim and I to try as well. For over a month Tim was battling some kind of persistent viral infection with swollen lymph nodes and fatigue, and there was no way to get it diagnosed without flying home to Australia. I also came down with the flu for a few weeks and after 10 years of living with post-viral fatigue, it definitely seemed like a supplement to at least try or keep on hand! At the time of writing I’ve been using lysine for a few weeks and I feel good about it but it’s a bit too early to make a big call on whether I am seeing the benefits other friends said they have.
Google tells me other benefits of taking lysine include reducing anxiety, improving calcium absorption, reducing muscle recovery time and increasing collagen in the skin. So I definitely could appreciate all of those side effects! You may not be able to take lysine if you have certain health conditions such as kidney disease. Taking lysine in tandem with calcium supplements can also be a risk because your calcium levels can get too high. My experiment with lysine is being conducted in a way that if I see the benefits, I will stop calcium supplements. If I don’t see the benefits, I’ll continue the calcium into the foreseeable future. So here’s my warning to please chat to someone qualified about this before considering it for yourself!
I didn’t realise the brand I purchased contained a by-product of honey production, but there are vegan versions! I take 1500mg per day.
Oil of Oregano
Oregano is one of my newest experiments. I first considered trying it after seeing Shelbizleeee talk about it as a natural treatment for viruses, so I thought it would just go in my first-aid kit. But after ordering the oil, I also learned that oregano is one of the herbs used as digestive bitters to aid digestion. It’s never listed as one of the very best herbs for this purpose, but it’s one I already owned so I’m trying it out before I buy anything new. While keeping it in mind for future flu’s, I have started taking it sublingually to help with my IBS symptoms.
I’ve had dodgy digestion since I got food poisoning in Thailand in 2013, and once I got back I started on a high fruit plantbased diet without even hearing the term “gut health”. So all that fibre and glucose was probably the ideal environment for bacteria to flourish and increase damage to my gut before I learned to respect digestion, and without any clear data it’s just a theory that it could be the reason I still have problems today. (High carb plantbased diets are still optimal for human digestion, but if you’re making any dietary changes when starting from a compromised position while paying absolutely no attention to which foods are triggering symptoms… things can get worse.) Plus, I’ve had to be on antibiotics a few times thanks to living in India in 2015. (Two rounds of staph infection, countless rounds of bacterial gut infections.)
Bitter foods are important in our diet because they prompt our livers to produce bile which is necessary for breaking down food effectively before it reaches our intestines, particularly fats. This helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. They are mostly noted as “alternative therapies” that are used with great success by people from both inside and outside the conventional medical field but there’s been insufficient research to prove the traditional knowledge so far. Both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners incorporate bitter herbs into their practice. I know I have some dysbiosis along my digestive pathway, so I will do whatever I can do to boost digestion and reduce undissolved food particles making it into my small intestines and then likely into my bloodstream which causes inflammation, food intolerances and autoimmune diseases, etc. The process of digestion is described here.
Note: Oregano essential oil and oil of oregano, appropriately infused in olive oil, are two very different oils and using the former instead of the latter could have very serious consequences.
I have been using this wild oregano oil.
After we both suffered the viral infections I mentioned earlier, I decided it couldn’t hurt to supplement with Vitamin C to round out our defence against future viruses. After seeing a Doctor three times the only medical advice Tim was given was to increase electrolytes and Vitamin C, but it was tricky to take in any more than we already were with fruit hard to find locally, so I ordered a Vitamin C spray for both Tim and myself.
We have this mykind Organic spray to keep on hand as first aid for the first signs of a cold.
Once Tim was prescribed antibiotics for his viral infection, I immediately ordered a bottle of Saccharomyces Boulardii. And because my gut health is totally non-existent, I thought I’d take it as an opportunity to trial it for myself. This type of probiotic is the safest to supplement with antibiotics because it is a strain of yeast that is unaffected by the death of bacteria in your gut (if you supplement with the same bacteria you’re killing, it’s kind of pointless). Probiotics can be way more complicated and individualised than this, so this is of course generalised advice. More S. Boulardii is a good thing, but it doesn’t actually replace the bacteria now missing from your gut. You’ll probably want to add in bacteria-based probiotics.
Sometimes probiotics won’t make a difference, sometimes people feel worse before feeling better as a lot of bad bacteria drops dead in their digestive system, or sometimes they just make you feel worse overall because you’re adding more of something you don’t need and neglecting what you’re low in. Given how extremely expensive, time-consuming and unproven a lot of our tests are for evaluating gut flora, I suggest we all take probiotic recommendations with a grain of salt and “go with your gut” if you will. If you want to go down this path, you have to be willing to experiment without writing your first attempt off as a failure. Healthy people with great gut balances don’t need probiotics, but even really sick people with terrible gut health may not benefit from grabbing the first probiotic they see off a shelf.
This final supplement is just one to keep in the first aid kid and I don’t take it normally. This elderberry syrup is family-friendly and has added echinacea, zinc and Vitamin C and so I keep it on hand for the first sign of viral infection or a cough.
This supplement also comes from mykind Organics who I strongly recommend as perhaps my most trusted for health and ethics standards.
Dr Greger’s Daily Dozen
This seemed worth noting when discussing supplements. The most important thing I do is think of my diet as medicine, and every day I dose myself with the Nutrition Facts free app Daily Dozen dietary recommendations. To reach the targets of the Daily Dozen guidelines I take a tablespoon of flaxseed in my morning oatmeal and prefer to take a tablespoon of barley grass powder in orange juice to reach my greens targets. One spoonful of barley grass is equal to nine servings of leafy greens so goes above and beyond the requirement with an abundance of antioxidants (that prevent disease) because there is no upper limit of greens allowed in a healthful diet. Other than that we include nuts, seeds or berries on our oats and have a variation of tofu stir-fry, lentil curry or lentil stew for lunch and dinner most days to meet both legumes and veggie requirements. A mix of potatoes and broccoli checks all boxes. In Australia I found including a wide range of veggies on a single day could sometimes be my pain point, but in Micronesia I frequently fail to check off any fruit servings so that is something I am intentionally working towards.
And that is my list!
It’s not even a complete list because I am always experimenting and right now I’m considering trialling some digestive enzymes after watching a Gojiman video. I am going to experiment with the oil of oregano first, though.
What else does Tim take you ask? From the blood test where he found he’d been supplementing the wrong B12, the GP also identified the potential to develop an issue with his thyroid because of a genetic marker. So to get in front of these he was prescribed three supplements that cover B12, K2, D3, iodine, zinc and more so we can relax that most of his targets are being met even if our diet in Micronesia isn’t varied enough.
So, what do you take? What’s something you discovered that works for you and changed your life? Feel free to link your brands of great vegan supplements, videos to watch about any of these issues, or the potential risks of anything I’ve mentioned!