My first dialog on this topic took place more than twenty years ago during one of my first visits to America when I was staying in LA with an acquaintance. One morning, I found him in a kitchen bending over a long row of colorful pot-bellied containers of various sizes.
I pointed my finger at his collection. “What is this? An American version of Russian nesting dolls?”
My joke made him smile. He patiently explained that it was his supply of food supplements and began taking capsules out of each container.
“Why supplement food? Is your food not good?”
My limited English and naiveté put a smile on his face again.
“Vitamins, minerals, and herbs are essential for maintaining good health.” His voice became evocative of my first-grade teacher in Moscow—“You must wash your hands!“ He continued. “Everyone should take food supplements daily. I always do!” He poured water into a glass, and one by one began swallowing the capsules.
“Strange!” I thought. “How come my health is perfect without these babies? “
“Is your health good?” I inquired.
“Not really. I have issues,” he disclosed.
Since then, I have met many people in the same boat. Based on the number of supplements they take, you would think they should be health-rich, yet they are health-poor. This is not a paradox.
As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, Dr. Buteyko concluded that nutritional overload could be more threatening to health than its shortage. I usually suggest to my clients to limit their intake of supplements to only those they truly need, which is preferable to determine by a medical test. Unfortunately, more often than not people purchase vitamins, minerals and herbs (factually, over the counter medication) based on their assumption—or even hope—that these supplements will make them feel better.
I know. I fell into this pitfall myself! In 2009, about six months into my Buteyko practice, I began experiencing fatigue and suspected that its cause was a lack of iron since I had stopped eating meat. What did I do? I purchased an American nesting doll with the word “Iron” tattooed on its plump belly and started swallowing its dark oval crop. The supplement did not increase my energy. In fact, it made me feel like crap. Eventually, I decided to see a physician. He determined that my weariness was caused by an infection (it was linked to the second discovery of Dr. Buteyko). My blood test showed that my level of iron was dangerously above the norm. Lesson learned!
Thomas and I periodically had our Russian-American dialogs about supplements. I specifically remember one which took place in 2015 in our Colorado home. I was standing in front of the stove stirring rice, beans, and tomatoes in an old cast-iron skillet when Thomas stepped into the kitchen carrying a plastic container, rotund, and a foot tall. He opened its lid and proudly demonstrated the content. I glimpsed inside. There was powder, the color of a black hole.
“This product has more iron than any food, and it’s vegan!” Thomas’ eyes were sparkling with excitement.
I looked at him with condemnation. “Health is balance! High concentration of nutrients can disturb your balance and therefore your health! Why do you even think you lack iron?”
“This product is great!” Obviously, Thomas’ confidence was unshakeable, but I kept trying.
“Dr. Buteyko made a joke,” I said grimly. “If you need minerals, step outside.” I pointed a long wooden spoon toward pristine mountains that were framed through a glass door. “Pick up a scoop of dirt and put it in your meal.”
“Smart aleck!” Thomas put a spoon of dark powder in his mouth. He succeeded in ignoring my forewarning.
Thomas and I were products of contrasting milieus. He grew up in Pennsylvania, in one of the wealthiest American families. It was not uncommon for his parents to grab their son to fly to Paris impromptu—just to have a meal. A private jet and a pilot were always available for a new adventure. When his mother liked something in a store, she would buy two or three of these identical items, to place one in each house they owned. When my mother liked something in a store, she also would buy two or three of these identical items. In the Soviet Union, store supplies were irregular, and it was essential to have a stock of a desired item. Nevertheless, I did not live in scarcity. Honestly, I don’t remember lacking anything. At an early age, I was exposed to a Marxist idea: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs (not wants). Thomas was an outcome of an American dream. His parents, brought as children from Norway to New York, fully utilized an opportunity for unlimited success and prosperity. The nobility of self-constraint on personal and societal levels was a part of my psyche. Thomas was raised on TV dinners and microwaves—the innovations of his time. I ate homemade meals, cooked daily. There was no microwave oven present in our apartment since microwaves were banned in the Soviet Union due to their harmful effects on health.
Our approach to supplements was also different. In the US, herbs, minerals, vitamins and such became known as additions to food (like deserts); in the Soviet Union, they were considered medication (like pharmaceuticals). As a little girl, I enjoyed visiting an apothecary and gazing at endless boxes of botanicals. Each had a drawing of a leaf, a flower, or sometimes a mushroom. This dry flora was supposed to be soaked or boiled at home and taken following doctor’s recommendations. To have a consultation with a physician was not an issue since medical services were free. In the United States, drug advertisement became one of the biggest profit makers, while in Russia the idea of employing creative talents to ignite desires for purchasing drugs was inconceivable at that time. No one cared about making money, whether with microwaves or medicine. While my approach to supplements was watchful, Thomas was not willing to bind his speculation-based consumption. He was always curious about a new product and willing to try it. His and my lives were two swirls of different social-economic values merged into one Yin and Yang symbol.
In 2016, a year after our dialog about iron, Thomas was diagnosed with liver cancer. When I researched topics related to this issue, I discovered that excessive iron could cause serious liver damage. A human body cannot eliminate a surfeit of iron, so it accumulates it in organs and tissues, including the liver, which increases the risk of developing liver cancer. Thomas had problems with his liver since he was young; I believe that the iron supplement he had been taking daily contributed to its further damage.
Doing this research, I also discovered that a simple dish such as rice, beans, and salsa deliver plenty of iron, and not only that, this traditional combination (like many others) makes absorption of iron extremely efficient. In general, the less iron we eat, the better our bodies absorbs it! And lastly, I learned that cooking on a cast-iron skillet increases the iron in your meal. Why did my husband think that our dinner was not enough?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I would never deny the obvious: supplements are needed: to humans, they are like fertilizers to plants. 21st-century food often lacks nutrients, and not everyone eats healthy. If you offer a body its must-haves, it will thrive. Nonetheless, often a question arises in my mind: Has the reputation of food supplements been boosted because the sale of every container generates profit? In 2016, the industry of dietary supplements contributed $121.6 billion to the U.S. economy. This happened because more than two-thirds of American adults take dietary supplements—lots of them!
“My main problem is constipation,” a client told me during a preliminary consultation. “I eat healthy, but it does not affect my bowel movement. It must be my breathing.”
“It could be,” I agreed. “When breathing gets better, metabolism improves, and bowel movements become more regular. I have experienced it myself.”
Karla was a chronic hyperventilator with PMP of 9 seconds and several health problems. She needed to improve her breathing and health; however, she signed up to work with me mainly because she wished to conquer her constipation.
Our online work began. Karla was doing her breathing exercises diligently and even became a member of a gym. I was satisfied with her efforts. Nevertheless, after a month of work, her PMP was still low; there was no significant increase of C02, and hence, no substantial health improvements. Karla was devastated.
“Nothing works!” she cried. “I’ve been taking tons of supplements, and now, on top of it, I am doing breathing. And I am still full of shit!”
“How many supplements do you take?” I probed.
“Oh, I don’t know. Let’s count them.”
After a while, a caravan of tubby figurines arrived on my computer screen.
“Here are my darlings,” Karla exhibited a bogus smile and counted sixteen of them. “Can’t live without them!”
Evidently, she has been taking sixteen big pills every morning, some of them several times a day! I can only imagine what these juiceless nuggets were doing to her digestion!
“How many of them do you indisputably need?”
She pondered over my question. “Two, maybe three.”
“Why don’t you start taking just those and see how it affects your digestion?”
Karla was doubtful but agreed to experiment. The next time I saw her, she was excited. “Constipation is almost gone! Amazing! I had been suffering for years because of these pills. And what about the practitioners who recommended them? I think they were full of shit!”
I shifted our conversation. “I prefer a moderate approach to supplements.”
By stopping bombarding her body with petrified nutrients, Karla knocked down the main obstacle to bettering her breathing. Within a few weeks, her daytime PMP moved up to 45 seconds, and her bowel movements became reliable.
Writing this, I am sitting in my kitchen. The glass doors are open, and I see my two Australian shepherds having a delightful mid-afternoon snack on the grass. Ruff is ten years old, and Fox is five. Both of them have never been ill, yet the only food supplementations they receive are bones. Yesterday, they did not finish one and stored it in their self-made refrigerator—a hole under the porch. Ruff placed the bone there and sheltered it with dirt; today, Fox dug it out and shared it with his pal. The soil is still covering their teeth and tongues—not a big deal to a dog.
Before our era of disinfection, it was not a big deal to humans either! According to Sera Young, a researcher at Cornell University, the first written account of human geophagy (the practice of eating soil) comes from Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, consumption of dirt has been reported on every inhabited continent and in almost every country. Earth contains iron, zinc, calcium and other nutrients as well as soil-based microorganisms, which, as stated by Dr. Josh Axe, the author of Eat Dirt, support gut health, strengthen immune response and remedy various disorders. “Decades ago, vegetable gardens and flower beds dotted almost every backyard, putting people in close contact with the earth. Kids played outside in the woods from dawn to dusk, often after taking care of animals on a farm,” Dr. Axe wrote. “Today’s generation is missing out on vitamin dirt in a big way.”
“You see! You are so naïve!” I am imagining Ruff and Foxy saying to me. Ruff is wearing a white coat; Fox has round glasses. “You assumed we were messing around under the porch when in fact we were working on improving our health.”
“You are right!” I tell them. “After all, Dr. Buteyko was not joking when he suggested adding a spoon of dirt to a meal.”