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Trail talk: Vitamins and supplements for both hiker and knackered old has-been

For many years Three Points of the Compass has shied away from taking supplements. Instead, believing that as balanced a diet as possible will provide all of the necessary vitamins, minerals and trace elements. That may be so, but modern lifestyle frequently means that a balanced diet is somewhat wanting. As the years draw on and the body gets steadily more dilapidated, sometimes a touch of additional help may be required at times. Occasional injury also points toward a few supplements, particularly as many vitamins and supplements, taken in small quantities, do no harm but might, just might, actually assist the body in repairing itself, if only overnight. However, it is the longer term effects that we may wish to consider if we want to enjoy a lifetime of hiking. Also, at this time of year, many people start to take supplements without much idea why they are taking them- ‘because Fred down the gym does… because mum does… because I saw an advert somewhere...’ 

It is important to realise that there are, essentially, two forms of vitamin: Fat-soluble vitamins are found mainly in fatty foods and animal products, such as vegetable oils, milk and dairy foods, eggs, liver, oily fish and butter. The body needs these every day but is capable of storing them too, so there is no need to eat foods containing them every day. However if taken in too large a quantity they can be harmful. Fat soluble vitamins are Vitamins A, D, E and K. 

Water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body. They are carried through the blood stream and are excreted. They are found in many foods but can be destroyed by heat (such as cooking) and exposure to the air, or lost into water used in cooking. Water soluble vitamins need to be taken frequently. It can be seen from this that we should eat raw foods, steam or grill rather than boil, or use the cooking water where possible. Also, the poor, unvaried and simple diet backpackers on extended hikes often experience outdoors, is going to be lacking in some of these vitamins and the need to periodically eat fresh produce or supplements is a necessary requirement. Water soluble vitamins are Vitamins B and C, and folic acid. 

There are many other vitamins and minerals (calcium, iodine and iron etc.) found in a good diet that are required by the body, in varying quantities, some of these are very easily assimilated from a great variety of common foods. However, some common foods such as fresh fruit, leafy vegetables etc. may not be encountered on too frequent a basis when hiking long distances on long trails. Rather than rely on vitamin supplements on trail it is best to fill up on fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy and as varied a good diet as possible on town halts where ‘real food’ is encountered. Have the burger, but make sure the side salad is eaten too. Also, take a little fruit out on trail for the first day.

Vitamin D is an interesting one. I am sure that many are aware that our bodies are designed to produce vitamin D when bare skin is exposed to the sun. Needless to say there a certain factors to consider. Pale skin makes vitamin D quicker than dark skin. What takes a fair skinned person fifteen minutes to make, may take a dark skinned individual two hours or more. The more skin that is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB), the more vitamin D is created. But we all know the dangers of excessive exposure, a balance must be sought (and note that sunscreen blocks UVB). Few younger hikers are going to be much troubled in the creation of vitamin D during the summer purely because of the amount of time they spend outdoors. The bodies of older people create vitamin D at a slower rate. The time of year and proximity to the equator also has an impact. Those in northern latitudes and during winter months may struggle to create sufficient vitamin D. It may be necessary to take a supplement. This is one of the reasons why some people switch from supplementary Fish Oil capsules in the summer to Cod Liver Oil in the winter. In common with many supplements, it can take a while for this to build up in the body. It can take as long as three months before any benefits become apparent. 

Note that Three Points of the Compass is in no way, in any form, qualified to give medical advice. All I say here is what supplements I have used on occasion or on a frequent basis. If you are pregnant, diabetic, already on medication etc. then it is wise to seek the opinion of your doctor. In addition, without causing you actual harm, some side effects experienced by people taking supplements can be enough to dissuade them. Dry skin, hair loss, stomach upset- these and others are commonly reported side effects. An increase in flatulence is always interesting, if not actually appreciated by others.

Cod Liver Oil capsules- a year's supply

Cod liver oil- being rich in omega-3 fatty acids, is reported to help reduce the pain and inflammation of established arthritis and it contains vitamin D, which is good for healthy bones.

It is a well known supplement for those suffering from osteo-arthritis and some other ailments. Each capsules that I take also contain 6mg of garlic oil and a touch of vitamin B1. The jury is mostly still out as to genuine benefits of garlic though I believe that they do me good. However vitamin A can be dangerous in large doses, particularly to pregnant women.

If you want proof of this, read the vivid accounts of early Arctic explorers. Having eaten too much polar bear liver, they suffered symptoms such as drowsiness, sluggishness, irritability, severe headache, bone pain, blurred vision and vomiting. However it is the records of those that had peeling skin as a result that I find most fascinating. There are also some accounts of the full body skin being lost. The worst cases ended in liver damage, coma or even death. Is that enough to put you off…

The reason for this also points at why cod liver oil is good for us. Seals store large amounts of vitamin A specifically to feed their young. Because vitamin A is so effective in aiding growth and development, it enables young seal pups to quickly grow out of their vulnerable stage. Polar bears feed almost exclusively on seals and as a result store even higher levels of vitamin A in their liver. While they, and the seals, have evolved to handle excessive levels, we have not. But the effects of reduced levels of the vitamin are no less important to our health.

Fish Oil capsules

Trials in Cardiff, Wales resulted in favourable reports from arthritis patients awaiting surgery who were taking 2000mg daily. If taking Cod Liver Oil, usually during the winter months, I simply stick to 800mg each morning. Beside polar bear liver, apparently I must also steer clear of also eating the liver of walrus, moose and husky, I must remember that when next down the supermarket.

Should you have concerns on exceeding a safe level of vitamin A as a result of taking a high dose of cod liver oil, or even fish liver oil, it may be wise to not only seek medical advice, but also consider taking fish body oil capsules instead, which contain lower levels of vitamin A.

Fish Body Oil- is a good replacement supplement taken instead of Cod Liver Oil. EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) can help maintain a healthy heart and brain function… I wish! 

If not taking Cod Liver Oil capsules, an alternative for me could be a daily capsule containing 1000mg of Fish Body Oil which provides 300mg Omega 3 of which 250mg EPA and DHA. Always ensure that a Fish Oil has been purified as some that have not can be contaminated by rather nasty stuff like mercury and dioxins.

Garlic capsules

Garlic- You may have noted the tiny amount of garlic in each of these particular capsules. What I try and do is to eat a fair amount of the lovely bulbs in food. Clinical trails are not conclusive as to the benefits of garlic.

One particular trial concluded that women who consumed a diet rich in allium vegetables: onions, leeks and, particularly, garlic, had lower levels of hip osteoarthritis. If you are one of those that is fortunate enough to not yet be troubled by arthritis, then beware. Osteo-arthritis is the most common form of arthritis in adults, affecting around eight million people in the UK, with women more likely to develop it than men.

“the recommended dose of garlic in supplement form is 200 mg taken three times per day. You can also use fresh garlic as a health supplement by consuming 2 to 4g of fresh, minced garlic per day. There is no established recommended dose of garlic for children. If you want to give your children garlic supplements, consult a physician. As with any health supplement, should you develop any adverse reaction to the garlic or garlic supplement, immediately discontinue use and seek medical attention.”

University of Maryland Medical Center

There are some other supplements that those frequently on trail may have in their sights. These include two popular ones, one of which Three Points of the Compass was pointed at when recovering from severe Plantar fasciitis a few year ago. 

Magnesium– The blurb on the bottle shown below is similar to that for Pantothenic acid (discussed below)- it apparently contributes to the maintenance of normal bones and teeth and contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, I’ll have some of that last part please! I have taken 500mg Magnesium daily with food in the past but ceased that long ago with no apparent noticeable increase in tiredness or fatigue.

Glucosamine- occurs naturally in the body. It plays an important role in making glycosaminoglycans and glycoproteins, which are essential building blocks of many parts of your joints, including ligaments, tendons, cartilage and synovial fluid. It’s been suggested that the way these parts of your joint are built and maintained contribute to the development and the progression of osteo-arthritis. Glucosamine is a dietary supplement, not a pharmaceutical drug. While some believe the perceived effects are placebo, others strongly believe that it aids in their relief from osteo-arthritis, the very defintion of placebo. If it works for you, then it works.

Arthritis Research UK have also stated on their website that animal studies have shown that glucosamine can both delay the breakdown of, and repair, damaged cartilage. Following confirmation of arthritis by X-ray, it was my podiatrist that recommended that I consider taking Glucosamine as a supplement to assist with osteo-arthritic changes in the first metatarso phalangeal joint in my left foot. It was partly this arthritis that had caused my Plantar fasciitis in 2015. Glucosamine is often marketed as supporting the structure and function of joints. In much of Europe and the UK, it is usually sold on the High Street in the form of either glucosamine sulphate (as shown below) or glucosamine hydrochloride. I took a 1000mg tablet of the former daily with food for a couple of years before stopping, though most trials involving glucosamine have focused on a daily dose of 1500mg divided into three doses. There can be side effects, I won’t list them here as I am fortunate enough that I didn’t seem to suffer from them, others may not be so lucky, as with any drug or supplement. Certainly those suffering from diabetes should be cautious and seek medical advice before taking.

Pantothenic acid- or vitamin B5, is a very common vitamin. It is found in small quantities in nearly all foods. ‘Pantothenic’ comes from the Greek word pantothen meaning ‘from everywhere’. It is a water soluble acid which means that it runs through the bloodstream and the body excretes it in urine. Therefore it has to be replenished every day as it is not stored in the body. We need vitamin B5 to synthesize and metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

I use to take 500mg daily with food, again, while recovering from Plantar fasciitis as it not only prevents nerve damage but can also accelerate healing. After two and a half years I weaned myself off with no noticeable effect. I do still try and ensure a daily intake by eating foods rich in B5 such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or tuna in oil, broccoli, eggs, lentils, mushrooms, garlic, peanuts and milk. Note that there is a wealth of other foods high in this vitamin but they don’t normally form part of my diet. I am not sure foods that are really high in B5 are ever going to be part of my everyday diet as rice bran and beef or pigs liver are only occasional meals and I cannot recall ever having eaten simmered chicken giblets!

Cod Liver oil, Magnesium, Glucosamine and vitamin B5
Cod Liver oil, Magnesium, Glucosamine and vitamin B5

Please note that any of the above is no form of recommendation or endorsement. Do your research, take proper advice, and it is possible that some of the above may help if your body is struggling to receive, or lacking in, some essential vitamins or supplements. Just remember, a good, fresh and varied diet, with plentiful water, should supply everything a body requires for nutrition. It is just that life on trail and life factors get in the way sometimes.

1 reply »

  1. Interesting. If the Mg you took was from the bottle shown in the picture this might explain its lack of efficacy. That’s Mg oxide which has a mild laxative effect but does not pass well into the blood. Thus it’s impact on the brain is negligable. Mg is only likely to work on tiredness if you have a messenger chemical imbalance in the brain, such as high glutamate. If you did want to counter this then you’d be very likely to find Mg citrate or similar organic acid salt far more effective. Dr W


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