The Supplement Pyramid: How To Build Your Personalized Nutritional Regimen
By Michael A. Smith, MD
By far the most common questions I am asked have to do with what nutritional supplements to take and, equally important, what not to take. After all, there are a staggering amount of choices out there. Anyone who has walked into the supplement section of a natural foods store or conducted a quick online searchon a vitamin supersite can attest to that. Making things even more complicated, there are new products coming to market almost daily. It’s easy to get lost with all the options to consider.
So how do you know if you’re taking the right supplements? Should you add the latest Amazonian herb you just read about to your supplement regimen? What if you want to cut back a little to save money—which supplements should you keep and which ones should you pitch?
These are the exact types of questions your Supplement Pyramid can answer for you.
What Is A Supplement Pyramid?
You’re familiar with the food pyramid, right? It’s an educational graphic tool that helps you design and follow a healthy diet by telling you how many servings you should eat from different food groups. The Supplement Pyramid is like the food pyramid in that it’s an educational graphic tool, but that’s where the similarities end.
Unlike its food counterpart, the Supplement Pyramid is personalized to meet your specific nutritional needs. After all, with the exception of a few foundational nutrients, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all supplement regimen. I think you’d agree with me that my needs are not yours and your needs are not mine.
Why a pyramid? First, because the pyramid structure is symbolic of stability. And second, because as you ascend up the levels of the pyramid, they shrink in size, representing their order of importance to your health. That means you’re going to build your Supplement Pyramid from the bottom up, like a real pyramid.
The Three Levels
Your Supplement Pyramid will have three levels. The bottom tier is the Foundation Level. It’s made up of nutrients essential to life. Because of their vital importance to human biology, we all need to take the same foundational supplements. The middle tier is the Personalization Level. This is the level that’s all yours. It’s comprised of nutrients specific to your personal medical history and health needs. The top tier is the Optimization Level. This is where all of the “extra” supplements come in that really take your health to the next or optimal level.
1. The Foundation Level
The Egyptian pyramids have lasted for over 4,000 years because of one thing—a solid foundation. Your Supplement Pyramid needs a sturdy base too. The supplements comprising this level support basic life processes, such as cellular energy production, growth, repair, and regeneration.
No matter who you are or what you’re going through, you need the same foundational supplements as everybody else. Think of them as the essential nutrients for living well as a human. They include five building blocks:
- An ideally dosed multivitamin/mineral
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Coenzyme Q10
2. The Personalization Level
The middle part of the Supplement Pyramid is all about you. It’s about finding the right supplements to help you prevent the diseases most likely to affectyou personally. If you’re itching to find out which supplements will help you train for a marathon or reverse your cells’ biological clocks to prevent aging, we’ll get to that. Those types of personal health and wellness goals belong in the Optimization Level. This level is really designed to preventdisease.
You’ll complete three basic procedures in order to identify the supplements in your Personalization Level:
- Personal and family medical inventories
- Medical quizzes
- Laboratory testing
Personal And Family Medical Inventories
We all face different health challenges throughout our lives. Some of these you’ll have dealt with directly. You may have a history of heart disease, for example, or perhaps just some of the warning signs, like high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, or insulin resistance. Other health challenges may not have touched you yet, but have affected members of your family, putting you at greater risk. A father, an aunt, or a grandparent may have had cancer orAlzheimer’s disease, for example.
Creating a personal and family medical inventory will help you identify past, ongoing, and potential problem spots for you to protect against. And that’s the beauty of the Personalization Level. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s tailored to your own specific medical needs.
Accounting for your personal and family health history is the first step in developing it.
Your detailed medical inventory will be comprised of several questions pertaining to major organ systems, including:
- The cardiovascular system: heart and blood vessels.
- The nervous system: brain and nerves.
- The muscular system: muscles.
- The digestive system: stomach, liver, and intestines.
- The endocrine system: pancreas, glands, and hormones.
- The immune system: thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes.
- The skeletal system: bones and joints.
- The respiratory system: lungs, sinuses, and bronchial passages.
- The urinary system: kidneys and bladder.
I’ll also ask you questions to see how you’re doing in the following areas:
- Mental health/mood
You’ll note the obvious diseases, as well as the strange symptoms that haven’t been diagnosed yet. For example, let’s say your older sister suffers from chronic tremors of her hands, but her doctors don’t know why. And your mom remembers a great aunt that had similar problems. This information would beincluded in your inventory as a potential nerve disorder and would require appropriate supplementation.
Once you’ve identified past problems that you don’t want to come back, current problems to address, and potential problems in the future, you can take appropriate steps to protect yourself.
As you’ll read later in this article, I created a free website called MySupplementPyramid.com to enable consumers to identify which nutrients are most important to them as individuals. At this site, you’ll be able to enter your personal and family medical inventory, and then take a series of medical quizzes to assess how you’re doing in different areas such as heart health, cognitive function, immune strength, and more. These quizzes aren’t the kind of fluff you’d find in a mainstream health magazine. Each one is based on real clinical risk assessments that doctors use for major organ systems.
The answers you give on each quiz will be used to calculate a risk score for that particular body function. This deeper level of detail will help identify potential problems that weren’t picked up in your personal and family medical inventory. Based on your risk scores in different categories, I’ll make very specific supplement suggestions to complete your Personalization Level.
The final step in developing your Personalization Level is to learn about the array of laboratory tests that can further help you personalize your Supplement Pyramid. I think this is the most exciting part of the Personalization Level because lab testing can tell you all kinds of things about what’s going on inside your body that would be hard to figure out otherwise.
I’ll recommend tests that will help you identify:
- Which nutrients you may be lacking.
- Whether you’re part of the 70% of Americans deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
- The level of toxic heavy metals in your system.
- How much oxidative stress your body is under.
- If your levels of various hormone and neurotransmitters are normal.
- Whether food allergies are making you sick.
I’ll even provide a quick cognitive test that you can take right at home to determine if you’re showing any signs of age-related cognitive decline.
3. The Optimization Level
The top part of your Supplement Pyramid is the Optimization Level. Supplements in this level do exactly what the name implies. They don’t necessarily meet your medical needs—that’s what the personalization level is for. These supplements simply “optimize” your regimen.
This level is where you’ll find supplements that help you live a longer, healthier life. You could also think of them as anti-aging supplements. These might include nutrients that have been shown to induce beneficial effects on gene expression, which ultimately might be the solution to eradicating age-related disease.
Supplements at this level may not be essential to your overall health. But that’s not to say they aren’t important. They could help extend your life span or make your later years healthier. However, when it’s all said and done, you can do without them.
That’s why the Supplement Pyramid is structured the way it is—so you always meet your foundational survival needs first, your disease prevention needssecond, and your anti-aging goals last.
I know that not everyone is always flush with cash. So if you need to cut back on expenses, then the supplements in the Optimization Level should be the first to go. That way, you’ll still be providing your body with the core, foundational nutrients for survival and the custom-tailored supplements that will help you prevent disease.
Specific Disease Pyramids
Most of the Supplement Pyramid book is geared toward making sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs, helping you prevent disease, and assisting you in aging as well as possible. But what if you or someone you love already has a disease?
I’ve outlined some of the most common chronic diseases and the supplements that can help slow their progression—and even improve their symptoms and outcome. The disease supplement pyramids that I have put together for you include:
- Bowel and Digestive Disorders
- Brain Diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease
- Cancers including Prostate, Breast, and Colon
- Chronic Fatigue and Chronic Pain Syndromes
- Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders
- Lung Disorders like COPD and Asthma
- Heart Diseases including Atherosclerosis and Heart Failure
- Insomnia and Mood Disorders
- Bone and Joint Disorders
- Overweight and Obesity
Choosing High Quality Products
Having a personalized supplement pyramid is empowering. But you also need high quality products to go along with it.
It’s a sad but true fact that quality among nutritional supplements varies widely. Therefore, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questionsbefore making a purchase:
- How do I know that the ingredients inside my supplements match what’s advertised in the label?
- How can I be sure that my supplements contain the full amount they say they do?
- How do I know that my supplements aren’t contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, or microbes?
- How can I tell if my supplements are providing therapeutic dosages of key ingredients versus just a sprinkling?
- How can I keep myself from being hoodwinked by supplement charlatans who care only about lining their pockets at my expense?
The dilemma is real, but the solution is simple: Stick with a company that has an established track record of selling high-quality products. Established companies use only pure, potent raw materials. The Supplement Pyramid will teach how to evaluate a supplement manufacturer and distributor, with simpleeasy-to-follow steps.
Building Health From The Ground Up
Hopefully you’re now well on your way to creating a personalized supplement pyramid—one that is uniquely tailored to your specific health needs and goals. First and foremost, build upon the foundational supplements, starting with a high-quality, ideally dosed multivitamin.
Working up, add omega-3 fish oils, ubiquinol CoQ10, curcumin, and probiotics. These five supplements are foundational to your health as they help every cell and tissue throughout your body.
Once the foundation is in place, continue to work up the pyramid by completing the inventories and then the quizzes. As you see fit, add the suggested products into your pyramid in order of importance, moving from the bottom up. Lastly, consider the suggested products at the optimization level for counteracting the leading theories of aging.
Remember, your pyramid is dynamic and will change as you change. I suggest retaking the quizzes a couple times a year and make the appropriate changes to your pyramid as your quiz scores change.
Michael A. Smith, MD, is senior health scientist for Life Extension. He is the author of the just released book, The Supplement Pyramid – How to Build Your Personalized Nutritional Regimen. He is also host of Healthy Talk, a weekly health talk show on www.RadioMD.com.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.