Lately I’ve been poring over all kinds of reading material about vitamins and supplements. Lots of web sites, doctor office pamphlets, and one book in particular on health and medicine. After a two-year avoidance, I am making a shift back to vitamin usage. Just like the occasional news stories about whether coffee or a glass of alcohol is actually good for you, I am wading into the deep waters of trying to separate fact from fiction about vitamins. It is a very challenging undertaking. Reading about the benefits of vitamins is not as easy as I would have hoped. I encounter so many earnest attempts, but some articles still read like a detailed medical treatise. You think you might understand it at the time, but later you realize that you’re no better off than the poor sap on his second workday at the GNC store.
The sudden reason for my interest in vitamins is because of an increased exercise routine. Along with additional aerobic activity comes a tightening, some might say a developed toning, of my muscles. Saying that sounds better than it actually is because to look at me nothing appears as if there’s actual toning. I have what is now called a “Dad Body,” a rather ironic state of affairs since I never had kids… to my knowledge anyway (I’ve always had a lingering fear that somewhere out there is a neurotic late twenty-something who also eats ribs with knife and fork only). By all appearances I am a middle-aged man who is doing his level best to avoid looking like Dom Deluise without the apron. Nonetheless, two of my toned and buff muscles — my calves — began tormenting me about two months ago with midnight and early morning Charley Horses. In spite of their incredibly sexy look, one wrong 2:30am shift on the mattress would send my calves into a horrifying mayhem of throbbing pain. While intense, the agony thankfully only lasted about 20 seconds as I literally felt it “roll” from one end of a calve to the other. But I ended up sleeping in a paranoid state all night, certain that any leg movement would hasten a sudden outburst from my nefarious calves.
After reading and researching the problem with great earnestness, it appeared that my problem was a serious deficiency of electrolytes. Although I drink liquids all day and night, the majority of it is water, which is not a source of electrolytes. Sadly neither is wine — don’t bother looking it up, I already did. A very good source are sports drinks such as Gatorade, but they’re also chock full of sugar. So I began looking for alternatives. There are many foods that contain electrolytes naturally such as fruits and vegetables, especially potassium-rich ones like spinach. But this also gets me perilously close to calcium oxalate-rich foods which assist in the production of my dreaded kidney stones. I have very little wiggle room here.
Two years ago I read David Agus’ book, “The End of Illness” (2011 Free Press). It has the distinction of being the only health book that I’ve ever read in my life. What made a marked impression on me was Dr. Agus’ view that most vitamins — especially the popular multivitamins — are not actually needed to maintain a proper health. The following quote from his chapter “The Truth About Synthetic Shortcuts” got my immediate attention:
“Virtually all multivitamins contain vitamins in doses that are several orders of magnitude larger than what you need to prevent any deficiency-related aliment. For example, 30 milligrams a day will prevent scurvy, which is what’s found in half of an orange. Some multivitamins, however, will stock a whopping 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C.” (Agus, 2012 Free Press ed., p. 158)
Dr. Agus goes on to explain that there are so many natural ways to obtain the same exact vitamins found in fruits and vegetables, or even by spending a little time out in the sun (as in the case of vitamin D). Americans spend over $25 billion dollars annually on vitamins and dietary supplements, much of it needlessly. By the end of the book I was convinced that my vitamin regimen was a waste of money. I loudly and proudly tossed all of my bottles in the garbage can.
So for two years I’ve been vitamin free. As my gym workout routine increased, the nightly Charley Horse pain began to force me to start looking for solutions to the madness. I began to fear bedtime, which I hadn’t experienced since elementary school, when one of my sisters convinced me that Barnabas Collins was hanging out in my closet during night-time hours (the adult me now realizes that he was merely enjoying a Bloody Mary in what he hoped was a quiet place).
Gorgeous decided that she had a vested interest in assisting me: her own need for sleep. Apparently my nightly wail of pain was putting a crimp into her bedtime routine. Our research led us in rather short order to electrolytes, which in turn led us to my need for magnesium. Sorry Dr. Agus, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I gave you two years of complete fidelity, but it was time to break my personal pledge. Me and ‘ol Mg were gonna spend some quality time together.
I started immediately on a 1000 mg dosage for over four days (I’m sure the good doctor would raise an eyebrow or two with that amount), and by night two the results were completely conclusive. I not only suffered from no more Charley Horses, but I was also free to move about the mattress in any direction and no longer feel any tenderness in my calves and lower legs. By the end of the week, I lowered to 500mg where I’ll stay until my next scheduled doctor appointment, which fortunately is next month.¹ It is highly probable that my physician will lower the amount even further.
In the preparation of this blog post, I took the opportunity to send Dr. Agus a message via his website to ask him about my experiences. To my delight, he responded with a brief but very supportive endorsement of my own treatment. He wrote:
“Magnesium is a vitamin, and electrolytes can clearly help with cramping if needed. Fine to take daily, just be sure to drink plenty of fluid with it.”
In re-reading parts of his book over the last few days, he clearly says that for some people taking vitamins is absolutely fine to correct “a bona fide deficiency or to address certain conditions, such as pregnancy.”² My initial over-enthusiastic adherence to his views was too rigidly applied. I failed to consider the shades of gray.
All is well in Mudville again. My sleep is mostly back to normal, save the occasional nightmare of Donald Trump hairstyles or a court-ordered increase in alimony payments. And my sexy calves? Why, they’re real… and they’re spectacular.
¹ Dr. Agus recommends doctor-prescribed vitamins rather than over-the-counter ones since they must pass the stricter FDA quality controls (Agus, 2012 Free Press ed., p. 158).