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Dietary Supplements: Fact or Fiction

Post Published: 17 June 2010
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Category: Guest Bloggers, thyroid nutrition and health column
This post currently has 72 responses. Leave a comment

By August J. McLaughlin, CN

I’ll never forget watching The Jetsons as a youngster. Two factors from the future-rendition Clevers’ world mesmerized me–the remote control closet that configured high-fashion looks with the simple push of a button (I still haven’t gotten mine) and foods in pill-form (I still don’t want them). My heart ached each time little Elroy Jetson had to gulp a pill at lunchtime rather than sink his teeth into savory bread slices smattered with raspberry and nutty-creamy-yum. “Poor Elroy,” I recall thinking. I would’ve offered him my lunch if I weren’t so set on devouring it myself.

Now, twenty years since the show’s syndication, it seems the Jetsons were more prophetic that we viewers perhaps realized. The latest i-Robot vacuum cleaners aren’t a far cry from Rosie, the robotic maid, children’s’ cyber-pets bare striking resemblances to Astro-the-dog, and food-in-a-pill? Check any grocery store, health food market and even gas station. I’d venture to guess that more stores boast them than do not–pills that supply nutrients we can and, in my humble opinion, should reap from healthy foods, packaged in neat little packets and bottles with guarantees ranging from increased energy and improved eye-health to heightened bedroom pleasure. (I mean…really? ) As a grownup/nutritionist/foodie/health-minded individual, I now aspire more than ever to trade the world’s multi-billion-dollar diet industry’s “food-pills” for that glorious high-tech closet. (At least we’d all appear cuter?)

Before you lash out at me regarding supplements that have changed your life, please hear me out. I’m not claiming that all vitamins and supplements are harmful or useless, nor that numerous advances in the natural health and pharmacological industries lack significance. I would like to point out, however, that most dietary supplements lack scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness. Worst of all, many are known to cause harm.

A few facts, for perspective’s sake:

B-vitamins are known to support thyroid function, metabolism, healthy blood sugar levels and numerous other aspects of human health. Who wouldn’t want bottles of all that? Well, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, excessive intake of vitamin B6 in supplement form can cause nerve damage and resultant numbness, paralysis, poor coordination and a sense of “heaviness” in the legs (symptoms of a condition known as peripheral neuropathy). Vitamin B6 intake that exceeds 100 mg per day is considered the maximum “tolerable intake level.”  Correction: One can of Red Bull contain 2.5 a person’s RDA and a random B-vitamin supplement bottle I picked up today contained 50 milligrams per capsule with suggested dosage of 1 capsule, 2 – 3 times per day.

The mineral iron also supports thyroid function, blood health and wellness in people with various autoimmune diseases. The ODS calls iron toxicity through iron supplements a “considerable potential risk.” Since the body only requires trace amounts, or between 8 and 11 mg daily, and the body isn’t terrific at ridding itself of the excess, unused iron can easily gather in bodily tissue and organs and cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases, excessive supplemental iron intake has proved fatal.

Hmm…I suppose this isn’t the cheeriest way to introduce myself to you all and the column (Hi, by the way! J) but I felt the need to express it. I’ll leave you with some cheerier points…

To reap sufficient amounts of B-vitamins and iron, make these foods staples in your diet:

  • Whole grain breads and cereals (gluten-free grains if you’re sensitive or intolerant)
  • Oatmeal (1 ½ servings hits your daily quota for vitamin B6!)
  • Fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, trout, clams…)
  • Turkey
  • Lentils
  • Bananas
  • Sea vegetables
  • Potatoes
  • Tempeh
  • Chili peppers
  • Figs
  • Almonds
  • Beans

Are vitamin and mineral supplements ever helpful? Yes. Nutrient supplements can offer benefits for people who suffer from malabsorption of nutrients due to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other digestive illnesses. (Your doctor should’ve explained this to you if it’s the case…if you’re unsure, ASK.)

The American Dietetic Association also recommends dietary supplements as valuable options for people who are unable to adhere to a healthy diet, long-term restrictive dieters, pregnant women and strict vegetarians or vegans.

Food for Thought

The best nutritional advice I may ever offer is this: Eat. Second, eat food. Third, make most of your choices healthy ones. Fourth, seek pleasure in your food and learn to appreciate and honor your body…even when it isn’t functioning or appearing the way you’d prefer. (I’ll dip further into these matters in future segments.)

I’m a huge fan of fiction—writing it, reading it, viewing it—but I, for one, prefer to keep it off my dinner plate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding dietary supplements and any other nutritional matters circulating your head, heart or belly. Please submit your thoughts and questions any old time! I look forward to getting to know you all.

Cheers to you and your wellness, August

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72 Responses to “Dietary Supplements: Fact or Fiction”

  1. RobynHahn says:

    Regarding energy/sport drinks:
    I don’t drink them, never have. My hubs is all about the Gatorade, G2, Monster, 5 hour energy, and the “healthy” ones like the pre-packaged fruit medleys at Whole Foods.

    Me? I drink water, unsweetened tea, some milk, and my one liquid vice–sparkling lemonade. I bought a juicer so my hubs can make his own fruit drinks and for juices at home for the daughter–I can sneak some carrot juice into the apple juice, for instance (and it’s delicious!).

    I have spoken until I’m blue to the hubs about his choice of drinks, and how at the very least they contribute to the, ahem, few extra pounds he’s garnered, and at worst are actually detrimental to his health. So far, I am not too much of a voice of reason for him. The best I do is refuse to buy it, so if he wants it, he needs to make a special trip!

  2. Kevin says:

    Juices are nutritious but usually have a very high glycemic index and or load.

    Check at glycemicindex.com’s database.

    The juice from a single orange, for example has a glycemic load of over 10 (the suggested maxiumum). Essentially, drinking juices (especially apple, orange, and carrot) is almost as sugar intensive as soda. Best times to drink these are 1/2 cup (1 orange) AFTER a workout when cortisol levels are elevated. If you don’t workout, you need to stay away from juices for the most part.

    This is something I make in between meals when I feel like drinking something cold, sweet and/or fruity I do this: twitpic.com/1exyle :: Blend 4 frozen strawberries (and 1/3 cup blueberries if you’d like), 1 tablespoon brown sugar, and water. Please note I make this drink VERY RARELY. Maybe 2, 3 times a year and usually during summer when it’s REALLY hot (I live in AZ). Takes a minute to make.

    This is about as sugary as it gets for me. Oh… and I never drink this with any meals.

  3. Kevin says:

    Another variation of the drink is to blend double the amount of strawberries, juice from 1 orange, juice from one lime. just enough water to cover strawberries and some ice. Add 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and blend…

    Best smoothie I’ve ever tasted. XD An ex roommate of mine took this recipe and would add vodka or tequila (my girlfriend suggested the exact thing the first time she tried it).

  4. August says:

    I tend to agree with you, Robyn, as far as energy drinks go. Many contain questionable ingredients and unknown amounts of caffeine, as well as other stimulants. Excessive stimulant intake can pose a diurectic effect and lead to dehydration. Sports drinks with electrolytes, such as Gatorade, are best suited to long distance runners and people remaining physically active in excessive heat. Excessive caffeine intake is also linked with nutrient deficiencies and bone density loss…

    Kevin, excellent points regarding juices and glycemic index. As a general rule of thumb I recommend whole fruits, which can have a mellowing effect on blood sugar.

    A couple of links that may prove helpful:

    Mayo Clinic: How Much is Too Much? (Caffeine)

    Vegetables and Fruits: The Bottom Line (Harvard School of Public Health)
    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/index.html

    I’ve been considering a column regarding caffeine in regards to thyroid as well. Hope you’re all having happy, healthy weekends!

  5. Lori says:

    Kevin – regarding your question – “I am negotiating a post with Katie (from Dear Thyroid) that would give major points to consider when purchasing supplements. Do you guys think this would be helpful?”

    YES, I absolutely think this would be helpful. I look forward to it. I have specific sources I buy from but would love to learn more and compare to what I am currently purchasing.

  6. August says:

    I love the “points to consider when purchasing supplements” idea. I use something similar to this with clients:

    ODS: “What Supplements Are You Taking?”
    http://ods.od.nih.gov/pubs/partnersbrochure.asp

  7. August says:

    Hi Robyn and all…:)

    I agree that medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases, often require nutrient supplementation. Kudos to all of you for your proactivity in this regard. Also, most Americans’ diets–regardless of medical conditions–are deficient in vitamin D and omega-3 fats.

    As far as the RDA, terrific insight. RDA’s are continually studied and updated. (More info: http://www.crnusa.org/about_recs4.html) That said, each person’s needs vary…RDA’s are more “ball park” in many ways, and they aren’t well-suited to everyone. (The ODS does provide RDA for various ages, gender difference and lists populations most prone to deficiencies for each nutrient, fyi…)

    Thank you for sharing the study re: Vitamin E. Numerous current studies (I generally refer to studies no more than 5 – 10 years old…) show potential toxic effects. An example:
    http://www.annals.org/content/142/1/37.full

    I don’t mean to argue against vitamin/mineral supplements what-so-ever. However, many research findings are mixed and studies show that most people who take multi-vitamins, for example, are already health-concious, health-food eating active individuals. (Ie, they are difficult to study.) People with deficiencies and nutrient malabsorption problems have exhibited many benefits from dietary supplements, NO question.

    I’m working on a caffeine/energy drink-related piece. Glad to hear some of you are interested in the topic!

  8. RobynHahn says:

    Kevin-
    I realize that fruit juices are high glycemic and calorie dense. Luckily I am not overweight and do not have blood sugar issues. For me, I use juices as a way to get the nutrients from a whole food without having to consume the whole food. I just don’t have that much room to eat at one sitting, but can get all the phytonutrients, enzymes, anti-oxidants, etc. I realize that I sacrifice the fiber this way, but again, not a main concern for me in particular. Having said that, I don’t drink juice that often, a couple times a week maybe. I water it down for the daughter–I don’t need her with a sugar rush!

    Basically, it’s a Gerson-esque way of looking at fruit for me.

  9. RobynHahn says:

    Hey August-
    I generally like newer studies, but the Vit E one flies in the face of the fat soluble/ADEK being dangerous because they are fat soluble vs. water soluble. Your reference is a little hinky–I don’t place much credence in meta-analysis of data from pubmed searches. There is too much variability and lack of clear controls, not to mention inability to reduce other possible confounding variables. In fact that analysis ONLY included any previous studies that reported at least 10 deaths–so studies with fewer than 10 deaths were not included in the statistical analysis of the mortality of high dose Vit E (uh, skewed much?)

    However, the spirit of your point, that mega dosing, or blindly supplementing, is not a good idea is valid. Encouraging us to get as much real nutrition from real food is too.

    Just for grins, I thought I’d share my supplement regimen. It’s a doozy!

    1. Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega (1280 mg omega-3) **third party tested
    2. Vitamin D3 (5000 IU) **various brands, currently NOW which is GMP 3rd party tested
    3. Selenium (200 mcg) **NOW, GMP 3rd party tested (NC is selenium deficient)
    4. probiotic (10 billion CFU minimum) **various brands, have not found one that I am partial to using exclusively.
    5. L-theonine (200 mg) **NOW, GMP 3rd party tested

    The L-theonine is an interesting supplement that I have been taking for almost 6 months now (it is an amino acid found in green tea). I started using this based on a veterinary product, Anxitane. My clinic was part of a study on the affects of Anxitane (L-theonine for dogs) on separation and travel anxiety. The board certified veterinary behaviorist found it to be highly effective in reducing dog anxiety and stress. Looking at the initial research, it was based on Japanese studies in humans dating back decades. I am a type A stress ball, and I really think it has helped me sleep better and calm my active mind. Placebo effect? Maybe, but it’s cheap and GRAS by the FDA!

  10. August says:

    Hi Robyn,
    So happy to hear that you’ve found your way to enhanced rest and calmness. I chose that particular study for example’s sake, in part because it discusses several reputable studies. I do see your point, however, and appreciate your insight.

    Indeed–placebo effects are not necessarily a bad thing as long as you remain safe and healthy…the power of the mind, no? 🙂

  11. Sarah Downing says:

    Hi guys,

    I’d like to make a point about fruit juices here because I get the impression they are being demonised somewhat. I sometimes drink fruit juices because they give me a lot of nutrients. I also enjoy smoothies. However, I believe the key is to enjoy them in moderation and to be aware that they do contain sugars, albeit fruit sugars.

    In my case, my blood sugars were temporarily out of whack because of my thyroid and in fact they are now back to normal. Thanks to the medicine I was on, I didn’t have to completely change my diet to achieve this, but I did become more aware of the sugars I was consuming (which were never that much in the first place, but I became more aware which can’t be a bad thing, can it?).

    I don’t believe that drinking the occasional fruit juice or smoothie has ever caused me personally to suffer from blood sugar problems or even put on weight. I gained weight because of my thyroid – I have Hashimoto’s, but by today’s standards a Size 12 really isn’t that much to worry about and in fact I like my body and the only reason I felt that I should lose weight was because I knew it would help some of the metabolic issues I was suffering from and indeed it did. Otherwise, I am healthy and do intensive workouts two to three times a week. Indeed, not every fruit is as high-glycemic as say a banana. In fact, strawberries and berries are much better for you in that respect.

    Furthermore, I’d like to cite a friend I know who is diabetic, but has her blood sugars well under control and yet she drinks a smoothie every morning. From what I understand, it is about the types of fruit you eat/drink, not so much about avoiding fruits altogether, which I have never felt the need to do and never will do. My friend likes smoothies because they give her energy and I like smoothies because they are packed with nutrients (of course, as with everything, I check the label to make sure they don’t contain any unnecessary sugars).

    As far as the other stuff I drink, I rarely if at all drink Coke Zero and most of the rest of the time I will drink still water, even if it means I have to pay for it, which is sometimes the case in restaurants here. I can’t even remember the last time I drank a freaking energy drink. For me, drinking water is by force of habit and it’s a good habit.

    One thing that I like about living in Europe is that not every bloody product has added sugars, which makes me hopping mad when I shop in the US. Vitamin Water, for instance – healthy name, but not so healthy drink. It has added sugars! Similar drinks in the UK have a dash of added fruit juice to sweeten it, which is much healthier. Even in the UK, which is supposed to eat so unhealthily (at least that’s what some people say and frankly I think it is bollocks to a certain extent), it is easier to buy healthy food, simply because foods don’t have as many additives and frankly I believe that this is a contributing factor to the obesity in the US. I have had extensive experience of both countries, so I feel like I am qualified to make this statement. I don’t like the food in Germany so much, but I do enjoy the fact that in general it is easier to get stuff that is healthier with less additives.

  12. August says:

    Hi Sarah,

    You make excellent points regarding juice. They provide nutrients, glucose and numerous wellness benefits. (Carrot juice provides more vitamin A than most any other food; citrus and tomatoe juices provide rich amounts of vitamin C…) As with most foods and beverages, they juices aren’t best suited to everyone. (People with diabetes and overweight individuals, for example, are best off with whole fruits and vegetables most of the time.)

    You make a terrific point regarding additives as well. I lived and studied in Paris for a time and adore the European way of consuming primarily natural, pure foods and beverages. I imagine you won’t find corn syrup in apple juice in Germany… 😉

  13. Hey August,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m glad you liked my points – I felt the need to express my opinion, but didn’t mean it as criticism. As with anything, I think juice should probably be enjoyed in moderation regardless of whether one is overweight or has blood sugar issues. Being healthy isn’t a carte blanche to eat unhealthily and not exercise, although sadly I have come across several smug people who think it is and will probably regret this attitude in later life. Truth be told, my favourite juice ever has to be banana juice and sadly that is about the most unhealthy one, so I enjoy it rarely if ever.

    As for myself, I personally have never felt the need to avoid juices completely a. because my blood sugars were only ever slightly elevated (in fact, to the extent where you could only notice them in a glucose tolerance test, but not even in a fasting glucose test) b. because I was put on meds to control them (and stop them from becoming serious) which have now normalised them and c. because I have always eaten healthily anyway and am now more than ever very conscious about what I put in my body. As I said above, in my experience and in the experience of my friend with diabetes that is under control, neither of us feel that enjoying THE RIGHT juices IN MODERATION has damaged our health in any way. For me, having slightly high blood sugars encouraged me to research more and to find out which fruits I should be avoiding and which I should focus more on. I’m not a hardcore dieter and never will be, but I am an extremely aware individual who does her research and I’m well on my way to getting healthy because of this. I realise that it is possible for dieticians to provide some general rules for their patients, but at the same time we need to remember that everybody’s body reacts differently. Somehow, I still feel that there is some kind of stigma attached to high blood sugars, so again for those reading this I would like to stress that there is a definite connection between high blood sugars and thyroid disease and that people who have high blood sugars haven’t necessarily brought this on themselves through unhealthy eaitng/lifestyle.

    For that matter, I am wondering what you class as overweight. It truly is an interesting question (particularly as we touched on cultural differences) because when I go to America I actually feel quite skinny. Here, I feel fat as many German women are quite tiny. It’s ironic really. Truth be told, I’m not even sure what my ideal weight is because my body has never corresponded to the BMI and if you knew my weight and height, you’d probably be shocked, but if you saw a picture of me, I bet you wouldn’t even be able to guess. Part of it for me is the fact that I have a big bust and this doesn’t really change even when I lose weight. Once I realised that the BMI doesn’t work for me (and I am not the only one), I stopped focusing on my weight on the scales and started focusing more on building up muscle and feeling healthy. I enjoy working out with my trainer as it really gives me a rush of endorphins and energy, but the medical profession will probably always class me as overweight as my numbers are never going to fit into their magic range – well, sod them. I think it is important to feel happy about yourself. I guess this is why this label is a sensitive issue for me because my body was never designed to fit in with this BMI scale that was never meant to be used on individuals anyway. It’s taken me years to even remotely recover some form of body confidence and I’m still working on it now and write about it in a lot of my articles as a result.

    The additives issue really gets my goat. I grew up in a country (UK) where juices didn’t usually have added sugar (unless of course they were brands such as Sunny Dee). I am familiar with English supermarkets, German supermarkets and US supermarkets. I think I like the English ones best in some ways – we can get both US and European products, but it is easier to get stuff without the additives. I don’t think high fructose corn syrup is even used in Germany! You are right. In fact, the laws regarding additives and foodstuffs are very strict in Germany. I once did translations for a fruit juice company and they are very strict about how they label things. Even for me, who has quite a sweet tooth, a lot of American stuff is simply too damn sweet. I know I am going to miss some European products when we move to the US, but I have cottoned on to the fact that places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s are quite good options in the US, albeit more expensive I believe.

  14. PS: Out of curiosity, why would you tend to recommend diabetics and overweight individuals to stick to whole fruits and veggies). What process does the fruit/veg go through when you juice it that makes it worse for those individuals?

  15. August says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Juices have a higher glycemic index (impact on blood sugar) than whole fruits and vegetables and contain more sugar. People with diabetes can consume juices in appropriate portion sizes and when properly balanced with other foods. (On the converse, juices can improve glucose levels in diabetics if they experience a severe drop in blood sugar.) Whole fruits and vegetables have a naturally mellowing effect on blood sugar.

    Overweight individuals and those with diabetes can enjoy larger portions of whole fruits and vegetables, since they are nutrient-rich, but calorie-poor. For example, an apple may contain 70 – 80 calories and provide 3 grams of fiber; one-cup of apple juice contains roughly 110 calories and only trace amounts of fiber. Whole fruits and vegetables are often more filling than juices, which can support appetite management and reduce risk of overeating.

    Fruit juices are made in various ways, but most commercial juices lack the fruit’s pulp and skin, where much of the nutrient content is present.

  16. Hi August,

    I can definitely see how most commercial juices wouldn’t be as good for you as the real thing – whole fruits and your point about the added fibre in whole fruits, which I know can lower the glycemic index, also makes perfect sense, but when I refer to juices, I am also referring to juicing my own fruits, which I assume would make a big difference. My diabetic friend I referred to above also makes her own juices – at least in such cases, you know what goes into them.

  17. August says:

    Sarah,

    You are quite right in that people’s bodies react differently to foods. People who are “sugar sensitive” may feel the need to consume a diet based on blood sugar management. (People with the proverbial “sweet tooth,” for example, and those who feel lethargic after consuing a carbohdyrate-rich meal are often sugar sensitive.)

    As far as overweight classification, this is also based on many factors. Bone density, body frame-size, activity level, muscle content, age, gender…the list is long. BMI tests are often deceptive for athletic people and those with strong bone density. A person’s health is a better determining factor of appropriate weight. A person can also appear thin yet have high body-fat content, high cholesterol or hypertension. Most people have a natural, healthy weight range they gravitate toward when they are healthy.

    I’m from Minnesota and now live in Los Angeles. Social standards vary significantly between populations, though I believe true beauty and wellness stem from combined emotional and physical health. Congrats on all of your hard work and progress in attaining wellness. Sounds as though you’re on a super track.

  18. Hey August,

    I know what you mean about carbs. You have probably heard about the metabolic typing diet. When I did the test, it said I was a protein type, which is why I don’t tend to eat so much stuff like pasta (plus the fact that too much carbs can make me feel bloated), although truth be told even when I had the blood sugar issues, I didn’t really ever notice a sugar/carb crash, perhaps because my issues were milder than they could have been. I naturally prefer wholegrain bread, pasta and other stuff, which is good because that’s healthier and lower glycemic. I don’t have sugar cravings as such. Interestingly, I read that these can also be related to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is also related to thyroid disease.

    I love your explanation of the overweight classification. To me, it seems very informed and it is refreshing to hear this from a dietary professional. You mention strong bone density. I once read that you can figure out your bone density by the circumference of your wrist. Either way, even if it does sound like a cliché, I am most definitely big boned because even at my slimmest (Size 8) I always had more of a curvy/athletic physique and was overweight according to the BMI, but in reality I wasn’t. I’m not petite and I’m not meant to be and this is something BMI never takes into account – the fact that everyone has very different body types. Frankly, I have often felt victimised by the stupid BMI. Luckily, however, I have a wonderful personal trainer who is realistic about my body and is also very encouraging. She has helped me a lot to change the way I think and feel.

    Another thing I like about Europe is that it is so much easier to walk everywhere if you so choose. I know how tough that is in the US due to the urban infrastructure and that’s surely something that I will miss. I can’t remember the last time I drove my car.

    You are so right too that someone may appear to be skinny, but may be fat on the inside. I have read about that before too.

    Great point about true beauty. I couldn’t agree more! I think sadly many thyroid patients are at least a few pounds over weight, but many of us (because of our awareness and our need to be aware) do our best to lead a healthy lifestyle. I strongly believe that emotional health plays an important role too. After all, you can be a stunner on the outside, but if you are ugly on the inside, that in my opinion fails to fulfil the criteria for true beauty.

  19. August says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Beautifully said. Positive body image is a valuable asset for people, particularly with autoimmune diseases. (Another future blog-topic, by the way…)

    Hope everyone is well and enjoying the new week. I’ll be submitting another piece sometime next week. In the meantime, thanks to all of you for the terrific discussion and for welcoming me to your community. Looking forward to chatting with you again soon!

  20. Hey August,

    A key focus of my column is on positive body image and it’s a topic we can’t focus on enough on this website as it is so very important. I will be interested to hear your take on this. Here’s a link to one of my articles on postive body image in case you are interested. It also looks at body image from a historical and cultural background: http://dearthyroid.org/flying-with-broken-wings-learning-to-love-ourselves/#comments

    Hope you are having a great week too! Look forward to reading your next article!

    Sarah

  21. August says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Your column is fantastic. So glad to hear that body image is a focus within the community; I can see it’s in great hands. 😉 Knowing that, I’ll focus primarily on the nutrition/food aspect of body image. Thanks much…I look forward to following your pieces as well.

    Stay well,
    August

  22. Thank you very much, August! Feel free to write about body image. As I said before, everyone looks at it through a different lens and we can’t write enough about it – it truly is a HUGE issue for autoimmune patients and one that isn’t helped by the comments/ignorance of certain doctors and members of the public.

    Stay well too! Have a great week!

    Love,

    Sarah

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