Why do you take supplements?
One of the first questions within my initial consultation form is: ‘Do you take any prescription medication?’ You can imagine why – it is an important question when you’re working with someone’s health and nutrition.
So too, is the next question: ‘Do you take any nutritional supplements?’ It also prompts for extra details like dosage and duration of use.
During an initial consultation if someone has answered yes – they are taking nutritional supplements – I will always ask them: ‘why?’
Interestingly, it’s sometimes a difficult question for people to answer. In some cases, where they have been taking them for a long period of time, it has simply become a habit.
Whatever the reasons, it is important to remember some key points regarding supplement use.
Evidence and True Efficacy
It’s very easy to pick up tips for supplement use online via social media, health websites, magazines and ‘experts’. But what does it mean, if something is evidence-based?
More than ever, the art of ‘selling’ has appreciated that consumers need facts. Trouble is I could probably pay to get a paper published, on the ‘Efficacy of Cat Fur Ingestion for the Preparation of Colonic Cleansing’, within a scientific journal of questionable intent. While the ethics are most certainly dodgy, it would be all too easy to make the ‘science’ and the benefits seem real. Overall it could give the appearance of credibility and before you know it: Paltrow will be sending off her GOOP minions to harvest fur, before there’s even a chance for peer review.
Where we get our information is really important. Is the study, report or review – that underpins the details that you’re reading about a supplement – balanced, unbiased, respected or critically reviewed? This can be difficult to find out or fully appraise but try not to take anything at face value. Even if it seems like the article was written for you specifically – which is what a good writer can emulate very well – checkout the background information as best you can.
Even if it is all of the above, is it truly applicable to you?
Let’s take the obvious Covid-19 scenario: You’re interested in supplementation to help support your immune system. You will likely find many sources (mostly tied to selling product) claiming that vitamins C and D or the minerals Zinc and Selenium are high in the stakes of importance.
Along with others like prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics, non-nutrients like beta-glucan and turmeric make appearances… We endeavor to search every corner of the earth for the functional properties of foods in all their cellular glory.
- What should you take?
- All of what you find?
- Perhaps just the ones you can afford (or pronounce)?
- What if you already have enough?
There are of course recommendations based on optimal intake, but how much of that do you already get from your diet and how much does your body utilise or truly need?
For example, Vitamin C: If someone doesn’t eat many fruits and vegetables or consume beverages and products that contain ascorbic acid… generally avoiding all foods, other than junk food: They will fail to consume enough to meet their requirements.
This would be a case for supplementation, to avoid an unnecessary bout of Scurvy…
What is not a likely case for supplementation is a healthy adult, eating an abundance of foods containing vitamin C that gives them an adequate baseline for functional benefits, like supporting immunity.
In fact, many studies show that if you have a balanced diet with adequate plasma and cellular concentrations of vitamin C, higher doses will not exponentially increase these markers – they plateau – and will not increase your protection against infection and disease.
Higher doses are proven to be effective in certain cases where treatment for specific illness is concerned. It is regularly used as an adjunct during therapy for illness or even in sports performance, to enhance aspects of recovery.
My point isn’t that it doesn’t do any good – the issue here is that it can quickly become a needless everyday supplement and that’s where the need for consideration comes in.
This is just one vitamin with little indication of toxicity or drug interaction. So although it’s likely unnecessary for a lot of people, at least it won’t cause any harm.
This is not the case for other scenarios. For example, in cases of drug-nutrient interactions, an omega-3 supplementation can be detrimental for someone taking a blood thinning medication like Warfarin. Calcium can reduce the therapeutic effect of Thyroxine, when treating thyroid dysfunction.
Potentially harmful nutrient-nutrient interactions occur too and a good example of this would be taking a zinc supplement, which impairs absorption of copper: an essential trace element that when deficient, leads to anemia.
Toxicity or too much of certain nutrients are also dangerous; such as iodine if supplemented long-term at high doses, can potentially lead to a hyperactive thyroid and graves disease.
Health Requirements Change
There are of course many valid reasons for supplementation, when it’s difficult to meet our needs through diet alone or for our health.
We may take Vitamin D due to a blood test revealing a low serum level, but we should take it with guidance and review over a period of time to see if levels improve. In many cases, large numbers of the population would benefit from vitamin D supplementation and therefore testing levels and getting the dosage right is important.
It’s also important because the amount we choose to supplement (for many supplements) is dependent on two very prominent factors in personalised healthcare:
- Rate of utilisation – we generally differ in absorption rates and degrees of functionality, depending on our own physiology and health circumstances.
- Rate of accumulation – time is an important factor as some nutrient and non-nutrient responses are quicker than others and can build up over time.
Age, gender and health status (being unwell, undergoing treatment, recovering from treatment, pregnancy or breastfeeding etc) all change our nutritional requirements.
Take a step back
Before you buy supplements independently, take a step back and look at your health and nutrition carefully. Know what you’re eating, because that is your baseline.
Vegetables and fruits not only contain vitamins and minerals, they also contain non-nutrients like polyphenols which act as antioxidants among many other actions in the body.
Meat contains more than just the protein we need for function and repair; there are also beneficial minerals like iron, vitamin B complexes and bioactive peptides.
Fish or nuts contain essential fats but they also contain essential trace minerals like selenium and iodine.
Dairy and fermented foods contain probiotics and not just calcium, but a whole array of minerals and vitamins.
Cereals provide essential energy via carbohydrates but they also provide prebiotics that feed and modulate our gut microbiota.
Herbs and spices make what we eat taste great and various active compounds within them boast hefty credentials for reducing inflammation and improving vascular function.
In short, your diet is already capable of being the ‘immunoregulatory synergistic probiotic wonder-kid five-a-day supplement’, tailoring your bodily systems’ functions into the fine-tuned racing cat that you feel your body ought to represent.
By knowing what your diet provides and how your body responds to it, will improve your chances to maintain your health in the long run. Plus, you’ll save yourself a small fortune on unnecessary supplements and confusion, so that you won’t need to struggle to answer the question: why do you take supplements?
This is not an in-depth analysis but I hope it provokes a bit more thought on the matter. A conversation starter if you will. One, I am keen to participate in. One of the biggest challenges I think is discussing the benefits in prevention vs. treatment, how they differ and how they shouldn’t be confused.
If we want to treat ourselves holistically, we must put more consideration into practice. So that we know our choices are balanced and reflective of our needs at the time.
Bda.uk.com. 2020. Vitamin D. [online] Available at: <https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/vitamin-d.html> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Combet, E. and Gray, S., 2019. Nutrient–nutrient interactions: competition, bioavailability, mechanism and function in health and diseases. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 78(1), pp.1-3.
Duncan, A., Yacoubian, C., Watson, N. and Morrison, I., 2015. The risk of copper deficiency in patients prescribed zinc supplements: Table 1. Journal of Clinical Pathology, 68(9), pp.723-725.
Granger, M. and Eck, P., 2018. Dietary Vitamin C in Human Health. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, pp.281-310.
Stargrove, M., Treasure, J. and McKee, D., 2008. Herb, Nutrient, And Drug Interactions. St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby Elsevier.