Supplements: Hype, or Helpful?
Annalies Corse BMedSc, BHSc
Written for and originally published by the MINDD Foundation: www.midd.org
In an ideal world, people all over the world would be able to obtain the nutrition they require from diet alone. So many factors (no matter what country you live in) make this very unrealistic in the modern age. Some people simply don’t have access to food, and food supplements are essential to their health. For those of us in wealthier countries, there are several environmental, genetic and clinical reasons why seeking supplement prescription may be necessary for your health. Many supplements are purely born of health fads and hype, but some are essential. In certain cases, supplements are life saving, and provide us with the kind of health that we cannot achieve through diet alone. Consider some of the following situations, as all are legitimate reasons as to why supplements are necessary for many modern humans:
- The quality of our soils is not what it used to be. Foods grown in soil depleted of nutrients, trace minerals and healthy soil microbes has a direct impact on plant, animal and human health.
- Our world is more polluted. Soil, water, air, the workplace and households expose us to heavy metals and other pollutants. A healthy diet will undoubtedly protect us from most of the harm these can cause, but specific supplements are essential to support our endogenous detoxification systems.
- Our own health history plays a huge part in our need for nutrient supplementation. Damage to the digestive system through leaky gut antibiotic exposure, refined carbohydrate diets, caesarean section birth, substance and medication use all increase our requirements for nutrients that may not be addressed through diet alone.
Do you know all the important factors you must consider before you embark on taking a food, vitamin or mineral supplement? Have you asked yourself these essential questions?
- Have I been advised to take this supplement on the advice of a qualified health professional?
- Will this supplement interact with my current medications?
- Will this supplement be ok, based on the other supplements I currently take?
- Has this supplement been formulated based on good quality control practices?
- Is there clinical and scientific evidence for this supplement?
- What else is in my supplement, besides the active constituents and ingredients?
- Could I achieve my health goals in another way?
- Is the formulation and dosage correct for my condition, life stage and age?
Obviously, all of this is a lot to consider, especially if you are not a health professional. No one should be expected to know the answers to these questions regarding supplements, that is why it’s essential not to self prescribe and to only commence supplementation after consultation with a Naturopath, Nutritionist, Dietician or a Doctor or Pharmacist with specific education in nutrition. There is abundant hype when it comes to nutritional supplements; the amount of celebrity endorsements for over the counter (OTC) supplements attests to this. Let’s take a look at which supplements are hype, which are helpful, and exactly why this is the case.
OTC supplements from retail environments
Some are well formulated, but some are not. What is in their favour?
- Most are affordable
- You can purchase quickly on the spot
What is not in their favour?
- Often sold without any consultation with a health professional
- Many are cheap due to poor quality ingredients
- Formulations may not have clinically relevant levels of the vitamin or mineral required
There are some excellent OTC supplement products, but always seek assistance from a professional who has studied them. Many practitioners recommend retail ranges, but they do so based on objective clinical opinions. If a store or clinic only supplies 1 or 2 brands, it’s a sign to be wary of. Good, objective clinical practice means prescription based on formulations, not brands. Companies not associated with health at all manufacture some OTC supplements for commercial reasons. It is definitely an area where you will be exposed to more hype that help. Ask a professional for their advice first.
Practitioner only supplements
Regarding supplements, these are the gold standard. These are formulations based on excellent quality control practices, years of education, clinical experience and thorough case taking. Depending on the situation, they can be prescribed in a pharmacy or retail setting, but only by a Naturopath, Nutritionist, Doctor or Pharmacist with extra training. In an ideal world, they should only be prescribed after an appointment with a health professional. A word of advice must be given to those with extensive or chronic health issues; purchasing a supplement after a quick chat with a practitioner will probably not be enough time to ascertain exactly what will be the best protocol for your health, going forward. In virtually every case (acute or chronic) it is much better to sit down with a practitioner, so they can thoroughly go through your medical history, diet and medications history.
So, are practitioner only supplements hype? Mostly, not! They are formulations often put together based on studies, human biochemistry and nutraceuticals research. There are definitely times where you will not be required to take supplements long term, just a short course may be needed. If you have a great diet, you will likely not need to supplement any nutrient long term.
A special word of advice must be given to supplements containing herbal medicines. Herbal medicine is a highly specialised area of complementary medicine, and it takes years of education to be thoroughly effective and safe with prescription. They should never be prescribed by those with no education or expertise in herbal medicine, so avoid purchasing from any person or professional who does not have a specific qualification in herbal medicine.
Supplements purchased online
When purchasing a supplement online, there are two significant issues people face. Firstly, many will not be part of a therapeutic regulatory process, where only sound and good quality medicines and supplements make the grade and are deemed safe for the public. Some contain dubious ingredients, and there is a risk of purchasing something with negligible therapeutic action. The actual doses of vitamins and minerals may be too low or poorly formulated to provide any benefit.
You may find that some well-known retail or even practitioner only brands are available online. Again, if you access these without advice from a health professional, there is high probability they won’t be perfectly suited to you. This is where many people experience disappointing results from supplements.
Tip: Consider how much money you spend every few months on your hair, on coffees or at cafes and restaurants. A consultation with a complementary health professional once or twice a year is a huge investment in your health. You will avoid the supplements that are just hype, and you will have access to a professional who will spend ample time getting to the initiating factors of your health issues.
Food based supplements
Food based supplements cover the spectrum of powders, liquids, gels, drinks, shakes and snacks. The array of food supplements seems to multiply every month, but there are ways to be savvy and avoid hype. Ask yourself these questions before potentially parting cash on something that sounds fantastic, but may not do much for you:
- Could I just spend money on real food? Will a powdered fruit and vegetable product be any better than fresh produce?
Fresh is always best, and so much more delicious. Many vitamins are exceedingly delicate, and there is no guarantee they have remained active or viable in a food supplement. Consider how processed the food supplement is first, before you purchase.
- I eat really well, a wholefood diet with ample fruit and veg, good quality fats and protein. But I’m still not experiencing the health I desire, and this food supplement is apparently great for my problem.
There are other ways to achieve good health without supplementation, and other areas apart from diet that contribute to poor health. Before reaching for the latest super food powder, be honest with yourself or with a practitioner about your sleep, stress levels, physical activity levels and lifestyle practices. Supplements may rightly still be required, but you might need less than you think.
A good health professional will always prescribe supplements when the benefit they have for your personal clinical condition or health matter outweighs any risk. Your health provider should be able to state exactly the reasons for taking a supplement, and they will follow up with you to measure your outcome. It is often not necessary for most people to be on long courses of supplementation; some people with specific health conditions will be, but they are monitored very regularly to assess if the supplementation needs to change. In conclusion, supplementation is only helpful when professionally prescribed. Any thing else runs a risk of exposing us to a fad. Health fads come and go, as do some supplements. Good health practitioners are acutely aware of this. Always source their expertise before potentially wasting your money. Modern living definitely makes us somewhat vulnerable to nutrient depletion, so ensure you are taking the right supplements at the right dose to protect you and your family’s health In to the future.
- Brevik, E. C. & Burgess, L. C. (2014) The Influence of Soils on Human Health. Nature Education Knowledge 5(12): 1
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2016). The Nutrition Source. Available at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/
- Herbert, V. (1973). The Five Possible Causes of Nutrient Deficiency: illustrated by deficiencies of Vitamin B12 and folic acid. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 26 (1): 77-86.
- Neu, J. (2011). Cesarean versus Vaginal Delivery: Long term infant outcomes and the Hygiene Hypothesis. Clinical Perinatology. 38 (2): 321-331.
Image credit: Dieta Ortomolecular