Supplements are often discussed negatively in the press. So, should we take them, is there any point, why are some dirt cheap and others expensive? And more to the point, what is actually in them?
This is a huge subject to touch on, we will briefly touch on it here.
Firstly, if and when do we need to take supplements?
In an ideal world we would all have a great baseline level of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids) thanks to an excellent diet, exposure to sunshine and quality soils. But, if for whatever reason we haven’t been getting adequate nutrients from food and poorer soil quality, or have a depleted status, suffer from ill health, stress, exposure to pollution, poor absorption capabilities and so on, we can find ourselves lacking. Throughout our life-time, our nutrient needs change.
Food comes first
Always try to eat nutrient rich foods first to bring yourself back into balance! As Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food!” If however these amounts are excessive, or unobtainable, then supplementation has its place. Especially if for example you don’t fancy eating a huge bag of spinach every day for several months!?
This is complex. Not only are there many brands and prices but also different forms. Take magnesium. It comes in several forms; citrate, malate, taurate, sulphate and carbonate. Certain forms are better for those suffering cramps, or constipation. Other forms are better for brain health or suited better to those with delicate stomachs. Some forms can irritate, so you want to know which is best suited for your needs. When it comes to buying them, some companies use forms which are recognised by the body and therefore absorbed, some don’t. I know, why is that allowed? And of course, what are the fillers they put in them, are they safe, can they cause irritation? That’s a whole other article.
You need to ensure that the quantities on the label are going to meet your requirements, especially if aiming to get your levels back to the recommended daily intakes. For example, I recently observed fish oil capsules which were so low in EPA/DHA amounts, you would need to take 18 capsules a day, simply to meet the equivalent of one teaspoon of a much higher quality fish oil. So be careful you aren’t just wasting your money – cheap doesn’t always save you money and therefore you can fail miserably to attain suitable quantities required and end up still being grossly deficient.
Together or alone?
Some nutrients work far better together, providing a more effective outcome than taken alone. Some prefer very much to be on their own because they get bullied or compete harshly with others. Some can positively or negatively interact with medications – and this needs to be checked by a professional. For example vitamin C and iron like to be taken together, helping to increase the absorption of iron within the body.
Is the supplement required to be taken with food to increase absorption, or away from hot food or drink which can kill active components? For example probiotics should be taken away from hot drinks, which can kill the ‘live’ bacteria, unless treated and stated otherwise. They often need to be refrigerated too, for the same reason. Always make sure you read the label.
As with medications, timing is important. What time of day do you need to take them, is split dosing advisable? Taking some supplements late in the day can keep the mind chattering and negatively affect sleep quality, whilst others work well to calm the mind and ready the body for sleep. Vitamin C is often time-released as the body has a limited intake and excretes the excess swiftly. Certain supplements can affect your liver, speeding the ‘up-take’ of medications, which is something you don’t want to do. You want to benefit from medications for as long as possible, not reduce their effectiveness. So knowing when and if to take them is key. Some need to attach to fat (from food), in order to be absorbed across the gut and into the bloodstream. You may need to take supplements away from medications so as not to disrupt or compete with them, talk to your health practitioner or doctor if you are unsure.
Certain good quality probiotics – I’m not talking the yoghurts here, but the capsules, require refrigeration to keep the active strains alive. Otherwise the strains can die and you have wasted your money. Other probiotics strains can be exposed to heat and therefore be taken whilst on holiday- ideal for those dodgy tummies! Most vitamins should be stored in coloured glass jars, or at least away from sunlight, in a cupboard, otherwise light can affect their quality. Most fish oils should be stored in the fridge to avoid rancidity.
Don’t forget there are times when self-supplementing can be dangerous, either in conjunction with medications, herbal tinctures, alcohol and so on, or because they cause an excess build-up which can be toxic. Seek testing to check levels first and always seek the advice of a medical practitioner.
The World we live in
Unfortunately today in the UK, and other areas of the world, our soils are becoming deficient in nutrients (partly due to heavy farming practises, pesticides, pollution run off, acid rain and so on). Vital nutrients that would have been absorbed by plants, to be consumed by us, are often sadly no longer reliable sources. This does not mean that you should disregard them, not at all, but beware of the changes in our world. This is however, one reason why even the most conscientious of us may find ourselves deficient. If you can afford it organic produce may certainly have its place, or where you know local farms or soils, are not over-farmed, but well cared for.
Taking into consideration depleted soil quality, lack of sunlight from office jobs and a whole host of other issues, ideas are changing about whether we should be supplementing more long-term, or even seasonally. In some long-term disease states, continual supplementation maybe necessary (often alongside the approval of your medical practitioner). This may be because the body is no longer fully supported in order to perform certain necessary processes, via complex pathways, to achieve balance and therefore move away from deficiency.