To Supplement, or not to Supplement?

Yes, in some cases, but in many cases, no. There is no definitive answer, because each person is different with different needs. In general, clinical evidence shows that it’s best to get your nutritional needs from the food you eat. Health and nutritional supplements have skyrocketed in popularity. The variety of available products and contradictory information about them can be very confusing to health consumers.

As life expectancy increases, and older adults look for ways to remain active at they age, supplements have become more popular. Since traditional biomedicine isn’t keeping up with the research, people typically look to the market place and popular media for answers. The health supplement industry is growing rapidly due to higher demand and the marketing of more diverse natural and synthetic remedies. There is also an expanding wealth of knowledge about how the body functions and ages. The nutraceutical industry uses this information to create new products, whether they work or not. In addition to lifestyle changes, people are turning to natural supplements to treat illness and disease. Everything from mineral and vitamins, to lesser known compounds like enzymes, phytochemicals and hundreds of exotic herbal supplements have entered the market place.

It’s important to also consider the scientific and clinical evidence about the health claims of these products. It’s also important to look at the proper use of supplements. Pharmacies and health food stores usually don’t have trained expects who can provide you with accurate information and recommendations. With the internet, you can find more information than you could possible read. But how do you even know which information is accurate? The National Institute of Health concluded that there isn’t enough evidence for many of the claims of preventive or curative powers of supplements. That’s why it’s important to do research before using a supplement. Ideally, it’s best to consult a trained health care professional in the use of nutritional dietary and herbal supplements.

Let’s look at the evidence for a few well-known popular supplements. Vitamin D supplements are helpful when deficiency is present, especially if you don’t get a lot of sunlight. Vitamin D is helpful in preventing fractures and in strengthening the immune system. Another commonly recommended supplement, especially for woman, is calcium. But there is considerable evidence against taking calcium supplements. The body must be able to absorb the calcium, which requires other minerals, like magnesium. You can get more bio-available calcium form broccoli and dark leafy greens like spinach, than you can from a supplement or dairy products. An analysis of 15 studies showed that calcium supplementation resulted in a 30% increase in heart attack risk (JCEM, 3/2015). That’s one example of the down side of taking a supplement, which most people assume is safe.

B12, a bacterium, not a vitamin, is an essential nutrient, which some people may be beneficial to take. It is especially critical for vegetarians and vegans, but also for some meat-eaters. Deficiencies in people, especially over 50, can negatively affect muscle function, brain, and nervous system health. A blood test can determine if you need B12 supplementation. Essential fatty acids (omega oils) have become quite popular. Fish oil is marketed as good source of omega oils, but there are also non-animal alternatives like flax and chia seeds that are just as good, without any negative side effects. A 2013 study of over 12,000 people determined that there is no preventative effect from fish oil supplementation for heart attacks (PT., 9/2013). Animal studies on turmeric show promise for turmeric as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory supplement. No studies have shown any benefit from glucosamine-chondroitin supplementation for joint and arthritis pain. Previously considered safe, vitamin E supplementation has recently been found to increase prostate cancer risk in men and that selenium supplementation was found to increase the risk of developing diabetes (J. Natl. Cancer Inst, 2/2014; Nutrition J., 2/2015). The history of supplements shows that it is prudent to be cautious about what you take.

For some, it may not be possible to meet all your nutritional needs through diet. Fertilized farming has cause soil depletion resulting in lower mineral and vitamin content in fruits and vegetables. Minerals are under-emphasized in nutrition. For some taking a mineral supplement might be advisable; ionic minerals solutions are the most absorbable.

The general rule of thumb is if you feel healthy and vital and have no known health problems or deficiencies, you don’t need to take vitamins and health supplements. But how do you know if you have a deficiency? The best way to find out if you have any deficiencies is to get a blood test. Many people see information about dietary and health supplements and take them based on advertisement, self-diagnosis or wishful thinking. It’s better to find out for sure. If you have a specific medical condition, supplementing your diet with specific supplements may be the way to go.

It is best to consult a trained professional about what supplements you need, rather than following market trends and advertisement. If you choose to take vitamins, look for “food-based” supplements. Whole food supplements are more bio-available. Just because it says “natural” doesn’t mean it is food-based. The more a supplement is in its natural food matrix, the more bio-available it will be. If the body can’t absorb a substance, it won’t be much help. Don’t throw your money away by taking non food-based vitamins supplements.

Take what you really need, and get reliable information. This way you’ll not only save money, but you won’t run the risk of taking something that may do more harm then good. Be skeptical of potentially misleading advertisements, popular media, internet memes and health fads. The so-called “green” health industry is not immune to marketing trends and misinformation.

© 2017 Keyvan Golestaneh