One of the common questions I get asked as a Nutritional Therapist is what’s my view on supplements.

My response: they should never be used as a substitute for a healthy diet.  Food comes first for your nutrient needs, however, there ARE situations where supplements can be extremely beneficial to health.  Ive summarised these below in 3 points:

1) When our nutritional needs go up: 

  • Pre-natal and post-natal; we need more nutrients to build and feed a baby.  
  • Post an operation or major health event we may need more nutrients to help us repair and replenish.  
  • Following a bad cold or flu we may want to up our intake of immune boosting nutrients e.g. vitamin C, E, D, A, iron, selenium and zinc. 

2) If you are following a certain diet which excludes certain nutrients or provides insufficient nutrients.  

  • Vegans for example should take B12 regularly.  Vitamin D, iron and zinc may also be harder to achieve in sufficient amounts. 

3) When we simply don’t get enough from diet/the environment: 

  • Vitamin D deficiency is common in the winter months in the Northern hemisphere.  Health can be negatively impacted by having too much or too little vitamin D so I recommend checking your levels with your GP before taking a supplement.  
  • Omega 3 is an example of something we likely don’t get enough of; the average western diet results in an unbalanced ratio of omega 3:6 of 20-30:1; this is at odds with the ideal ratio of omega 3:6, 1-2:1*.  
  • If your diet doesn’t include probiotic foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, fermented dairy, kefir) then it may be worth considering probiotics supplements to ensure a healthy gut flora.  See blog on gut health.
  • A diet consisting of shop bought sandwiches, pizza, soft drinks, lots of meat, little veg etc isn’t going to provide the body with sufficient nutrients and can result in a deficient state, leading to disease.  A diet overhaul is recommended, alongside supplements to replenish nutrient levels. 

Two important points if you are considering taking supplements

1) Quality is important!  There are big differences in quality between brands: 

The ‘type’ of nutrient used.  For example, there are many types of magnesium: malate, oxide, citrate, chloride, sulphate, L-threonate, glycinate..!  Some of these are absorbed much better than others (magnesium citrate is poorly absorbed yet commonly used) and different forms may support different complaints in the body. 

Many brands (generally cheaper ones) use all sorts of fillers, binders and preservatives – collectively known as excipients; these can render the nutrient less bioavailable and less active; moreover, some of these excipients have been proven to be harmful to the body (parabens can be found in supplements as methylparabens, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben; parabens are hormone disruptions and have been found in high concentrations in breast cancer tumours**)

2) Its worth talking to someone in the know..

..and where possible get your levels checked, at your GP or privately:  

  • People working in health food shops are usually clued up (this doesn’t include Holland and Barrett). 
  • You can contact the manufacturer before purchasing with specific questions.  
  • Nutritional Therapists can safely guide you through the best ones to take according to your symptoms and health history (we also consider drug interactions which is important if you take any medications). 
  • Or speak to your GP. 

 

Sources

*Yashodhara, et. al, 2009. https://pmj.bmj.com/content/85/1000/84.long

**Pugazhendh, D. P. (2005). Oestrogenic activity of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (common metabolite of paraben esters) and methylparaben in human breast cancer cell lines. J Appl Toxicol., 301-9.