There are dozens of supplements available from health food stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, the Internet and via mail order. All can be bought without any medical advice. This seems amazing when you consider that certain supplements can be harmful when taken in excess, others interact badly with prescribed drugs, or can be affected when taken with drinks like coffee. There are times when it is highly recommended to supplement even the best diet. For instance a daily dose of 400mg of folic acid for women who are planning a pregnancy.
So how do you know what to take and when? Could you be wasting your money or even worse risking your health? Here is a guide for clarity.
Contain lots of vital nutrients in one handy dose.
Intake: Most multivitamins list their contents in relation to the RDA for each nutrient. Quality tablets can contain 100 per cent of the RDA of most nutrients in a handy one a day formula.
Who might benefit? This is the most popular form of supplement and can benefit everyone, especially people with poor diets or chronic illness, women who are planning consecutive pregnancies and long-term dieters. Special children’s vitamins may be helpful for some kids in periods of rapid growth.
Precautions: Multivitamins shouldn’t be taken alongside specific supplements which include beta carotene, vitamins A B1, B3, and B6 as well as vitamin C and Vitamin D where very high doses are undesirable and can be dangerous.
Verdict: Multivitamins cannot cure illness alone, nor can they replace the benefits of a healthy diet. They are fine for plugging the occasional gap in diet quality, or for offering peace of mind to people who try to follow a healthy lifestyle, but that’s where the magic ends.
Supplement: Calcium and Vitamin D
Functions: These two nutrients are often sold together as one because of the role vitamin D has in helping the body to absorb calcium. Calcium is primarily involved in maintaining good bone and dental health.
Intake: RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of calcium 700mg. Vitamin D 10mg per day.
Food sources: all dairy foods and food made from white flours (calcium enriched in the UK) contain calcium. Oily fish, eggs and fortified margarine supply vitamin D as well as sun exposure when vitamin D is manufactured in the skin.
Who benefits? Teenage girls, dieters, vegetarians and vegans often have low intakes of dietary calcium. People over the age of 55 may require extra calcium to protect them from osteoporosis. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers may also need to supplement their diet.
Precautions: These shouldn’t be taken in addition to fish oil supplements as there is a risk of vitamin D overdose. Calcium tablets should not be taken with any antibiotics containing Tetracycline.
Verdict: it may be wise to use a general bone health supplement containing calcium, vitamin D and magnesium. Having milk with cereal, a small pot of yoghurt and a matchbox size piece of cheese each day will give you all the necessary daily amounts of calcium.
Intake: EU labelling RDA 15mg
Upper safe limit: Long term 15mg
Short term 50mg
Function: Needed for a strong immune system to fight infection.
Food sources: red meat, shellfish, egg yolks, dairy products, whole grains and pulses.
Who might benefit from a supplement? Anyone following restrictive diet- vegetarians, vegans, long-term strict slammers. Older people or those suffering frequent cold or infections like cold sores.
Precautions: High doses (above 15mg/day/long term) can affect the absorption of copper and iron. Always take zinc supplements with food to avoid stomach upset. If suffering from any intestinal or liver disorder consult you GP before taking a zinc supplement.
Verdict: Probably most useful for vegetarians and vegans who do not eat many whole grains or pulses. O for those following very low calorie or fad diets. Most of us get all the zinc we need from our food.
Supplement: Cod Liver Oil.
Intake 200mg per day
Function: Fish oils are rich in fatty acids, particularly omega 3s, which help to keep blood flowing freely avoiding clots. They are also helpful in reducing joint inflammation, and although there is little scientific evidence to explain why, they are sometimes a successful component in the treatment of used in the dietary treatment of eczema, migraine, Chronic fatigue syndrome and psoriasis.
Who might benefit from taking a supplement? People with a family history of Coronary Heart Disease or who suffer from joint pain and inflammation. Also, people who can not tolerate eating oily fish.
Food sources: To achieve requirement 2-3 portions per week of oily fish such as herring, salmon, trout, sardines or mackerel.
Precautions: Women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should avoid Fish oil supplement because of the high Vitamin A content.
Verdict: There is a wealth of evidence supporting the health benefits of fish oils in the diet. Supplements are particularly useful for people who do not eat fish.
Function: Antibacterial properties which may help reduce infections. Main use is as a protective supplement against heart disease, high cholesterol and stomach cancer.
Intakes: To get the full medicinal benefits from garlic it should be eaten raw! Supplements come in many forms including capsules, tablets, gels and powders. Some are “odourless” or have an enteric coating to prevent “Garlic Breath”.
Precautions: May cause indigestion and are not recommended for people taking drugs to prevent blood clots (anticoagulants or aspirin). Also, avoid if taking medication for high blood pressure (antihypertensives) garlic supplements can also interfere with the action of some Diabetic medication.
Verdict: Check your medication! If you want to take it, find a format which doesn’t “repeat on you”. Otherwise, your health will still benefit from including garlic in cooking.
Supplement: Ginkgo Biloba
Function: Has been shown to aid circulation.
Intakes: There is conflicting advice about whether Gingko is most effective when taken as a Standardised extract or a full spectrum extract. Sue Jamieson, Medical Herbalist explains “ I prefer to use full spectrum extracts so that the herb is taken in its most natural form. People need to take care in self-administrating herbal remedies for particular conditions. Herbs should be used to treat the cause of symptoms rather than just the symptoms themselves and are most effective when prescribed by a Medical Herbalist after a consultation”.
Who might benefit from taking a supplement: people with a family history of heart disease, poor memory or Raynaud’s Syndrome (consistently cold hands and feet).
Precautions: Gingko Biloba should not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. People who are taking Heparin, Warfarin or Aspirin should avoid Gingko also.
Verdict: Herbal medicine can be very powerful, for this reason, I would not recommend self-diagnosing or prescribing. Under the supervision of a Medical Herbalist, it can be very helpful.
Function: Glucosamine is normally produced within the body and is essential for maintaining healthy cartilage.
Intake: Usually taken in 500-600mg doses and best taken with food. There is some evidence to suggest that for the relief of joint pain the initial dose should be 3x500mg tablets per day for the first 14 days, reducing to 1 a day thereafter.
Food Sources: Although there are traces of Glucosamine in some foods, if the body’s natural supply reduces it is very difficult to replace it with foods.
Who may benefit from taking a supplement?
Demand for Glucosamine in the body is increased by people who are very physically active. Some elderly people may not produce sufficient Glucosamine to maintain the cartilage in their joints. The supplement is now often prescribed by GPs to relieve joint pain, particularly in the knees and joints.
Precautions: There have been limited studies in the use of Glucosamine, however, it does appear to be very safe.
Verdict: Very useful for sports men and women and people suffering from joint pain.
Supplement: Vitamin C
Intake: EU Labelling RDA 60mg
Upper safe limit 2000mg
Available in powders, tablets, effervescent tablets, gels and chewable preparations.
Functions: One of the most widely used supplements. It is involved in over 300 chemical pathways in the body. We can not make our own Vitamin C, so have to obtain it from foods or other sources. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of Iron, and is best known for its antioxidant properties, protecting us from Free radical damage. Surprisingly there is little evidence to support Vitamin C’s reputation for stopping us from getting colds.
Food sources: Most fresh and frozen fruits (particularly citrus) vegetables and fruit juices.
Who may benefit from taking a supplement? Smokers and athletes have a higher requirement for vitamin C than the rest of the population. People whose diet has very little fresh fruit and vegetables (less than five a day) may also benefit.
Precautions: Women taking the contraceptive pill can take Vitamin C but should not take the supplement at the same time of day as their pill. Large doses of Vitamin C can cause stomach upsets, there are so-called “gentle preparations” available.
Vitamin C is soluble in water, taking more than you need simply results in very expensive urine!
Verdict: There is considerable evidence suggesting that Vitamin C is most effective when taken in its natural form from fruits and vegetables. Other compounds in the foods help the Vitamin’s action in the body. Although supplements may be helpful for people who have poor diets, most of us would do well to spend our money on the fruit and veg stand at the market!