Lots of people use vitamins and other supplements in the hopes of supercharging their health and wellbeing. Many also turn to these preparations because they think “natural” equals “better” or that supplements can fix something that conventional medicine doesn’t have an easy or straightforward answer to. Not all supplements are created equal though so read on to find out what works, what doesn’t, and if you need them at all!
So what works?
The most common causes for being low in iron among young and otherwise healthy women are inadequate dietary intake (more common in those who adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle) and excess loss through bleeding (e.g. if you have heavy periods). Being low in iron can majorly affect your quality of life. It can make you feel tired, weak and lead to headaches and fainting. The good news is that oral iron supplementation can be very effective in replacing the body’s iron stores and kicking those nasty symptoms so you feel ready to conquer the world again!
Folate in pregnancy
In pregnancy, your body’s nutrient requirements increase across the board (hey, you’re making a whole BABY from scratch!) but this is especially true for folate. Mums-to-be who take folate supplements during pregnancy have a significantly lower risk (up to 70% lower!) of having babies with neural tube defects. These occur when the brain and spinal cord don’t develop properly and can lead to the baby having a severe disability or dying soon after birth – definitely things you would want to reduce the chance of if you could!
Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in many first world countries (including Australia). It’s also a major burden for those that live with it and the health systems providing care for them. While there are a bunch lifestyle changes you can make to reduce to risk (e.g. avoid smoking, maintaining a healthy BMI), one of the easiest things that can be done to decrease the chance of developing heart disease is to take regular fish oil supplements. Fish oil (or more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids that form part of it) can work to decrease blood pressure, lower cholesterol and decrease the chance of dying from many heart and blood vessel-related causes. We heart that!
Vitamin D Yes this summer has been truly amazing but sadly we all know the UK is mostly made up of wet dark skies. Our body needs sunlight to rebuild and keep up our energy levels it also helps us absorb calcium and promote bone growth. While you can get vitamin D through eating a healthy balanced diet its recommended everyone in the UK (especially if you work long inside jobs) takes a supplement throughout winter
What doesn’t work?
Vitamin C for colds
There really isn’t any good quality scientific evidence for vitamin C supplements boosting immune response to colds in the general population. OK, there’s one study that shows it MIGHT be helpful in people who do lots of high intensity physical activity in arctic conditions (yes, someone ACTUALLY studied that!) …. But that’s certainly not applicable to most of us! Your body does need vitamin C for many biological processes but more does NOT equal better. If you already have sufficient levels, you will just wee out the excess.
Magnesium for cramps
It is a common misconception that magnesium can put a stop to cramps (either those pesky ones that happen at night in bed or those associated with exercise). In reality, research has not found that magnesium supplementation offers any benefit in terms of frequency or severity of cramps. This changes if you’re pregnant, and experience pregnancy-related cramps. Magnesium supplements may give you a helping hand there but if you’re not pregnant, mag is not your bag when it comes to curbing cramps.
Anything labelled “liver detox”
Liver detox is a total myth! There is no magic tonic or tablet that can detox your liver. Your liver IS one of the major detoxing organs in the body and the best way to keep it healthy is to eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, avoid overindulging in alcohol, and make sure you’re up to date with all your hepatitis A and B vaccines. You should also avoid risky habits that could put you at increased risk of contracting hepatitis C like using intravenous drugs.
Should I use them?
It’s a fact that human bodies need certain vitamins and minerals to survive and thrive. It’s also a fact that most people easily manage to get everything they need from a varied and balanced diet full of lots of fresh fruit and veggies. Anything on top of what your body needs simply gets eliminated by your body. So unless you have been formally tested and found to be deficient in something, you are vegan (B12) or you’re part of a population with higher risk or greater needs (e.g. pregnant, have a chronic illness) then supplements will give you NO benefit. We all know that supplements aren’t cheap so if your levels are already tip top, using them unnecessarily is like flushing money down the toilet…. Literally!
On top of this, many supplements can be harmful if taken in too high doses or when taken in combination with other medications. Some supplements also have not been tested enough to be proven safe or effective at any dose.
If you do choose to use supplements, always let your trusted GP know so they can guide you through which ones may work best for you and can keep an eye out for any interactions or side effects you might experience.