Supplements: Do you need them?

Supplements, are they needed? And if they are, when and how do you choose them? Supplements are a massive market. They are now stocked in supermarkets as well as pharmacies, health shops, personal care salons and a whole array of online shops. We are even bombarded by adverts for them on public transport, in magazines and social media. 


Do we actually need supplements? After all, they are a manufactured product. Surely we should be able to remain healthy by just eating food. How did we survive before the manufacturing of supplements began? 


My opinion is that food always comes first and our aim should be to achieve optimal health with food and lifestyle. However, there are times and situations when we may need additional targeted support and when appropriately selected supplementation does have its place. 


The clue is in its name, ‘supplementation’. Supplements are exactly that, they are supplemental to the diet and not a replacement. They also should not be used as an ‘excuse’ for unhealthy diets, habits or lifestyles. 


Let’s look at the example of when suffering digestive discomfort such as acid reflux or bloating. Taking supplements to ease the discomfort is no better than reaching for pharmaceutical antacids, unless habits are changed alongside the supplementation. Changes that address the cause of the issues are needed in addition to supplements that support the discomfort short term. 


Supplements are seen as ‘natural’ and therefore often not associated with health risks. However when supplementation is not needed, it is taken at inappropriate dosages (either too high or too low), in the wrong form, at the wrong time or in the wrong combinations can not only be a health risk but also a waste of money! 


Often people take supplements to ‘cover all bases’. They may take a multivitamin ‘just in case’ there is a deficiency in a nutrient. What is the risk of supplementing without thought, taken to ‘cover all bases’ or to relieve symptoms without addressing the cause of the symptoms? 

Supplements are a concentrated form of individual nutrients or sometimes a combination of nutrients like in a multivitamin.

This is not how we find nutrients in nature and in real food. Nutrients are packaged together in real food synergistically. Nutrients do not work alone. The body and its metabolic processes are extremely complex and for metabolic pathways to function effectively they require specific nutrients. 


For example, commonly taken to aid sleep is a supplement known as 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP). However for this to be metabolised to melatonin and support sleep an array of other nutrients are required such as B and C vitamins, magnesium and zinc. Do you know if you need extra support with these nutrients?  


There are multiple forms of different supplements and without professional support, you are leaving it to chance as to whether you select the best supplement for you and your particular needs at the time. Some supplements may actually be a health risk to you. 


For example, there are studies associating beta-carotene supplementation and cancer risk in smokers. Do you know what form of vitamin A is in your multivitamin? Is it vitamin A or pre-vitamin A, known as beta-carotene? 


If you travel on the London underground you will pass multiple adverts for iron supplementation. Typically they ask you if you are tired and suggest that you purchase their iron supplementation. There are multiple reasons why you could be tired and simply reaching for iron supplementation is not the answer. 


Apart from potentially wasting your money and not feeling any better because you haven’t addressed what is really causing your tiredness, there is always a real risk of iron toxicity. 


With other supplements that are water-soluble such as B and C vitamins, if you do not need them they are excreted in the urine; we often refer to this as expensive wee! 


There are definitely times when supplements are useful to give additional support when we are faced with particular health challenges. However, this should be personalised to us and ideally assessed by a professional. 


The use of medicinal plants and herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years. Supplementation is nothing new, it is just that today it appears in a manufactured form and is often synthetically produced. 


Before you take supplements  ‘just in case’ because you saw an advert or someone else told you a particular supplement worked for them, stop and consider your personal circumstances. Making changes to your diet or lifestyle could resolve any issues and save you money. If in doubt, invest in seeing a professional who can guide you. Yes, there is a cost involved but you are more likely to resolve your issues and long term, is probably more cost-effective.

Learn about whether vitamin A is safe during pregnancy

The NHS gives guidance on iron supplementation. Before supplementing, always visit your GP for guidance and testing.