Do We Really Need Supplements?
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
One of the questions that is always asked when I do talks or courses is: "Should I be taking supplements?".
I understand why so many people ask. Most are concerned about their long-term health and there is a lot of confusion about whether or not supplements are necessary or even useful.
As a Functional Nutritionist, I try and use food as much as possible for therapeutic benefits, but sometimes supplements are needed.
Here are some of the main reasons why:
Our food quality is not what it was. Industrial agriculture means that soils can be nutrient-poor, which means anything grown in them is nutrient poor. The amount of nutrients in our foods has decreased since the 1950's.
Modern living requires more nutrients. Stress depletes certain nutrients, and many people are living with high levels of stress. We are also exposed to more chemicals from food, dirty air and paints, furnishings and plastics. All of these compounds are effectively handled by our organs of detoxification, but they need more of the raw materials to do their work (aka vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients).
Some drugs deplete nutrients. For example, the Pill depletes most B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. Stomach acid lowering drugs like omeprazole or Gaviscon can impede the absorption of magnesium.
Our diets are calorie-rich, but nutrient poor. Many people actually do not eat enough variety of vegetables and fruits to get all the nutrients they need. We also find more ultra-processed foods in our diet, which do not supply all the nutrients we need for vibrant health.
It is impossible to get enough of some nutrients. Vitamin D is the most obvious one. This extremely important vitamin is mostly available through exposure to the sun, so in the winter months we need to supplement. We also know that as people spend more time indoors or protect themselves from increasingly harsh summer rays, we are often not getting enough vitamin D in summer either. If you choose not to eat animal products, you might need to supplement vitamin B12 or calcium.
How Does a Nutritional Therapist Use Supplements?
Some supplements can be used short-term for a boost and others might be needed longer-term, if health needs or other factors are present.
I typically recommend supplementation in the following situations:
Digestive issues are present which may reduce nutrient absorption.
Medication is taken that depletes specific nutrients.
Cases of extreme need e.g. in inflammatory conditions or pregnancy (as a safety blanket)
Restricted diets (e.g. vegans)
Where medical advice suggests to avoid ill health - e.g. Vitamin D in winter
After long-term nutrient insufficiency or to reduce the risk of poor health outcomes (e.g. frequent infections).
Where evidence indicates efficacy for specific outcomes (e.g. probiotics for specific digestive issues).
After antibiotic use (using probiotics to restore beneficial bacteria).
How To Choose the Best Supplements
The main thing about supplements is that you get what you pay for. Cheap supplements are full of fillers and binders that impede assimilation. They also use versions of nutrients that are cheaper to produce, but not well absorbed.
The bottom line, many cheaper supplements are a false economy as you absorb very little.
Well designed and manufactured supplements use versions of nutrients that are best absorbed and are often formulated to work in synergy (e.g. zinc with copper, or calcium, magnesium, K2 and vitamin D for bone health).
These days, supplements are also being designed to take into account new understanding of how our genetics work. For example, good quality supplements will use methylated versions of folate, B6 and B12. For many people, methylated B's will have a much better impact on health than non-methylated B vitamin supplements.
My recommendation is to buy the best you can afford (especially fish oils) and seek advice about the best investment.
I like products that have as few 'extras' as possible, powders/drops that are well absorbed and brands with clear quality standards that are GMP certified / compliant.
I see many people who take supplements without really knowing if they need them. Sometimes this can be dangerous e.g. taking high dose curcumin along with certain blood thinning medications.
I also regularly see clients taking handfuls supplements to cover all bases, but who might only really need one or two.
For most people, there is usually no harm taking a regular multi-nutrient.
Supplements used properly can have a transformative effect on your health, but I recommend taking advice if you are looking for support for a specific health concern.
Please get in touch for a consultation if you would like bespoke nutrition and supplement advice: firstname.lastname@example.org