To supplement or not to supplement? That is the question. Popping vitamins is hugely popular among those looking to take their health into their own hands. But is it doing more harm than good?
Thanks to the internet, we’re all doctors. We Google our symptoms, identify a deficiency and prescribe a remedying concoction, including vitamins (like vitamin A, B and C), minerals (such as selenium and calcium), and supplements (think fish oil and evening primrose oil).
We’re often incorrect, but thanks to excellent marketing and the desire to ‘fix’ ourselves, supplementing our diets with non-prescribed vitamins; in pill, liquid or cream-based form, has become a ‘thing’, with the logic that supplements counter an unhealthy lifestyle, or improve a healthy eating regime: if a small amount of, say, vitamin C is good, then more is better.
Successful due to a growing awareness of health science and easier-than-ever access to vitamins from across the world, the global nutrition and supplements market is worth $104 billion, according to a report in the Nutrition Business Journal. Self-prescription is only set to grow, yet there remains a great deal of confusion about what is needed, and when.
According to the NHS, we need 13 vitamins to maintain health – vitamins A, C, D, E, K and eight B vitamins; most of which are naturally present in foods, and yet many of us are taking supplements we can’t even pronounce, like bee pollen, ginseng and baobab.
“Food today isn’t the same quality as it was years ago,” says Francesca Liparoti, nutritional therapist at the Wellness Centre at Reebok Sports Club in Canary Wharf. “It’s been really depleted of nutrients, through transportation, storage and soil quality.” Working life, too, is problematic. “Constant stress uses up B vitamins and magnesium,” she says.
Liparoti herself takes (and would recommend) “a good quality multivitamin, fish oil, a probiotic, magnesium – women need more – and vitamin D”. Liparoti tells me she hasn’t had a cold in years, but would supplement vitamin C if she felt one coming on. However, she adds:
“Supplements should add to a healthy diet, not replace it."
Mandy Saven, head of food, beverage and hospitality at Stylus, agrees: “One needs a realistic view on what these products can and can’t do. When it comes to supplements, knowledge really is key.”
That said, in the majority of cases, it doesn’t hurt to try an added extra. The danger comes when healthy people over-supplement. A supplement can provide 100 per cent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of that particular vitamin.
However, attaining RDA of, for example, vitamin A, which supports healthy vision and immunity, only requires half a carrot.
Surplus water-soluble vitamins leave the body in urine, making them a waste of money but not harmful, but fat-soluble vitamins, like A and D, build up in the body. Downsides of too much vitamin A include bone problems and headaches, while too much vitamin D can cause kidney stones. Taking too much iron, zinc and selenium – all good in certain doses – can also be harmful, but Liparoti says it is quite hard to reach toxic levels.
While Liparoti recommends supplements, she says self-purchasing them can be dangerous. “Quality really matters,” she says, and it’s always worth seeking reputable advice. “Not only will some poorly made supplements just pass through the digestive system, but some have fillers, bindings and colourings in them – all rubbish ingredients which have to go through the liver.” As a general rule, the top quality supplements cost more, but are worth it.
An additional downside to supplementing is taking a concoction of vitamins which don’t work well together. Over-supplementing zinc can cause copper deficiencies, which, somewhat pointlessly, means one would subsequently supplement copper. Equally, some vitamins require others to work effectively, says Liparoti:
“People supplement calcium for healthy bones, but without vitamin D and K and magnesium, that calcium will reach a high level in the bloodstream, and won’t reach the bones properly. It can do more damage than good.”
Another reason people supplement, health concerns aside, is to perfect skin appearance. Collagen, the protein which makes skin look smooth and firm, is produced “through a chemical reaction requiring vitamin C and six or seven amino acids”, says Dr Luca Russo, founder of the Rejuvenation Clinic & Medispa. Collagen production naturally declines in our mid-twenties, so certain creams and oral supplements claim to stimulate collage production on a cellular level, using ingredients like peptides, vitamin C, green tea extract and vitamin E.
However, many creams simply sit on the skin’s surface and aren’t absorbed. While creams using hydrolysed collagen composed of smaller molecules are worth attempting, Dr Russo says they still can’t really “penetrate deep into the skin’s tissue”. Oral collagen-enhancing supplements “do not have medically proven benefits”, he says, but many of Dr Russo’s patients have found the Skinade liquid (available at his clinic) to work well.
“It can go directly into the bloodstream, which feeds the skin,” he says, adding that oral supplements help with balancing deficiencies in vitamin C or D. One effective way to use vitamins and minerals to stimulate collagen production, says Dr Russo, is injecting them through a treatment called mesotherapy, where they can really penetrate. Use of lasers and rollers are also considered helpful.
The world of vitamins and supplements is still evolving, and Saven of Stylus says she is “eagerly watching to see how the field of nutrigenomics will impact the supplement landscape”, as well as new emerging brands: “We’re seeing a lot of plant-based vitamin brands come to the fore, and a renewed interest in spices such as turmeric,” she adds.
Generally, health-conscious consumers should start with focusing on healthy, nutrient-rich foods. Before buying magnesium, try eating more nuts and avocados, and before splashing out on chromium, opt for broccoli.
If you’re still deficient in some areas or feeling rundown, supplements can absolutely help. Vitamin D in particular seems largely advisable – but do consult your doctor, opt for top quality, and don’t prescribe a concoction yourself.