Nutritional Supplements: A wellness choice or waste of money?

By Dr Johanna Ward

The British public spent over £750m in 2013 on dietary vitamin and supplements, of which multivitamins accounted for £138m and fish oils for £139m. With one third of the UK taking vitamin and dietary supplements is there enough robust evidence in favour of us taking nutritional supplements or can we get everything we need from our diet?

A bit of the Science:
All cells in our bodies need a few vital things to survive: oxygen, glucose, water, amino acids, nutrients, a blood supply and a waste removal process. Without these we cannot survive. Vitamins and minerals form part of the cell’s vital nutrients and allow cells to function, to communicate, to create (calcium, Vit D), to act as co-factors, to regulate cell membranes (magnesium), to stabilise DNA (magnesium & zinc), to act as antioxidants (selenium, Vit A & C) and to fortify. Without nutrients cells cannot function properly and begin to decline.

Scientifically there is no debate. Without vitamins and minerals we cannot function, let
alone be healthy, happy and thrive.

A balanced diet:
With a few exceptions, vitamins need to be taken in the diet daily, because humans cannot make them. So can we get everything we need from a well balanced diet? This is the bit the scientists, researchers, media and medical professionals argue and debate about. The crux of the problem is this: Its a total generalisation to assume that everyone eats a healthy, balanced diet. Some do, some don’t. The other problem is how do you know if you have everything covered each day? The truth is you don’t.

In a perfect world, no one would need to use supplements. A balanced and healthy diet would be enough. But there is another problem. Over the last 50 years western food has become nutrient depleted due to modern soiling, intensive agriculture, fast crop growth, refining processes, pesticide use, pollutants and cooking processes. The soil we use to grow our crops is nutrient depleted due to its high turnover, plants are treated with chemicals and pesticides so they no longer have to nourish themselves, animals and livestock are artificially fattened, fed and cooped up without the ability to roam free on nutrient rich pastures. Then there is the refinement process. Foods are so over processed now that lots of nutrients are lost en route. Foods have to be ‘enriched’ because they are (ironically) so impoverished. ‘Fresh’ fruits and vegetables often spend weeks on ships and in cargo coming to us, each day losing their vital nutrients. Then the way we cook our foods often blasts away the final bit of nourishment. Add to this the fast paced, stressful and ‘on the run’ lifestyles that many of us lead and its easy to see all of a sudden that many of us might be vitamin or mineral deficient and may benefit from a daily metabolic boost.

Supplements are a means of boosting your nutrient delivery to your cells and a way of ensuring that your body gets what it needs on a daily basis. The aim of supplementation is optimum nutrition delivery and optimum cellular function. Supplements are not meant to replace food or give you 100% of your RDA.

Some groups of people should take certain supplements. These are the Under 5’s, pregnant and breastfeeding women and those who have confirmed deficiencies. Their Doctors will guide them as to which ones to take. Anyone who is on a restricted diet such as vegetarians, vegans, gluten free and low calorie diets may also benefit from supplementation. For the rest of us which supplements are safe and which ones should we take?

The first thing to say is that too many vitamins or minerals can be bad. We shouldn’t overload on vitamins and minerals because doing so can have hazardous consequences. Water soluble vitamins (C & B vitamins) are generally excreted in the urine if taken in excess. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) are stored in the liver and can cause poisoning if taken in excess. Supplementation should be about filling in the gaps that your diet leaves, or boosting your levels up to the daily recommended intake, not taking more than is required.

Below I have complied a list (by no means exhaustive) of the supplements that I often recommend to my patients. Personally, I recommend brands of supplements that do not give 100% of the RDA but act as a booster to the RDA. Many brands contain more than the daily recommended dosage levels which is necessary and potentially problematic. If you think you might be deficient in any way then the best place to start is a trip to see your Gp.

Supplements –  Who Should take them and the benefits:
Vitamin C – Smokers, low citrus fruit intake, restricted diet collagen, anti oxidant, wound healing, skin health, wellbeing
Vitamin D – Everyone in UK advised to take 10mcg in winter months(adult dose). Children take less. Bone density, prevents rickets & osteomalacia/porosis, muscle health, strong teeth
Vitamin B (8 of them) – Vegans, vegetarians, low calorie/restricted diet & low dairy Multi-functioning, helps in virtually every cellular function, skin health, energy
Iron – Women with heavy menses Production of haemoglobin, prevents anaemia
Calcium – Low dairy, restricted diet Vital for healthy bones
Omega 3  -Take if you don’t eat oily fish at least 2 x per week Vital for healthy brain, heart, joints & skin
Magnesium – High alcohol, high caffeine/fizzy drinks, stress/anxiety, PMS, peri-menopause, over 55 Co-factor in over 300 cellular processes
Zinc – Restricted diets, over 55 Co-factor in over 300 cellular processes, skin health
Folic acid -Pregnancy, restricted diets Cell division & growth, prevents anaemia, brain & energy
Glutathione – Restricted diets A master Antioxidant, health, anti-ageing, detoxifies, protective

21Dr Johanna Ward is a Gp, presenter and co-founder of ZENii, a skincare, supplements and wellness company that seeks to provide intelligent anti-ageing and healthcare advice. ZENii is founded on the principles of protect, nourish, fortify and repair and seeks to educate the smart consumer to make better choices to become healthy & happy.

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