Many of us take supplements, but what exactly are supplements? How do they work? Are they always necessary, and are they as ‘safe’ and ‘natural’ as we often think they are?
What are they?
Supplements are manufactured products intended to enhance one’s diet and/or general health and wellbeing. Supplements contain dietary ingredients including vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes etc., either alone or in combinations. The dietary ingredients found in supplements are extracted from food sources, plants or are synthetically derived to increase quantities. Supplements come in many different forms including tablets, capsules, powders, sprays and liquids, and are usually taken by mouth (ingested orally).
How they work
Once ingested, a supplement is digested, absorbed and metabolised just like any other food or medication would be. The specific dietary ingredients contained within the supplement, as well as the body’s individual needs, will determine how a supplement works or takes effect within the body. For example, a vitamin or mineral supplement will help increase nutrient stores and may be utilised for energy production or mood hormone synthesis depending on the individuals’ key needs. A fish oil supplement will suppress inflammatory pathways to help manage pain conditions or may instead be utilised within the body to improve oil quality within the skin, for example, in an acne sufferer.
Benefits of supplements
While supplements should never replace a healthy, balanced diet and good lifestyle practices, there are circumstances where taking supplements is of huge benefit. Examples include:
- nutritional deficiencies – in most cases of nutritional deficiency, supplements help to address and correct the deficiency more readily and effectively than diet alone, due to higher quantities of nutrients found in supplements compared to foods
- increased demand – there are certain circumstances, for example, pregnancy and breastfeeding or excessive physical exercise (i.e., athletes), where the demand for certain nutrients is greater than normal because nutrient stores are used up at a more rapid rate. Supplements help to replenish nutrient stores more readily and effectively than diet alone (as above)
- acute and chronic health conditions – in this case there is some underlying dysfunction or dis-ease within the body, and supplements help to correct this and promote proper bodily functioning
- food intolerances, allergies or restricted diets (i.e., vegans and vegetarians) – here, an individual is at greater risk of nutritional deficiencies due to eliminating certain foods/food groups from the diet. Supplementation can provide the relevant nutrients that are lacking in these diets to help prevent nutritional deficiencies.
- older adults – as an individual ages, the demand for certain nutrients increases, however absorption capacity decreases, making it difficult to obtain adequate amounts of nutrients from the diet alone. In this case, supplements help to support nutrient stores and prevent nutritional deficiencies.
- soil depletion, farming practices and food processing – soil depletion, the use of modern fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, plus food transportation and processing (including additives) practices diminishes and drastically reduces the nutritional content of food, making it more difficult for an individual to obtain adequate nutrient intake through diet alone. Supplements help to replace the nutrition that is lost during modern farming and processing.
Any supplement that can be purchased over the counter (OTC) must contain a therapeutic dose that is deemed ‘safe’ for the average individual – this means that it must be safe for a child, an adult and a person with cancer. As a result, OTC supplements tend to contain a very low therapeutic dose, which makes them insufficient and ineffective (in other words, a waste of money). Practitioner-only supplements are just that because they contain a much higher, more effective and scientifically proven therapeutic dose and have undergone rigorous testing to ensure they are effective and safe.
Just because a supplement is ‘natural’ does not mean that it is safe. Some herbs and nutrients found in OTC supplements interact negatively with common medications. If you take a medication (including the oral contraceptive pill), it is strongly advised that you do not self-prescribe, but rather seek professional and safe advice from a qualified practitioner.
Furthermore, herbs and nutrients come in many different forms. Each of these forms have different actions and varying levels of absorption. OTC supplements generally contain less active and less absorbable (synthetic) forms of the herb or nutrient because they are cheaper to manufacture and sell. A great example of this is Ferrograd-C. Ferrograd-C contains iron in the form ‘ferrous fumerate’, which is a cheap but poorly absorbed form of iron, meaning a lot of iron remains in the gut. For this reason, many individuals experience constipation when taking Ferrograd-C.
Additionally, OTC supplements tend to contain more allergens, excipients, bulking agents and preservatives (sometimes in greater amounts than the active ingredient!!), which increases the likelihood of an adverse reaction.
Supplements are not generally designed for long-term use. Without professional advice, you might be taking the wrong supplements, unnecessary supplements and/or taking them for too long. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing!
If you would like a review of your supplements or nutritional needs, chat to one of our naturopaths: book an appointment.
Written by Perri Baldwin, BHSc