If the thought of popping a daily nutritional pill feels a little hard to swallow think again. It may sound a tad 'Futurama', but according to recent studies there’s a place for a supplement in most people’s life. Contrary to the school of thought that suggests if you’re eating a varied, balanced diet there’s not need for them, the pressures of modern life appear to say otherwise. We caught up with three top nutritionists to get their take on the subject as well as whittling down our favourite health supplements on the market.
‘Like so much else to do with health and diet, I find there’s a lot of ‘mindlessness’ around health supplements and I have certainly used them personally and professionally to help shift health states,' says best-selling author of Eat. Nourish. Glow and nutritional therapist Amelia Freer.
'However, I feel incredibly strongly that their intake should be monitored by a qualified professional and that the same supplement programme should not be taken continuously,’ she warns. ‘People buy them because they read an article in a magazine or hear that a celebrity has talked about them and they take them without giving much thought to if they are needed or indeed if they are safe to be taking. We are all unique and hence have different nutritional needs throughout our lives. I run specific blood tests on all of my clients before giving them supplements to ensure that I am giving them what they need and not what they don't.’
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One of the UK’s leading natural health experts Philip Weeks agrees, ‘Most of my patients are deficient in something, even if their diet is impeccable but I don’t advocate anyone starting a course of supplements without some medical guidance – I run a blood test first on all of my patients to determine what they might be lacking.’
Also, whilst many vitamins such as Vitamin C are impossible to overdose on as any excess just gets flushed out of our systems, others such as Vitamin D can become toxic if taken in large quantities without medical supervision. The upshot? Be mindful of what pills you’re popping. We ask the experts the top three things you need to know when it comes to taking health supplements:
Why do we need supplements if we’re eating a healthy balanced diet?
‘It really depends on a person’s health,’ says Amelia. ‘There can be multiple reasons why someone might not obtain all of the nutrients they need - the quality of the food, if they are eating enough (most of us aren't) and if they are absorbing the nutrients are a few that I'd consider. If they are eating really well but still suffer symptoms then it could be worth addressing their individual nutritional needs.
This is why qualified nutritional therapists always check using specific functional laboratory tests first to really get to the bottom of what a clients needs are and what the route cause of their symptoms could be.’ Philip agrees; ‘Some people are just genetically prone to being deficient in certain vitamins. In addition, our food is not as nutritious as it used to be and even government studies have found that carrots for example are 20% less nutritious than they were 30 years ago,’ Why? ‘Modern farming practices such as monoculture depletes the soil whilst certain fertiliser and insecticides leach minerals out of the soil.’
Supplements vs juicing?
‘Juicing is a great way of getting your nutrients in a more concentrated form as ultimately it’s always far better to get your nutrients from food rather than a pill,’ says Philip. ‘Just make sure what you are juicing is nutrient rich – some grains such as wheat for example are not nutrient-dense which is why we have situations in the US where people are obese but malnourished. Saying that, some patients don’t get better until they start taking supplements.’
Is expensive always better?
‘Not all health supplements are created equally,’ warns Philip. ‘The cheap and cheerful ones don’t tend to be in a form that is easily assimilated by the body so there can be almost no point in taking them, although this depends on the individual supplement. Take magnesium for example. Cheaper brands tend to use Magnesium oxide which is very poorly absorbed whilst the more expensive versions use Magnesium citrate.’
What three supplements would the experts advise everyone takes?
'It would be unprofessional to say that there are three there everyone should take. But the most common ones that I prescribe are:'
Vitamin D3 (but it’s essential to get your levels checked first to see if you need it and how much - your GP can do this)
A probiotic (but this can sometimes make symptoms of IBS worse in some individuals which means they need to do other things first)
Omega 3 (but this is not safe in all instances such as for anyone taking blood thinning medication or those undergoing some operations).
Gabriela Peacock (Expert Nutritionist and founder of GP Nutrition)
Protein - I love the GP Nutrition Boost Me protein shake, which is chocolaty and delicious. Protein is so important for our health, acting as the building blocks of the body for cell repair, enzyme and hormone creation among many other functions. I often recommend people start including a protein shake to support their health.
Antioxidants – Are fantastic at protecting cells from free radical damage, which we are exposed to in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I’ve included antioxidants in all my supplement programmes because they are so important in our modern, hectic lives.
Magnesium – Is amazing to help relax the muscles and encourage restorative sleep, as well as being an important part of many diverse cellular processes. We can get a lot of magnesium from foods like dark green leafy vegetables but it can also be really beneficial to supplement.
Probiotics – I prescribe them for pretty much every patient as most people’s gut biodiversity is generally poor due to taking antibiotics etc. A healthy gut biodiversity has so many profound effects from breaking down toxic oestrogen to immunity.
Magnesium – the majority of people I treat are deficient in magnesium and also zinc. Magnesium deficiency results in issues with sleep and energy and is also important for serotonin levels.
Vitamin D – I prescribe a lot of Vitamin D as many people are deficient in it and it’s beneficial in lots of different ways from calcium regulation to helping to prevent against various diseases and conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis but it’s one to be careful of as high levels can be dangerous.