Supplements: 10 Facts

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR 

  1. Do we need nutritional supplements? Do they assure a ‘surge’ in health for individuals who are already healthy?

Just like one size does not fit all, nutritional supplements aren’t for everyone. However, older, or elderly, adults and others with health and other issues may benefit from specific supplements.

One should also not think of supplements as food substitutes — this is primarily because they can’t duplicate all of the nutrients, including the benefits of whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

It all depends on your eating habits. If — that’s a big ‘if’ — you follow a well-designed and well-executed diet plan, dietary, or nutritional supplements may not be worth the expenditure. Think about it — in today’s world, and you’d like to know what supplements may work best for you.

Supplements may benefit people who are vegans, or vegetarians, or people who eat a limited range of foods. Other examples include women who experience heavy bleeding during periods. Besides, supplements are useful for people who have a medical condition, or are unable to absorb, or use nutrients — e.g., diseases of the liver, gallbladder, intestines, or pancreas, or in certain conditions like chronic diarrhoea, food allergies, or intolerance. Supplements would be, likewise, useful for people who have undergone abdominal, or digestive tract, surgery and are, as a result, not able to assimilate and absorb the requisite nutrients appropriately.

  1. Supplements, as the name suggests, help ‘supplement’ a diet that may be lacking in certain nutrients, more so with our contemporary food habits. Is there a study, or relevant data, suggesting such a ‘credo’?

Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are common in adolescents; perforce, more common in girls. This is primarily because of inadequate exposure to sunlight and low nutritional intake of vitamin D. The result is obvious — low serum concentrations of circulating 25[OH]D, a condition known as hypovitaminosis. Besides, severe vitamin D deficiency in children often leads to nutritional rickets, developmental delays and impaired growth.

According to a study, the incidence of vitamin D deficiency was higher in adolescent girls than boys. The fact also is fair skin tones are at a higher risk of skin cancer. People with dark, or black skin do not also absorb vitamin D from the sun effectively. One should consider fortified foods, or supplemental interventions in such instances.

  1. Even if people eat healthy do they miss out on necessary nutrients because of intensive farming techniques?

Yes, certainly, because most of our soil today is deprived of its pristine richness and ‘health quality-quotient’ — once the hallmark of organic farming. Blame it too on chemical farming, or the use of toxic insecticides, or pesticides. This has robbed our food of their natural nutritional value. What we now have is a smorgasbord of the choicest chemical farming practices. In other words, intensive modern farming methods on barren soil delivers grossly polluted food, water and air. When you mix them in a bowl, along with compromised regulation of food producers and retailers, thanks to complacent governments, you know the outcome. Add to this too much stress, lack of sleep, poor preventative care, sedentary life, the gross ‘misuse’ of antibiotics, pollution, smoking, alcohol, drugs and steroidal abuse, aside from suppression of positive nutritional information by certain biased quarters, we are witness to a gloomy spectacle — illness and high interventional healthcare costs.

  1. Does a good multi-vitamin-mineral supplement suffice all nutritional needs, or should people choose specific supplements?

A daily multivitamin is a great ‘nutritional insurance policy’ for people who need it. However, one should be discreet — the best thing to do is to seek the guidance of a nutritional professional and fill the ‘gaps,’ if any, with customised, or personalised, nutritional supplements that would be most appropriate.

  1. Sticking to certain strict dietary regimens, like veganism, or vegetarianism, may lead to a lack of essential nutrients in the diet. If yes, are there supplements created specifically to suit the needs of such groups — e.g., omega 3 [fish oil] supplements?

Not necessarily. There are many vegetarian supplements available — to highlight but just two examples. Flaxseed, or flaxseed oil, capsules having all the goodness of fish oils, aside from glucosamine, usually a derived from a marine source, may be derived from a plant source too.

  1. Is there a natural depletion, or increase in the requirement of certain vitamins/minerals for different age-groups/gender?

Good, appropriate nutrition is essential for all age-groups and all stages of life. All of us need the same nutrients, although the amounts often vary, subject to one’s age and needs. It should be emphasised that diet alone will not provide all the nutrients. Natural depletion may occur in certain illness states, or when the body is not able to absorb, retain and synthesise certain nutrients. In like manner, there may be times when one would need increased intake of certain nutrients — for example, calcium in women, for optimal bone health, magnesium [a natural bronchodilator] supplementation in asthma. Or, coenzyme Q10, after age 40, and multivitamins and fortified cereals in growing children.

  1. Are all supplements proven to be beneficial; also, how would one know that they are buying from a reliable source?

Certain vitamins are water soluble [e.g., vitamin C]. Nothing to worry, if you exceed your daily limits, or recommended dosage — because your body will flush them out naturally, when you urinate. However, essential vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K, are fat soluble. They get stored in your body. When your body does not naturally excrete them, they can build up, when taken in excess, to toxic levels. This applies to certain trace minerals too. Selenium is an essential trace element. It can, however, be toxic when taken in large amounts. Selenium toxicity can lead to symptoms, such as hair loss, fatigue and joint pain.

Vitamins and supplements are OTC [over-the-counter] products. They are easily available, although all some supplements may not be reliable. You need to do a thorough check as regards the supplements you wish to take with the help of a nutrition specialist.

Some herbal supplements too have potent medicinal effects in the body. They could have certain interactions with the medicines that you may be taking. For example, the supplement, co-enzyme Q10, may affect the action of certain anti-diabetic and anti-hypertensive medications. It is imperative that you make sure to include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other supplements you take in your list of current medications when you meet your doctor, or prior to surgery.

  1. Is it a myth, or fact, that ‘consuming more nutrients will have a greater effect’ and that they can cure most diseases, or illnesses?

Too much of a good thing may not always be good. The best thing to do is to follow the idiom of moderation, including moderation. The caveat is: do not go gung-ho with supplements. You’d do well to stick to standard recommended doses for supplements you take. Or, go for optimal dosages under the guidance of a physician who has specialised in nutritional medicine, or a qualified nutritionist. Yes, you may reduce your intake of cereals, protein bars, and super-fortified products having folic acid, for example, since your multivitamin pill would contain all the folic acid you’d need on a daily basis.

  1. What kind of supplements should pregnant women take? Is it necessary for them to take them and why?

No supplement has been proven to be indubitably safe for consumption by pregnant women. A good supplement for pregnant woman usually contains folic acid, iron, calcium and iodine rather than a ‘regular’ multivitamin. The four are important for the mother and child. It may also be mentioned that antenatal supplements don’t contain the animal form of vitamin A, or retinol — animal-derived products may be harmful to unborn babies when taken in excess dosages. It is best to take such supplements derived from plant sources; they are relatively safe. They contain a form of vitamin A, called beta-carotene.

  1. Supplements work only when they are taken at the same time every day?

Yes, it is best to take them at a ‘given’ time, as specified by your physician, or nutritional therapist. Yet another thing is to space them out. If you are advised to take 2-3 supplements, do not put them in one basket; divide them. Take one, or two, with breakfast; one with lunch, and another with dinner. The best thing is to do is to take your supplement half-way through a meal — this would provide a synergistic effect, along with the food you eat.

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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