There is no definitive answer, because each person has different needs. Clinical evidence shows that it’s best to get your nutritional needs from the food you eat, but health and nutritional supplements have skyrocketed in popularity. The variety of available products and contradictory information about them can be very confusing to health consumers.
As life expectancy increases, and older adults look for ways to remain active as they age, supplements have become more popular. The health supplement industry is growing rapidly due to higher demand and the marketing of more diverse natural and synthetic remedies. There is also an expanding wealth of knowledge about how the body functions and ages. The nutraceutical industry uses this information to create new products, whether they work or not. People are also turning to natural supplements to treat illness and disease.
It’s important to consider the scientific and clinical evidence about the health claims of these products. With the internet, you can find more information than you could possibly read. But how do you know which information is accurate? The National Institute of Health concluded that there isn’t enough evidence for many of the claims of preventive or curative powers of supplements. Ideally, it’s best to consult a trained health care professional in the use of nutritional dietary and herbal supplements.
Vitamin D supplements are helpful when there is a deficiency, especially if you don’t get a lot of sunlight. Vitamin D is helpful in preventing fractures and in strengthening the immune system. Another commonly recommended supplement, especially for woman, is calcium. But there is considerable evidence against taking calcium supplements. The body must be able to absorb the calcium, which requires other minerals, like magnesium. You can get more bio-available calcium from broccoli and dark leafy greens like spinach, than you can from a supplement or dairy products. An analysis of 15 studies showed that calcium supplementation resulted in a 30% increase in heart attack risk (JCEM, 3/2015). That’s one example of the downside of taking a supplement, which most people assume is safe.
B12, a bacterium, not a vitamin, is an essential nutrient, which may be beneficial to take for some people. It is especially critical for vegetarians and vegans, but also for some meat-eaters. Deficiencies in people, especially over 50, can negatively affect muscle function, brain, and nervous system health. A blood test can determine if you need B12 supplementation. Essential fatty acids (omega oils) have also become quite popular. Fish oil is marketed as good source of omega oils, but non-animal alternatives like flax and chia seeds are just as good, without any negative side effects. A 2013 study of over 12,000 people determined that there is no preventative effect from fish oil supplementation for heart attacks (PT., 9/2013). Animal studies show promise for turmeric as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory supplement. Previously considered safe, vitamin E supplementation has recently been found to increase prostate cancer risk in men and selenium supplementation was found to increase the risk of developing diabetes (J. Natl. Cancer Inst, 2/2014; Nutrition J., 2/2015).
The history of supplements shows that it is prudent to be cautious about what you take. The general rule of thumb is, if you feel healthy and vital and have no known health problems or deficiencies, you don’t need to take vitamins and health supplements. How do you know if you have a deficiency? The best way is to get a blood test. Many people see information about dietary and health supplements and take them based on advertisement, self-diagnosis or wishful thinking. It’s better to find out for sure. If you have a specific medical condition, supplementing your diet with specific supplements may be the way to go.
If you choose to take vitamins, look for “food-based” supplements. “Natural” doesn’t mean food-based. The more a supplement is in its natural food matrix, the more bio-available it will be. If the body can’t absorb a substance, it won’t be much help. Don’t throw your money away by taking non food-based vitamin supplements. Take what you really need, and get reliable information. That way you’ll not only save money, but you won’t run the risk of taking something that may do more harm than good.
Keyvan Golestaneh M.A., L.Ac. is a natural and Chinese medical practitioner, herbalist, bodyworker, psychotherapist and writer with 30 years experience in Yoga, meditation and Qi Gong. He is the director of the Conscious Health Institute. www.NewWorldMedicine.net & www.ConsciousHealthInstitute.org