It seems like there’s a supplement to solve everything now, but how many is too many? Stylist investigates…
I line up the yellow pill, then the pink speckled one. Two thick brown capsules come next. Their earthy smell makes me gag, but I hold my nose and swallow them because I’m a supplement aficionado, and this my daily fix. From vitamin D and omega-3 to a ‘women’s health’ tablet and a multivit covering all bases, I can’t resist the promise of a handy health hack in pill form.
But it’s more than blind hope; I use supplements as a safety net for when my lifestyle slips up. And I’m not alone. Up to two-thirds of UK adults are believed to take vitamins or supplements daily or occasionally, with the global dietary supplement industry set to be worth £157.8 billion by 2022. As such, it’s one of the fastest-growing categories in the UK beauty and wellness market.
Dietary supplements came to prominence in the early 20th century as a way to prevent deficiency-induced illnesses such as scurvy (vitamin C) and rickets (vitamin D). Now, however, the wellness-supplement umbrella is vast and includes vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, fibre and essential fatty acids, taken as capsules and tablets, but increasingly as powders, drinks, sprays and bars, too – each promising not just to ward off disease but to give us that cherished wellness glow. The question is, do we know what we’re taking, and are we taking the right ones in the right amounts?
In the UK, most supplements are subject to the food safety laws of the Food Standards Agency – rather than the more rigorous checks used for medicinal products. “Supplements are largely unregulated, which is a huge problem as the product isn’t necessarily exactly what it says on the packet,” says Professor Greg Whyte, a director at London’s Centre for Health and Human Performance, and former director of research at the British Olympic Association. “Because of this, you can order echinacea online and it can end up being calcium carbonate – that’s just chalk, a bulking agent. It doesn’t contain the active ingredient that it says it does.”
The other issue, he adds, is that many of these supplements are made in factories with a number of other products, so there is the ongoing potential for contamination – meaning that what we’re taking might not be pure. From an Olympian’s point of view, this could be career-ending, but the rest of us still need to know what we’re taking to support our health.
Many experts believe fillers and bulking agents are often used in supplements to add volume, literally ‘filling’ up capsule space. Also, binders (adhesives essential to tablet formulation) mix and hold ingredients together, and anti-caking agents such as magnesium stearate and stearic acid prevent the ingredients from clogging up factory machines. Then there’s the coating (often animal-product gelatin – vegans and vegetarians, take note) and artificial sweeteners, flavours and colours. None of these are the health-giving ingredients I signed up for.
Kamal Patel, co-founder of Examine.com, the largest database of independent nutrition and supplement-based research (it receives more than 1.5 million visitors a month), says this is not a case for panic. “Most fillers are inert so don’t actively help or harm us, but with thousands of different conditions and gut sensitivity increasing, the quality of our supplements is something to consider,” believes Patel. “So while many supplements can include a variety of beneficial compounds, for some, the likes of inulin can cause stomach discomfort.”
It’s worth noting that some manufacturers add ingredients such as caffeine and guarana to supplements too. “So when you take that supplement it makes you feel a bit different, and because you feel a bit different you think, ‘Well, this must be working’”, says Whyte.
The quantity of what you take is also key – both in terms of how many supplements you take and what else you’re taking alongside. I used to think of my supplement collection as the key to future-proofing my body, but recently I’ve started to wonder if I’m accidentally overdoing it. “We call it ‘stacking’,” says Whyte. “This is the over-consumption of a given substance from multiple sources.”
This occurs when we unknowingly overdo it by consuming more vitamins than we need. Our daily diets should – our experts agree – generally contain everything we need in terms of recommended daily allowance (RDA). But add in a handful of vitamins too (even protein shakes, ‘powders’ and energy drinks will have a vitamin content) and you could very easily be soaring past your RDAs. Without you even noticing.
We don’t just do it accidentally, either. To counteract any lifestyle issues, we’ll often take more than is advised on the packet as ‘insurance’ or because we’ve self-diagnosed ourselves with a malady or deficiency – or if we’ve forgotten one day we’ll double up the next. But it doesn’t quite work that way. To avoid stacking, becoming label-savvy is important (ie you need to start checking them), as is knowing how certain ingredients are stored in the body. Vitamins such as A, K, E and D are fat-soluble, for example.
This means that your body holds on to them rather than excreting the excess out; if you take too much they can build up in your liver and fatty tissues, putting you at risk of health consequences such as gastric problems or hypervitaminosis (vitamin poisoning), which can lead to vomiting, blurred vision and irritability.
On the other side you have the water-soluble vitamins, such as C and B, which are removed by the body more easily – explaining my occasional fluro-yellow wee. Take too many of those and you’ll more than likely just pee everything back out again. It turns out that my morning vitamin cocktail might be problematic for other reasons, too.
“The biggest issue is when [supplements] interact with other medications and block or enhance their action,” says Dr Hazel Wallace, author of The Food Medic and The Food Medic For Life. “There is some evidence that St John’s wort is effective in the treatment of depression, but it can interact with medications such as oral contraceptives and warfarin, a blood-thinning medication. If patients are self-administering this while taking other medications, they could be putting their health at severe risk.”
There’s also one trend that many experts advise steering clear of: vitamin drips – which are high-concentration nutrients delivered intravenously. Available at spas and wellness retreats, they claim to turbocharge energy, radiance and wellbeing. “These are largely unnecessary and overrated, unless you have into your daily juice could well be packed with extra vitamins and minerals – which, if you’re already popping a multivitamin, might just be pushing you over the limit.
So should we supplement or not? Our experts agree that you should only if you know you need to (ie you’ve seen a doctor and know you have a deficiency for sure.) However, if you’re vegan, you should consider supplementing vitamin B12 and omega-3 (which affects everything from mental clarity to skin quality) and zinc (which affects alertness). “Vegans should be mindful of supplementing nutrients you would typically get from animal products, essentially,” says Wallace.
There is, however, another supplement almost universally agreed upon as beneficial by our experts: vitamin D. “We largely get it from sun exposure, so in the UK we’re recommended to supplement it during the winter and spring,” says Wallace. It is especially recommended for people with darker skintones in the northern hemisphere, because higher levels of the skin pigment melanin reduce the body’s ability to absorb as much UV light from the sun – which can cause cell development problems.
Despite all of the above, if you still want the insurance, then take no more than one supplement a day at a time – also watching your RDAs using a food-tracking app such as MyFitnessPal, which will tell you what nutrients you’re eating through your diet. And if you still can’t be torn away from your handful of vitamins after reading this?
Then at the very least, look at the brands you’re buying. When it comes to finding supplements that are both safe and effective, evidence of patents and content analysis are advisable. “Look for the brand that has the most certifications on the label, and that has been tested in multiple clinical trials,” says Patel. It may be costly because patents can be expensive but, he continues, “Patents can mean further clinical trials and patented items are often more regulated in production.”
Further reassurance comes in the form of third-party testing sites such as labdoor.com and consumerlab.com, which rate products on the market with purity tests, nutritional content and projected efficacy. Both sites are US-based, but brands such as Solgar, Garden Of Life and Nature’s Way all rank highly and are available in the UK.
Though I’m not ditching my supplements entirely, I am going to heed the experts’ advice and reduce my intake. It may cost more and take time to research the perfect products for me, but I now know I need to reassess my dependence on a daily vitamin fix as the cure for my ailments. Because – as with many aspects of health and wellbeing – the solution is never quite as simple as you might hope.
How to supp smarter
If you still want to give supplements a go, decide what you want to achieve then choose one from Stylist’s recommendations below to see how it could help you*
Best for pescatarians: WHC Unocardio X2
Concentration-boosting omega-3 supports brain and nerve function but is hard to obtain from diet alone (find it in oily fish like mackerel).
Best for sportswomen: Vitabiotics Ultra Vit B Complex
When combined, vitamins B2, B12 and B3 - plus panthothenic acid - contribute to energy release and help reduce fatigue.
Best for a brain boost: Viridian Gingko Biloba
Ginko biloba is a herb that aids memory and brain health.
Best for relaxing: HealthAid Omega-3 Capsules
Omega-3 fatty acid DHA has been linked with helping decrease levels of anxiety.
Best for reducing stress: Holland & Barrett Rhodiola Rosea
A low, regular dose of this herb has been found to significantly reduce the effects of physical exhaustion.
Best for after restless nights: Nature’s Plus Dyno-Mins Magnesium
Magnesium, which occurs naturally in grains, nuts and leafy vegetables, helps prevent fatigue.
Best for improving moisture: Perricone MC Omega-3
Highly concentrated fish oils help hydrate, plump and tone your skin.
Best for spot-prone skin: Boots Zinc
Found in seafood, eggs and legumes and meat, zinc has been seen to protect against inflammation and reduce symptoms of acne, as well as protecting skin from damage from UV light.
Best for collagen production: Simply Solgar Vitamin C
Antioxidant vitamin C helps the immune system and is needed for the production of collagen, the main component of skin.
Improve gut health
Best for IBS sufferers: Holland & Barrett Oil of Peppermint
Evidence suggests peppermint oil can reduce abdominal pain for IBS sufferers when taken consistently.
Best for restoring good bacteria: Vitl Vitamin D
A study found vitamin D improves gut glora, which may help prevent diabetes and heart disease.
Best for travelling: Bio-Kult Advanced Multistrain Formula
This probiotic contains 14 strains of beneficial bacteria to help prevent bloating and constipation.
*ALWAYS CONSULT A GP BEFORE TAKING SUPPLEMENTS
Main image: Instagram / Unsplash