Winter is upon us in the UK, bringing with it the season of colds, flus and winter vomiting bugs. Urgh. We also pile on the pounds over the festive period, and soon we will be inundated with diet pills and potions. The lack of sun, colder days, and excess food and drink can impact us in different ways, but can supplements help?
The supplement industry is one of the largest in the world. In 2004, the industry was worth $20 billion, today it is $132 billion and is expected to double in just over 6 years. In the US alone, 170 million adults take daily supplements. The scary part is that there isn’t much hard scientific evidence to substantiate many of the supplement industry’s claims. The World Health Organisation and many National Institutes for Health do not support the taking of supplements. So, can they be helpful?
Omega-3 supplements have been pushed for years as a great way to obtain the fatty oils from fish that we need without actually having to eat any. These oils have been shown to reduce our risk of heart disease and stroke. However in recent years, studies have shown that taking omega-3 tablets instead of eating the oily fish directly, does nothing to reduce our risk of these diseases/conditions. What about Vitamin D? Vitamin D helps to keep our bones and teeth strong by regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in our bodies. In the summer months it’s quite easy to ensure you’re getting enough just by walking outside. However, in the winter months, when the sun has gone elsewhere and you’re stuck at your desk during the few hours of light we do get, you’re probably not getting enough vitamin D. Harvard medical school found 70% of Americans do not get enough vitamin D, and we can’t get it from our diets. It has been shown that a vitamin D supplement, taken once a day during the winter months, can fill your quota and keep your levels stable. Taking these supplements too much can be detrimental though. The NHS recommends taking vitamin D tablets between the months of October to March, but too much outside these times could lead to a build up of calcium and damage our kidneys. Follow this NHS advice link for more info on vitamins and supplements: LINK.A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that more than 23,000 people every year in the US ended up in emergency rooms, due to complications as a result of taking supplements. This was mainly due to dietary supplements and weight loss pills. The study also found that ~10% of these cases (around 2,100 people) every year had to be hospitalised as a result. In 2015, the journal Drug Testing and Analysis found that in six separate weight loss supplements/pills, produced by the pharma company Hi-Tech, they contained a compound similar to amphetamines. Within two weeks of publication, the FDA had recalled the pills and now says ‘the substance [within those pills] does not meet the statutory definition of a dietary ingredient‘. The CEO of Hi-Tech took the academics to trial and was quoted as saying ‘we hope this deters others’. Essentially, he knew he would lose the trial, but wanted other researchers to stop investigating. General advice is to see a doctor before taking dietary supplements or weight loss pills.
What about the products pushed by celebrities on social media? Anyone with an Instagram account has been subjected to influencers and social media stars posing with those little blue ‘SugarBearHair’ supplements. The gummy bears have vitamins such as B12 and biotin, which are linked to supporting hair growth. However Labdoor, a research laboratory which tests dietary supplements, found the company had been altering its ingredients labels, as reported by BuzzFeed. They found the quantities of 7 out of the 11 listed vitamins were wrong by more than 20%, whilst also finding higher levels of lead in the supplements than other similar products. The problem lies with the regulations set by the FDA for supplements. They are not as stringent as they probably should be. As a result, companies can make ludicrous claims, and find loop holes. In fact, the mass of biotin and B12 found in the supplements was higher than that stated on the label. Although this can promote hair growth in people with a deficiency, for those of us who have normal biotin levels we tend to get enough biotin in our diet. Therefore, supplements should only be advised by a doctor and celebrities should think twice about their actions.
Supplements do not have the same rigorous testing as prescribed or over the counter medications. As a result, the industry has pushed the limits of what it can legally (and illegally) get away with for years. There is no doubt, some of us could eat some more oily fish to get that omega-3 we need, or stand in some natural daylight for our daily dose of vitamin D. For some, supplements of essential vitamins are necessary, but with an industry reaping the benefits allowed by a lack of legal pressure, maybe we should all be a bit more wary and consult a doctor before taking a concoction that they’ve suggested on the telly…