Do supplements really work?
By Sarah Woolner, BSc (Microbiology), BHSc (Naturopathy)
The nutritional supplement industry is booming. And it is a minefield. There is a plethora of information and misinformation about nutritional supplements, which in combination with a Dr. Google self-diagnosis, can quickly result in confusion and overwhelm. Should I be taking a protein powder after my work out? What about B vitamins for energy? How much magnesium do I need to take for improving sleep?
So, are supplements actually beneficial for your health and do they work? Here are a few things to consider in weighing up the benefits of a supplement and getting the most out of it.
The quality of the supplement is an important consideration. Nutrients often come in a number of different forms. The form of a nutrient will impact how well that nutrient is absorbed and the dosage required for clinical efficacy. Also, certain forms of nutrients are more likely to cause side effects, most commonly diarrhea or constipation.
A good example of this is Magnesium. It comes in a number of different forms such as magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, and magnesium glycinate to name a few. Magnesium oxide is an inexpensive form of magnesium, however, absorption is not great and higher doses cause very loose bowels. Magnesium citrate is a little more expensive and has much better bioavailability, but higher doses can also cause loose bowel motions in some people. Magnesium glycinate is again better absorbed than magnesium oxide and is much gentler on the tummy.
Another aspect that determines the quality of a supplement is the manufacturing. Nutritional supplement products in Australia are subject to rigorous goods and manufacturing procedures and need to be approved by the therapeutic goods administration (TGA) to be marketed as a supplement. An AUSTL number can be found on supplements approved by the TGA. Find out more about listed and registered medicines here.
Your Individual Requirements
Nutritional requirements will be different for each of us and they will vary across our lifespan. There are also other factors that determine nutritional needs and impact nutritional status. Pregnant and breastfeeding women will have a greater need for specific nutrients. Vegan and vegetarian diets can be low in certain nutrients, so individuals following such eating patterns may be at risk of deficiencies. Gastrointestinal diseases can impact nutrient absorption across the intestinal membranes. Whether or not a supplement will be helpful for you, will very much depend on your current nutritional status and requirements.
How much you take of a supplement can have a significant impact on how effective and safe it is. First, let us tackle the safety issue. Some nutrients (for example iron) are toxic in high doses, so exceeding the prescribed dose will likely be harmful. In most cases, taking a higher dose of a nutrient will actually reduce the percentage that is absorbed — our bodies have cleverly developed this protective mechanism — so more is generally not better.
It is also important to know if a supplement (nutrient or herb) may potentially interact with medications or other supplements you are taking. Supplement dosages may need to be adjusted to minimise any interactions. Always seek advice from a health professional.
When are you taking the supplement?
Nutrients, just like us humans, each have their little quirks. Some are much better absorbed when taken with a meal, while other nutrients prefer an empty stomach for optimal uptake. The tannins in coffee and tea (including some herbal teas) can bind to nutrients, particularly minerals, and can reduce uptake. It is generally best to take supplements away from these beverages. Some nutrients use the same channels for absorption, so taking them all at the same time may limit absorption. For example, calcium can block the absorption of iron, so these two nutrients are best taken separately.
Where to next?
Navigating the world of nutrition can be tricky. There are many things to consider, particularly in regards to supplementation as we have just explored. Seeking advice from a nutritionist can be really valuable in identifying your unique nutritional needs and clarifying what supplements are going to work best for you.