What role do supplements play in your overall health?
Supplements can get a bad rep. Plenty of patients believe that if they follow a healthy lifestyle, there’s no need to add extra vitamins or minerals in pill (or other) form to their day. And, as a medical doctor, I’d mostly agree.
But here’s the thing. While a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle are key (sorry, there’s no escaping that one!), there are many reasons why people might need or want extra support.
If you’ve ever written off supplements (perhaps believing ‘they’re a waste of money’ or ‘they only have a placebo effect’), read on to find out how they can play a role in helping your health, why medical professionals often recommend them, and what to be careful of when trying something new.
Also read: Which supplements should I take daily?
First things first – what is a supplement?
A supplement is a nutrient that’s added to your regular diet to support your natural health and immunity – typically, taken in pill, capsule, powder or tincture form. There can be different reasons for taking supplements, as well as different strengths. You might use them to solve a nutritional deficiency, or simply as added support for your overall health and wellness goals.
For example, if a patient has low levels of iron (a deficiency), a doctor might medically prescribe ferrous fumarate or ferrous sulphate, two different forms of iron. Another patient might opt to take vitamin D in the winter months to support their immunity (the NHS recommends that we all take 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily from October to March).
Vitamins, minerals, botanical extracts and oils form the majority of supplements.
Supplements for deficiencies – ask your GP for a blood test
In the medical realm, supplements play a role in replacing or replenishing vitamins or minerals that are running low in the body. However, many people don’t automatically link the symptoms they’re experiencing to a deficiency. As doctors, often our first port of call when a patient comes to us with miscellaneous symptoms – such as fatigue, paresthesia (pins and needles), palpitations or headaches – is to run a blood test.
This is also the standard route for anyone coming into A&E with similar symptoms – as it can help us identify any related deficiencies. From there, we can join up the dots. For example, it might be that you have an autoimmune disease that can cause deficiencies, rather than symptoms being linked directly to a lack of a single mineral or vitamin in isolation.
Once we have the blood test results, we can look into the causes. This could be the beginning of an investigation into a wider health concern or offer answers as to what your body might be lacking. When we do identify a deficiency, we might recommend patients top up with a supplement, as well as make changes to their diet.
If you’re concerned about any symptoms you’re experiencing, see your GP and ask them to run a routine blood test.
Deficiencies can also occur if you follow a restrictive diet of any kind – vegans often need to top up on vitamin B12, for example (as this nutrient is mainly found in animal-based foods, like meat, fish and dairy). Some vegetarians’ iron levels can drop if they’re not getting what they need from food.
If you are making a drastic diet change, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a medical professional to ensure you don’t end up with a deficiency in any key nutrient.
Also read: The best supplements for vegans
Supplements to support your health and wellness needs and goals
However, supplements are not reserved for those with medically diagnosed conditions. They can also support our general health and wellness needs and goals. Let me use myself as an example – as far as I know, I’m not deficient in any key nutrient. Yet I use added proteins and amino acids to help me reach my sports and fitness goals, as it’s thought they can aid muscle growth and help with recovery after exercise.
These are things you can get naturally from a balanced diet, but if you have specific goals – such as better skin health, improved hormone balance or strength training – supplements could help you reach your target alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
It’s important to remember that supplements aren’t a ‘quick fix’ or a ‘magic cure’. Start with the obvious lifestyle factors – aim for a good night’s sleep, a balanced diet, regular exercise and stress management techniques.
Supplements can also play a role in positive mental health
Most patients are aware of the link between their diet and nutrient intake for their physical health but aren’t so quick to make a connection with their mental health. However, your diet can definitely make a difference to your mood. There’s also increasing evidence that good gut health can positively influence your mental health.
A balanced diet with a decent intake of probiotics (‘good’ bacteria, found in things like live yoghurts) and prebiotics (plant fibres that feed these bacteria) is important for gut health. However, sometimes it can be hard to get enough from diet alone, which is where supplements can really help.
More generally, the more your body is fed with the right nutrients, the more energy you’ll have, and the better you’ll feel. Strive for a healthy amount of proteins, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. These will lead you to have more energy, which can also lead to you improving how you feel, day-to-day.
If you’re filling your body with unhealthy substances or food of little nutritional value (think processed, fast foods, high in saturated fats and sugar), the chances are your mood will suffer, and this can be linked to a greater chance of depression. That’s why one of the things we ask when we screen mental health is – what is your diet like?
Of course, many mental health conditions are not caused by an unhealthy lifestyle and cannot simply be cured by changing our diet. If you’re struggling, I would advise speaking to your doctor or a trained professional to urgently seek any help and support you may need.
Supplements as a safety net – but seek advice!
What about if you’re eating well, aiming for those eight hours a night, and making sure active movement forms a part of your daily life? Then you’re at a great starting point – but that doesn’t mean supplements can’t play a role in your routine.
Added supplements can work as a safety net to your overall mental and physical health, topping things up and making sure you’re getting your daily quota of the most essential nutrients. I rely on a daily multivitamin for this – even though my intentions are good, I know some days I won’t eat my best or feed my body as well as I should.
As a doctor, my advice would be to find out what your base level is before you embark on a new supplementation routine. If you’re very deficient in vitamin D for example, an everyday multivitamin probably won’t give you the support you need. And if you have higher levels of a particular nutrient – for example, if you have hypercalcaemia (high levels of calcium in the blood) – then adding in more calcium wouldn’t be advised.
In short: speak to a medical professional, always list all your symptoms, and request a blood test for more answers.
Read more from Nature’s Truth’s panel of experts here.
Disclaimer: Talk to a medical professional before starting a new supplement regime.