1 in 3 people in the UK take a supplement of one kind or another, and those with ill health are high on the list. The most popular supplements are multi-vitamins containing anti-oxidants closely followed by Vitamin C. Claims range from helping stave off Alzheimer’s, Arthritis and Cancers to actually prolonging life which, if true, make them more potent than most drugs yet supplements are not regulated in the same way as drugs – in fact, they’re not regulated at all.
I watched a fascinating BBC Horizon documentary last Thursday night called ‘Vitamin Pills: Miracle or Myth’ which looked at 60 years of research into Vitamin supplements and it made for interesting, and at times worrying, viewing. It started off by measuring the vitamins and minerals in the blood of 3 people of differing ages, sexes and diets. One was a female student who had an addiction to Curly Fries and admitted she ate like crap. The other was a 30-something female yoga teacher who ate a ‘healthy’ diet with loads of fresh fruit and veg and very little processed food, and the third was the reporter, a middle aged Chinese man who loved takeaways washed down with a beer. When measured, all three had the recommended levels of vitamins and minerals in their bodies…………….well, all except the woman with the ‘healthy’ diet who was ironically lacking in iron. For the most part we are all getting enough nutrients from our food, whatever kind of diet we follow.
There are, however, groups of people who may need supplementation. If you are housebound or your working life means you spend hardly any time outdoors you will probably need a Vitamin D supplement. If you are a female teenager or female adult with heavy periods you may need an iron supplement. If you are pregnant you should take a folic acid supplement, and if you have any kind of dietary restrictions, eg. Coeliac Disease, you may need extra help. But, on the whole, most of us are getting enough, or more than enough, vitamins and minerals from our food. I haven’t eaten meat for 25 years yet only became deficient in iron when a) I had to change my diet due to my Histamine Intolerance and b) this coincided with heavier periods due to the peri-menopause. All my other levels, including B12, have always been either good or excellent.
The whole ‘free radical/oxidative stress’ argument for taking anti-oxidants was started by one researcher in the 1950s. He discovered that exercise initiated a period of oxidative stress within the body which, he assumed, was bad for us so looked at ways of counter-acting it using anti-oxidant supplements. This snowballed over the next few decades as companies joined the band wagon and before we knew it anti-oxidants were miracle supplements which counter-acted free radical damage, staved off aging, made us look and feel younger, warded off diseases and actually prolonged our lives. The only problem being it’s bunkum. More recent research has shown that the oxidative stress produced by our bodies after exercise is actually needed and if we interfere with that we are actually harming ourselves! One researcher looked back at trials from the last 50 years from all over the world and concluded that taking anti-oxidant supplements either had zero effect on disease and wellbeing or, more worryingly, actually increased mortality (one study was stopped after the mortality rate from lung cancer increased by 28% for those taking antioxidant supplements).
We’re also encouraged via persuasive marketing to buy various herbs and foods which have been condensed down into supplement form. The programme looked at Green Tea which you can buy condensed into a pill and which, after only 3 months, gave one man liver disease so severe he needed an immediate liver transplant and is now in kidney failure – before this he was totally healthy. Obviously this isn’t going to happen to everyone but the fact it happens at all is huge cause for concern when there is virtually no regulation on supplements and no legal obligation to make manufacturers prove the claims they make about their health effects or provide warnings of potential side effects. One of my good friends who has had severe M.E. for decades decided to try Spatone iron water for her proven low iron levels – it led to severe GERD which has continued ever since and has left her in tortuous daily pain. I, on the other hand, take 2 sachets a day and it’s been brilliantly helpful to me. None of us know how we’re going to react to supplements and we aren’t warned they may have serious side effects, may interfere with medication or be contra-indicated for a disease from which we may be suffering. Also, according to the research, if we are dieting or on restricted calories for whatever reason we may absorb more of the active ingredients of herbs and supplements and so be unwittingly taking higher than recommended doses.
I’m not anti-supplements and have benefitted hugely from taking iron and, in winter, Vitamin D but I am anti lack of evidence, regulation and monitoring. Companies selling supplements aren’t the slightest bit interested in hearing about issues with their products, but there is a way of reporting them via the Yellow Card Scheme which is a Government run website for feedback on adverse reactions to a range of products, including drugs, herbs and homeopathic remedies. We don’t do this enough and if the Government don’t know there’s a problem they won’t know to look into it.
The fact that simple supplements can in some cases, decrease rather than increase life span is shocking to me and just goes to prove that our bodies are mind-boglingly sophisticated entities that have kept us alive as a species for millennia without any intervention. For most people popping a herb or supplement won’t do anything much other than produce very expensive wee, but for some they can cause untold misery or even prove fatal. I personally don’t take anything unless my blood work shows I need to and then make sure I have regular tests to monitor any effect, which I think is doubly important when you have mast cell disease and your body may react in ways not usually seen.