Tag Archives: supplements

Supplements: the deadly truth?

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.



The truth about healthy eating

There was a programme on BBC1 last night called ‘The Truth About Healthy Eating’ (which was a repeat from 2016 but still interesting).  While some of the information was laughably basic there were still some surprising things to come out of experiments that were done on supposedly extra healthy foods (anyone who’s read my blog for a while knows that I think all this ‘super food’ malarky is shite and I’m incredibly skeptical about food claims in general).

One of the very interesting items to be covered in the programme was hydration.  We’re told to drink 2 litres of water per day, but actually research has shown that 1litre is optimum.  So they looked at whether that should just be water or whether all liquids counted.  Tuns out cow’s milk is more hydrating than water, and that fruit juice and coffee hydrated the people taking part in the experiment just as well as water.

In fact, as I’ve personally always thought, cow’s milk/dairy is super good for you.  It’s higher in absorbable B12 than meat and contains brilliant amounts of iodine, in comparison to almond and soya milk which contain hardly any.  We also think of dairy as high in saturated fat, but research shows the fat isn’t absorbed by the body like it is with meat.  In fact, consuming dairy with a fatty meal has been shown to help decrease fat absorption from other foods.

There was an interesting section on multi-vitamins.  Research shows they are basically useless  so long as you already have normal levels of vitamins in your blood and they don’t raise our vitamin levels one iota.  If we take in more Vitamin C, for example, than we need we just produce very expensive wee.  Our bodies are very good at maintaining an even level of vitamins & minerals, so consuming large amounts is next to useless.  In fact, research has shown that for people with certain types of cancer, skin and lung for example, those taking high doses of vitamins had a worse outcome than those who didn’t!

They carried out an experiment with blueberries which are high in anti-oxidants.  The anti-oxidants survived digestion but struggled to remain stable within the intestines and only 1% of them actually entered the blood stream.  This caused a spike in anti-oxidant activity so the body simply got rid of them in order to maintain the status quo.  After consuming a high anti-oxidant smoothie there were actually less anti-oxidants in the blood stream 4 hours later compared to before drinking the smoothie as the body tried to adjust, and the level was still lower than normal 8 hours after consuming the drink – this blew my mind.

There was also an experiment with tap water, putting it in expensive bottles with pretty labels and all sorts of advertising jargon the front, taking it to a work-out class and telling them it was a new mineral water.  The ladies thought it was 20% healthier than their usual water, 12% found it more refreshing than their usual water and 6% said it made them feel more hydrated.  Of course, it was only tap water – just goes to show how powerful marketing is and how we can be fooled into thinking a food with a label on tastes superior when it’s actually identical to the food without the label we’re measuring it against.  It also proves just how much of the hype we hear and read we believe, even though it has no basis in fact whatsoever.

The last experiment was to do with detoxing.  One set of students followed a ‘detox’ diet consisting of raw and steamed veg, 1 portion daily of wholegrain rice or quinoa, steamed fish, coconut water and a daily drink of hot water, lemon juice, maple syrup & cayenne pepper which is supposed to cleanse the digestive system, and the other set of students ate normally but healthily.  The normal healthy diet came out on top, with the detox diet showing no health benefits whatsoever – in fact, the students felt rubbish on it, pooped twice as much as normal and were lacking in energy.

We can’t look at food in isolation.  Eating is an incredibly complex bodily function and, as can be seen from the anti-oxidant research, what looks like a brilliant food on first inspection may turn out to be no better for us than any other food when we’ve actually eaten and digested it.   We also need to remember that much of the research done on food is funded by food manufacturers who have a vested financial interest in finding new and positive things to say about the food we consume.

For me, as long as I’m eating a healthy balanced diet I’m doing the best I can but even that is fraught with confusion because a normal balanced diet in the UK is going to be nothing like a normal balanced diet in Japan or Iceland!  Our genes play a huge part in what is healthy for us and what isn’t.  Some populations such as the Japanese, for example, have high rates of lactose intolerance whereas other populations such as the UK have very low rates.  Evolution also changes things dramatically.   In research, Neolithic DNA from Sweden showed 95% of those studied were lactose intolerant whereas only 25% of modern Swedes are lactose intolerance.  We’re all individual and what’s good for one person may be bad for another which is why I don’t give advice here on my blog or try to tell other people what to eat.