Supplements: What are they and should we take them?

Supplementation has been a hot topic for many years, with plenty of information and many different vitamins trending monthly. 

Nowadays it seems there is a supplement for everything: from vitamins to keep skin and hair healthy, to live cultures (strains of bacteria) to protect the gut, and even shark cartilage supplements thought to prevent tumour growth. 

So with lots of resources readily available at our fingertips, how do we know where to start, and what can we trust? Let’s go back to basics.

What is a dietary supplement?

Dietary supplements are manufactured products that come in a variety of forms – tablets, gummies, liquids, powder etc – and are taken to provide the body with additional vitamins, minerals and nutrients you might feel you’re lacking in, from diet and lifestyle. 

It’s important to note that dietary supplements are in addition to a varied, balanced diet, and not to be consumed as meal replacements. If you’re eating a varied, balanced diet, you’ll likely be getting sufficient nutrients without needing supplementation. However, at different times of the year, certain stages of life such as pregnancy or after specific operations and in rehabilitation, your body may need additional nourishment, to work to its full potential.

How to tell if you’re nutrient deficient and need supplementation

A vitamin deficiency can sometimes be difficult to spot, with symptoms that are similar to other conditions. If you’re overall health and well-being is generally good, but you’re still seeing some of the following symptoms, it might be worth discussing a vitamin deficiency with your GP or nutrition professional:

  • brittle hair and nails
  • poor memory
  • hair loss
  • lethargy and fatigue
  • persistent ulcers or cracks in the corners of your mouth
  • heart palpitations
  • restless leg syndrome

The list is by no means exhaustive, but it does give a good indication if you’re struggling with similar problems that your body may be lacking in certain nutrients. Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies include vitamin A, B12, D, iron and magnesium. 

The easiest way to test if you are vitamin deficient is via a blood test that your GP can arrange for you. The doctor will then advise on the next course of action and you can work with a nutritional therapist or dietitian to support you with adequate supplementation.

Common vitamins

Below are some common vitamins and minerals you may have heard of but are unsure of what they do, and why they’re important.

B vitamins for energy

A deficiency in vitamin B12 is often found in vegetarians as foods containing a high B12 count include beef, chicken, liver, fish and shellfish. Weakness and fatigue are often common signs you’re lacking in B12 as it’s essential for energy.

Nutritional therapist and health coach Rebecca Steele notes, “B vitamins are vital for energy production, as well as co-factors for sex hormones, adrenal and thyroid. B12 and folate are required for methylation, which is an important process which supports the production of brain chemicals and neurotransmitter receptors.” Rebecca suggests adding whole foods, nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy green and sea vegetables to your diet for natural consumption. 

Vitamins C and D to support the immune system

Both vitamins C and D contribute to your immune function, and a deficiency can leave you susceptible to regular infections when lacking vitamin C, and can even be linked to low mood when you’re lacking in vitamin D.

It’s common that many British people will also struggle with a vitamin D deficiency. The British weather is known for being sparing with its sunshine, so seasonal supplementation, particularly in winter is a good idea.

Rebecca says, “If you’re not getting enough sunlight in the winter months and you’re using lots of sunscreen in the summer, it’s important to check your vitamin D levels and supplement. Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin after sun exposure and is very little in dietary sources – these do include oily fish but it would require eating a lot.”

Iron for healthy blood cells and transporting oxygen

Iron is essential for the transportation of oxygen throughout your body. It’s a component of haemoglobin that represents around two-thirds of the body’s iron. If your body doesn’t have enough iron, you won’t be able to produce enough healthy red blood cells, resulting in iron deficiency anaemia, fatigue, shortness of breath and palpitations.

You should be able to consume enough iron in your daily diet, but if you naturally lack iron, it can be supplemented, commonly in tablet form. Iron supplementation should be done with careful consideration, ideally with guidance from the GP or a nutrition professional as too much iron can cause unpleasant side effects such as constipation, nausea and vomiting. Too much iron in children can have very severe side effects.

Live cultures for gut health

Taking a high-quality probiotic is like sending in the army to support the residents and overcome the ‘baddies’ which in this case are the excessive amounts of toxin-producing bacteria, fungi, yeasts, viruses and even parasites.

– Nutritional Therapist, Sam Bourne.

In recent years, the role of our gut, and our gut microbiome in relation to many bodily functions, has become more and more prominent, particularly surrounding the immune system and our mental health. “Our gut microbiome is made up of trillions of organisms such as bacteria and yeast that play a role in digestion, immunity, mood and skin. Therefore, keeping our gut microbiome happy and healthy is very important!” says Rebecca Traylen (ANutr), Head of Nutrition at Probio7

Probiotics, certain strains of bacteria that usually add to your gut bacteria can be essential in maintaining a healthy gut balance. Rebecca notes, “These live bacteria can be found in foods such as yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi. However, these foods may not be for everyone! Probio7 offers easy to take friendly bacteria supplements to support your gut microbiome.”

Sam Bourne, nutritional therapist confirms that lifestyle can play a huge part in an unbalanced bacteria in our gut. “Our microbiota can become imbalanced (dysbiosis) when non-beneficial microbes dominate and produce toxic substances that affect our health. Antibiotics, alcohol, medications, stress, sugar and a diet lacking in fibre all disturb the health of the microbiome. Dysbiosis can affect physical, immune and mental health.”

Symptoms of an unbalanced gut include:

  • bloating, constipation and heartburn
  • autoimmune disorders
  • food intolerance
  • skin irritations and rashes
  • constant fatigue and sleep disturbance

When it comes to gut health, working with a professional is key as no one size fits all, as we are all wonderfully unique, as is our gut microbiome.

Supplementation can be an important part of your daily nutrient intake, particularly if your body struggles to absorb nutrients. Of course, there are plenty more to consider, and this is down to individual requirements and desires. 

But, if you have been struggling with symptoms and you can’t put your finger on the cause, it might be helpful to visit your GP to determine whether a deficiency is making you feel unwell. It’s important to always consult your doctor or nutrition professional before making changes to your diet.

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Written by Katie Hoare
Katie is a writer for Nutritionist Resource.
Written by Katie Hoare
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