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We’ve all seen media claims that supplements can be a “waste of money” while other reports illustrate the dangers of “natural products”. So how valid are these claims? It’s all in the fine print. A catchy fear-inducing headline is sure to make waves, but it’s time to break down the science – and the actual text – of this information. When are supplements actually not worth it, and when can they actually make a difference in your health?
What outcomes are we looking for?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is “What am I looking to achieve?”
There are those who take a multivitamin to help make up for missing nutrients in the diet. Others will take a fish oil or other supplement because they’ve heard it’s good for heart health. Before taking anything, you should know why you’re taking something and if it’s actually been shown to be effective for your particular health concern. For example, some media claims include that vitamins are a waste because they won’t make you live longer. When it comes to standard generic multivitamin formulas, they’re probably right. Taking micro-doses of vitamins and minerals, regardless of quality of diet, probably won’t add extra years to your life; as was shown by a Nurses Health Study.
But if you are prone to chronic infections, colds, allergies or sinus infections, and want to decrease your chance of getting sick, taking a daily zinc or high-dose vitamin C supplement could have a great beneficial effect, decreasing the frequency and duration of illness.
Standard on-the-shelf multivitamins are formulated to meet our required dietary amounts/allowances (RDA). These amounts are generally very low. For example, the RDA for vitamin C is 75–90 mg daily. However, for cold prevention during stress, doses range between 200 and 2,000 mg. Some clinical trials have even used doses as high as 4,000 to 8,000 mg per day. So if you’re at risk of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, or have a diet poor in vitamin C-rich foods, a multivitamin may be helpful. Deficient vitamin C is most commonly found in low-income populations, the elderly, those with eating disorders, and alcohol abuse problems. For those looking for an immune-boosting antioxidant to reduce the duration and frequency of respiratory infections, you’ll need a product that offers effective dosing.
More ingredients doesn’t mean you’re getting a greater effect
You should also be critical of flashy labels on your supplement bottle. For example, a multivitamin with “Good for heart health” on the label should be critically evaluated. These supplements often contain small amounts of cardiovascular-supporting compounds, for example, omega 3 fatty acids. However, the dose is often not high enough to create the same impact seen in clinical trials. We also find this with formulas that contain “extra antioxidants”. Companies will often throw in micro-doses of substances, such as green tea or blueberry powder, as an antioxidant blend, but the amount is so low you’d be better off just eating blueberries or drinking a cup of green tea.
Instead of wasting money on a multi-formula with minuscule amounts of decent nutrients, you’d be better off paying a bit more for a formula with a clinically proven dose of one nutrient.
Which substance and form is effective?
Claims of harms of supplements also need to be scrutinized because again, it comes down to the fine print, and the supplement in question. Remember, not all supplements are created equal, so we can’t generalize about what they are or do. For example, did you know that there are four different types of B 12? Adenosylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin, hydroxycobalamin, and methylcobalamin. These are all technically vitamin B12, but each is a completely different molecule with its own job and function in the body, with different absorptions, interactions, and pathways in the body, so it would be incorrect to treat them as if they were the same substance. Vitamin E is another example where scrutiny is necessary. There are eight different isomers of vitamin E, yet much of the existing research hasn’t been conducted on the supplementation