Stop popping those pills!

Unless you are reading this blog in remote Africa eating your own home-grown crops, there is an almost 100 per cent certainty that you have consumed some form of supplement in your life (whether as a pill or a food product – due to government regulations, these supplements are often found in the “fortified” foods you have consumed such as breakfast cereals). Vitamins and dietary supplements are big business in Australia. Recent findings by an international research company found their usage grew by 9 per cent in 2012 to reach $1.8 billion dollars! This is much more than what we spend on prescription medication every year.

The first study to investigate why older Australians turned to supplements was reported in the Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing in 2006. The main findings of the study were that if you were female, suffering with arthritis, osteoporosis or generalised chronic pain then you were more likely to be taking supplements. Some of the most commonly used supplements were Glucosamine sulphate, fish oil and calcium/vitamin D combinations. The patients were seeking ways to assist their arthritis, inflammation or diagnosed osteoporosis respectively.

The belief that they were just “natural” supplements led a high proportion to not report their use to their doctors or healthcare providers. Let’s stop a moment and consider the strong possibility that your supplements may be seriously interacting with affecting regular medications. More on this later.

So what’s driving this industry? Most research into consumer buying behaviour suggests that their are four broad stages that everybody goes through during the “buying process”. We will use the example of Molly* (not her real name) to demonstrate the process.

Molly, for several months has been feeling really “flat” with very low energy levels. Being health conscious, she takes the advice of a friend who suggests that vitamin B may help. She starts reading about the benefits of vitamin B online. The next day she enters her local vitamin store, compares various brands and chooses one. She trials the product for a month but is disappointed with the results. Molly then chooses to see her GP for assistance. She thinks, “Maybe, I need a blood test?”

This process is repeated millions of times a day by each Australian and may involve nothing more than a “hunch” that something is wrong with our bodies and some special supplement or vitamin will fix our problems. Most people consider these products as a “low-involvement” buying decision. Many would not impulse-buy a supplement. However, being a low-involvement choice they perceive them as inexpensive and posing a low health risk if they do not work. They are just natural supplements right?

Apart from money wasted, vitamins and natural supplements can, in fact, be harmful if used incorrectly. If you would like to “negotiate the minefield” of vitamins and supplements then you can start by looking at the diagram below:

In this diagram, you will see that there are five main “stepping stones” that the woman on the left must cross in order to gain any benefit from her supplements. They are:

  1. Digestive tract. Does she have inflammation in her digestive tract or a “leaky gut”? Are poor food choices driving her inflammation?
  2. Synthetic vs natural. A significant amount of research shows that many people do not absorb synthetic supplements (made in a factory) as well as the “activated” natural forms of the vitamin or supplement. In a previous blog I outlined the benefits of using folinic acid rather than synthetic folic acid.
  3. Co-factors. Every supplement requires certain co-factors in order for it to be absorbed by the body. Natural (unprocessed) foods for instance often already contain these co-factors. If we are told we need to take a calcium supplement, for instance, then magnesium and vitamin D3 need to be present for its absorption. Many reputable companies in Australia sell advanced formulations to ensure proper absorption.
  4. Heavy metals. Did you know that the accumulation of heavy metals in your body such as mercury, arsenic and copper stops vital minerals such as zinc from working? This is concerning because, while you may not lack good nutrition, your body is not able to function properly.
  5. Drug interactions. All medications prescribed by your doctor will have known side effects. Many supplements such as St John’s wart, will also affect the effectiveness of your medications. Even alcohol, grapefruit and liquorice can have an effect.

Now that you understand the many challenges our bodies face to benefit from dietary supplements, you could be forgiven for not bothering at all. After all, what is the likelihood of a vitamin or mineral being effective?

As discussed, many reputable supplement companies such as Bioconcepts, Metagenics and Bioceuticals go to great efforts to ensure optimal absorption of their supplements. These companies add the essential co-factors and look for better absorption methods (such as sub-lingual or skin delivery). They also combine them with other minerals to aid absorption. If you are diagnosed with low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B or zinc, and you can’t obtain sufficient levels of these vitamins and minerals through your diet and/or lifestyle, then I would certainly be looking at the most effective supplements available.

In summary it is important to appreciate that not all supplements are created equal. At best they can make dramatic improvements to your health and energy levels. At worst, they can be a total waste of money or be harmful to your health. Choose your supplements wisely. If you have the right health information, you can make a dramatic improvement to your wellbeing through supplementing wisely. In my opinion, it is American biologist and researcher Edward Osborne who said it best:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesisers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

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