Dietary supplements are all around us: in television commercials every hour, on the web and in publications of all sorts. But are they any good? Should we indulge their claims? And what about your best friend or co-worker who swears by it? That kind of testimonial should mean it’s a good idea.
Supplements are not always what they are made out to be. Lightly regulated, they often make claims on their packaging or in advertising that are unsubstantiated. Indeed, some may not even contain what they say they do.
There are multiple challenges facing dietary supplements mostly because they lack evidence from long-term, well-designed clinical trials. There are exceptions including many vitamins and minerals which have been better researched. Still, supplements have an aura of legitimacy for many people, one that usually cannot be proven. For one thing, they are sold over the counter and are often labelled as ‘natural’ so they must be good for us. At least they must be safe. Right?
Some dietary supplements can have powerful and unpredictable effects on the body. They may affect blood sugar, blood clotting, hormone activity and liver function. Worse, they can interact with other medications, whether prescription or not. And the bottle you bought may not even contain what it says. There have been numerous reports over the years with examples of products containing much less, even none, of the claimed ingredients.
Given all this conflicting and usually confusing information, are there any ‘good’ supplements? Absolutely! Here are four notable ones.
Calcium is a mineral essential to bone health and many of the many functions in the body. It is best to get calcium as part of your diet but that is not always possible; supplements may be recommended. Women over 50 and men over 70 should be getting 1000 milligrams daily.
Vitamin D is made in the skin in response to sunlight, but we may not be getting enough sun in which case supplements are a good choice. For most people, 800 to 1000 International Units (IU) is appropriate. This vitamin is proven to benefit bone health and muscle function. It is also being researched for various claims that it can treat or prevent many disorders from cancer to heart disease and diabetes — the jury is still out and none of these hopes have been confirmed.
Folic acid is essential for healthy cell growth. This makes it crucial during pregnancy because inadequate folate can lead to neural tube birth defects. That means that women who are or who may become pregnant should ensure they have enough. Folic acid is better absorbed as a supplement than from food; it can be found in multivitamins or as a stand-alone supplement.
Vitamin B12 is vital for almost every cell and body system from the blood to the nervous system and especially for keeping an aging brain healthy. It is present only in animal products so vegans may need supplements. And many aged 50 or more do not get sufficient B12, so supplements may be a good idea.
There are many well-researched, proven, dietary supplements but for each of these, there are hundreds that are not. In most cases, the ‘evidence’ comes in the form of testimonials — testimonials are completely meaningless for this purpose. As always, your best bet is to discuss your particular needs with your doctor or pharmacist before making the decision.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.