From glossier hair to shedding weight and boosting your energy, we’re often told that supplements could be the key to our health goals – but which ones are worth taking, and which ones offer false promises? Jenna Farmer helps separate fact from fiction when it comes to all things vitamins
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful
With so many vitamin supplements on the market it can be tough to figure out which ones might actually be worth investigating. While a healthy balanced diet can actually go a long way to meeting your nutritional needs, supplementing key vitamins may be beneficial to ensure you’re not deficient in any important areas, and to help with your general wellbeing.
As nutritionist Sonal Shah explains: “The most common nutritional deficiencies are vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc and selenium.” So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the vitamin supplements worth considering…
Vitamin D is a common deficiency in the UK, with one-in-five people thought to be low in it, which can result in fatigue, joint pain and low mood. The good news is that, in the summer months, most of us get plenty of vitamin D from the improved weather; however, over winter when sunlight is lacking, we’re much more likely to be low in vitamin D.
“It’s important to take a good, absorbable form of vitamin D throughout autumn and winter,” explains nutritionist Sonal. The NHS currently recommends that all adults and children above one supplement with 10 micrograms a day of vitamin D from October through to March – and this includes those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Studies have found that supplementing vitamin D has many health benefits, including potentially improving symptoms of IBS, as found in a study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.
But what about the rest of the year? “In the summer months, as long as there is moderate exposure of the sun on the body areas without sun protection factor, it’s fine to take a break from vitamin D supplements, if your levels are within the healthy range, or to take a lower dose,” Sonal advises.
Iron deficiency anaemia can be recognised by symptoms such as fatigue and breathlessness; it is particularly common in women of childbearing age, but can also occur in men and postnatal menopausal women – in fact, it’s thought that a quarter of women in the UK have low iron stores.
The causes of anaemia can really vary, but include things such as pregnancy, heavy periods, restricted diets, and can also be a sign of gastrointestinal conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Because of the wide range of causes, it’s really important to speak to your doctor before using iron supplements as they can do a blood test to check your levels, and potentially do further investigations to discover the cause for you.
Studies, including one in the British Medical Journal Open, have shown iron supplementation can help with fatigue levels and, since some people find that their iron levels dip during pregnancy, or when they are on their period, it might be a case of only needing to supplement at certain times. Again, it’s important to speak to a doctor to discuss this first.
One thing to be aware of is that some people report that regular iron supplements can cause tummy issues, but there are lots of variations to persevere with if you need an extra iron boost – including liquid supplements that may be gentler on your digestion – while injections and infusions are an option for those who are severely anaemic.
This is far less common than iron deficiency, and your need to supplement depends on a number of factors. Firstly, your risk increases with age; six per cent of people under 60 are deficient, but this jumps to 20% for over 60s, according to the NICE website. You should also take a look at your diet; around 11% of vegans are deficient in B12, as it can be hard to source this without eating meat and eggs.
Symptoms of this deficiency can include tingling in your hands and feet, mouth ulcers, depression and fatigue; so, if you suspect you have low Vitamin B12, it’s important to get tested promptly as if untreated it can cause nerve damage.
Furthermore, while there isn’t concrete evidence that a lack vitamin B12 is associated with an increased risk of depression, an overview of studies in the journal Cureus does appear to show that supplementation in those with, or prone to, depression could have positive effects. Therefore, while supplementation could help, it’s vital to ensure you seek appropriate medical support for your mental wellbeing as a whole.
“For optimum health and nutrition it’s ideal to consider supplementing magnesium for more than 300 roles in our body – including helping with bones, muscles, mood and energy,” explains Sonal Shah.
Magnesium is often found in plentiful supply in our diet, in foods such as spinach, nuts and wholegrains. However, those in certain risk categories – such as those with type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal conditions, those who are pregnant, or on certain medications (such as proton pump inhibitors and antibiotics) – might consider getting their levels tested to see if they need to supplement. Anecdotally, magnesium is often suggested to help muscle cramps, but there’s not much scientific evidence to prove it works. However, other studies have shown magnesium is effective at improving sleep issues, so it may generally help to relax you.
There’s no doubt that supplements can be a bit of a minefield, so it’s important to look beyond the marketing promises and consider your own body’s nutritional needs. Whether that’s looking at your own diet and finding gaps, or having a chat to your GP about being tested for deficiencies, understanding the supplements your body requires in conjunction with a good diet is key for your overall wellbeing.