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What's the deal with supplements?

To take them or not to take them? That is the question?

Go into any health food shop, or even quite a lot of supermarkets, and you will see various supplements on display. Like Damien Hirst's prophetic Pharmacy installation, there's messaging encouraging you to take powders and pills for just about everything. 

At the same time, there's an abundance of news about the declining nutrient levels in our foods, and that's before you get to any known deficiencies or specific health reasons for taking particular supplements. 

Different health professionals have different views on whether supplements are the way to go. Some are ardent advocates for gaining nutrients from diet alone, some are determined proponents of supplementation, and others will say it depends on the individual and their circumstance. For example, it's often recommended that women trying to become pregnant take a folic acid supplement. 

For example:

The NHS writes: "Most people do not need to take vitamin supplements and can get all the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet. [...] Many people choose to take supplements but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful. The Department of Health and Social Care recommends certain supplements for some groups of people who are at risk of deficiency." 

Harvard Health writes: "Supplements are never a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet, ... And they can be a distraction from healthy lifestyle practices that confer much greater benefits." They continued: "Even though supplements are popular, there is limited evidence that they offer any significant health benefits. In fact, a study published online May 28, 2018, by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that the four most commonly used supplements — multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C — did not protect against cardiovascular disease."

Penn Medicine writes: “In addition to a healthy diet, there is evidence that some supplements can benefit your overall well-being with little to no risk.”

Harvard also points out that the term 'supplement' covers a multitude of things, from vitamins and minerals to botanicals and biosimilar products

So far, so confusing. 

So, given the prevalence of the myriad supplements out there, what do you need to know?

Performance coach, Phil Richards, who has more than 35 years' experience in nutrition, is an avid supporter of supplement use, but only under very clear conditions - it's personalised. Having developed more than 70 of his own nutritional products, he's certainly done his research, and is disconcerted by how the market is flooded with products that make unscientific claims. 

His own work is one-to-one, and he only makes recommendations having done a blood chemistry and stool analysis. Otherwise, he points out, "you're guessing", continuing: "It comes down to biochemical individuality - you can’t blindly pop a supplement." 

He's also very particular about the quality of the supplements people take. He says: "You can take turmeric, for example, which is exceptional for preventing cancer, with more than 6500 papers attesting to that, but if it’s not organic turmeric it as very likely been sprayed with a plethora of pesticides then it will cancel those benefits out and cause other problems"

The 5 most common nutrient deficiencies

Broadly speaking, Phil says that the five most common nutrient deficiencies are as follows:

  1. Magnesium: When you’re low on that you get very anxious and can have issues with blood pressure.
  2. Vitamin C: We're one of the few species that don’t produce it and it's really important for aiding the body's detox mechanisms and essential for our immune system to function optimally.. 
  3. Omega 3 fatty acids: These are crucial for brain function, mental health and cardiovascular health.
  4. Vitamin D: This is really important for immunity, but you really need to know your blood levels before taking it as high dose vitamin D from supplementation needs vitamin K2 & magnesium otherwise you can potentiate cardiovascular problems.
  5. Selenium:  This helps to keep our thymus gland healthy as we age whose primary role is to produce T cells which help take out viruses and cancer cells. Selenium is also essential for thyroid function.

How do you know if you have a deficiency?

Where Phil sounds eminently sensible, is in his position on checking your levels before you start popping pills. He says:

"People often don't realise they're low on something, but when you analyse their blood and stool tests you can see what areas they need to support."

He's eager to emphasise that people are different. He says: "I work with a lot of menopausal women and you can have two menopausal women who have completely different hormonal and nutrient needs. It's not one size fits all."

Phil's a huge advocate of supporting gut health having taken advanced courses in this area - something which many of the wellbeing specialists we speak to also emphasise. He also considers the wider lifestyle of the individual, both to date, and presently: "I have come to the conclusion there are three key causes of major health issues: nutrient deficiency/excesses, toxic overload and chronic long-term stress, if you can address these three areas then you will live a disease free life."

Read more about gut health

Top tips for healthy living

The bottom line, according to Phil, is that everyone can benefit from delving into their health and wellbeing and finding out where their body currently is. He believes that more often than not, some form of supplementation will be beneficial, but you have to start with lab work and data. Beyond that, his top recommendations for healthy living include: 

  • Try to eat an organic diet wherever possible
  • A primarily plant based diet is best with around 15 to 20% coming from meat, fish and dairy.
  • Include some high quality protein with each meal but also use intermittent fasting regularly
  • Drink clean filtered drinking water
  • Take regular saunas 
Read more about the benefits of saunas

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