Are my supplements helping or harming me?

Are you taking nutritional or herbal supplements? Do you ever pause to question whether they are helping you? Find out the answer to this important question about supplements.

Bowl of supplements alongside fresh herbs

What is the evidence for supplements?

As an introduction, I recommend taking the supplement quiz shared by ABC. Don’t worry, even I didn’t score 10 out of 10. The quiz is quite an ‘eye opener’.

Research has shown that nutritional supplements, such as vitamin and minerals, are of benefit when you have a deficiency, such as iron deficiency anaemia. Folate is also recommended prior to and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. There are also other circumstances where supplementation might be suggested:

  • allergies requiring restricted eating patterns,
  • insufficient sunlight for vitamin D production, and
  • certain long term illnesses that may require protein and nutritional supplements.

These conditions are all best managed in partnership with your healthcare practitioners.

“The best evidence to support your health and wellbeing is eating a well-balanced selection of whole foods.”

Common supplements taken by Australians

Calcium and vitamin D: current recommendation for bone health is eating sufficient dairy foods or alternatives and having safe time in sunshine.

Fish Oil: recommended as an anti-inflammatory and immune booster. Current research shows that it does not reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, but may assist arthritis.

Vitamin C: often taken to prevent or manage colds. Limited evidence for this, but it may reduce the duration of a cold in some people.

Glucosamine: suggested to assist osteoarthritis, but there is limited evidence. It may assist some people.

Herbal medicines: these come in various forms, with different levels of evidence. Formulas that have been used traditionally, such as those by Traditional Chinese Medicine  (TCM) practitioners, need to be personally prescribed by qualified practitioners.

Personally, I believe that holistic approaches are required to research TCM and other complementary medical systems. The pharmaceutical model does not assess all components of treatment e.g. acupuncture and lifestyle.

Cranberry juice and supplements: some evidence for cranberry juice in preventing urinary tract infections but this is possibly due to drinking more fluid, rather than the juice itself. Supplements are not currently recommended.

Echinacea: some evidence for reducing the length of a common cold, but there is also evidence of adverse reactions to Echinacea—skin rashes, increased asthma and gastrointestinal disturbances.

St John’s Wort: good evidence for treating mild to moderate depression. Take care as it interacts with a number of common medications:

  • Increases the side effects of antidepressants
  • Reduces effectiveness of oral contraceptives
  • Reduces the blood thinning effect of Warfarin

You might like to read the full ABC report on Australias Most Popular supplements.

My guidelines for supplementation

  1. Do not self prescribe. This means that you do not buy or take any supplements without recommendation from your healthcare practitioner.
  2. If you have a doctor (GP or specialist) as well as other healthcare practitioners (dietitian, naturopath, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner) make sure you keep all of the practitioners informed of what supplements and medications you are taking, as well as your other lifestyle choices (food, exercise and sleep).
  3. Monitor yourself closely to see whether any of your supplements or medications alter the way you feel, as well as your ability to perform day to day activities. In Eating for You I suggest making changes slowly, so you can monitor effects.

“If I could change the legislation, then I would ban all over the counter sales of nutritional and herbal supplements. “

If I could change the legislation, then I would ban all over the counter sales of nutritional and herbal supplements. Supplementation is not a one-size fits all remedy, and when it comes to nutritional supplements there is very little evidence to support their effectiveness. The best evidence to support your health and wellbeing is eating a well-balanced selection of whole foods. Food comes with an appropriate level of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrate, fats, fibre and phytonutrients. And this is why we can make food our medicine. For a personalised approach to eating, consider the Eating for You book.

View the ABC Four Corners report on supplements

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