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Updated 05 May 2011

Supplement and vitamin FAQs

With so many supplements, vitamin and mineral products on the market, how do you know which ones to take, and when?

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Maintaining good health just makes sense, and supplementing your diet with necessary nutrients forms part of a balanced programme.  But with so many vitamin and mineral products on the market, how do you know which ones to take, how much of each, and when is the best time?  The Vitamin expert answers your most pressing questions on supplements here.

 

 

 

Q:  I’m generally in good health and eat well but would like to take some supplements to boost my health. What are good supplements to take?

 

A:  It differs slightly if you are male or female but everyone can benefit from the following:

 

  • A good multivitamin and mineral supplement:  there’s one for everyone – kids, adults, women, men, over-60s – you name it! This gives you a good overall base of nutrients. For some people this may be all they need, but it is often helpful to supplement with the following 2:

 

  • Vitamin B Complex: a good Vitamin B complex will give you the energy needed for a busy day and is essential for coping with stress. All the B vitamins are all responsible for energy metabolism and supporting the brain and nervous system. Because of today’s high-pressured lifestyle, be it at work, school or as a home-maker, most of us can do with extra B vitamins, especially as the body can’t store them so we need to take in enough every day.

 

  • Omega 3 fatty acids: it is very difficult to get enough omega 3 fatty acids in our daily diet. To do so, we would need to eat oily fish AT LEAST 3 times a week, which most people are unable to do. (‘Oily fish’ includes herring, mackerel, salmon, tuna, snoek, pilchards and sardines.) These are essential fatty acids, so-called because our bodies can’t make them, so we must get them from our diets. Omega 3 fatty acids form building blocks for brain cells so theyhelp with stress, depression, anxiety, concentration and memory. They also combat high cholesterol and boost healthy cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein), support the immune system, protect mucus membranes that line the digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems, help with moisture balance in skin and eyes, are needed for healthy skin, hair and nails.

Bear in mind that supplements can’t replace a healthy diet – they are there to add on to what you’re already eating. Unfortunately, these days it’s challenging to get all the nutrition we need just from food - nutrients in food are less than they used to be. 40-year studies in both the UK and US show that nutrient content of fruit and veg has declined since the 1950s.

 

This is due to a combination of factors including: depletion of nutrients in soil, long periods of time spent in storage, processing methods, etc. Not only that, but our lifestyles have changed, increasing the need for nutrients. We take a great deal more medications than we used to, such as the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, OTC painkillers, etc which deplete the body of nutrients.

 

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol: 287; No. 23, 2002, Fairfield & Fletcher) recommended that, according to research, every adult should take vitamin supplements over and above having a healthy diet.

 

Q:  How should supplements be taken?

 

A:  All supplements should be taken after or with food, with a glass of water.

Taking the supplements on an empty stomach can irritate the stomach lining and could make you feel nauseous or even give you a headache because they’re highly concentrated. It could also cause the supplements to ‘repeat’ on you, particularly oily supplements like salmon or evening primrose oil. Taking supplements with or after food ensures there is already something in the stomach to protect its lining, plus the supplement will be absorbed slower, creating a ‘timed release’.

 

Certain supplements shouldn’t be taken together and certain work best if taken alongside others. Iron shouldn’t be taken with calcium as calcium inhibits iron absorption. Likewise, drinking milk or other calcium-rich drinks and foods (e.g. yoghurt or cheese) with iron supplements should be avoided.

 

Vitamin C, however, is an excellent companion for iron supplements as it helps iron absorption and counteracts the constipation that some people suffer when taking iron. B vitamins also accompany iron very well, especially vitamin B12 and folic acid, as they are necessary for iron absorption to take place.

It’s best to avoid drinking tea or coffee for 30 minutes on either side of taking supplements as the tannin and caffeine in these beverages can inhibit absorption. Also, never take supplements with warm drinks: the heat will start to dissolve the capsule or tablet before it should be broken down, which can leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth or throat, and the heat then decreases the potency of the nutrient as some are very heat-sensitive.

 

Q:  I am very stressed and busy. What supplements should I take?

 

A:  These days everyone is struggling with stress. Stress itself isn’t bad, but prolonged stress is – it impacts on your blood pressure, immune system, cholesterol, brain and nervous system, digestion. In fact, every system in the body is negatively affected by prolonged stress. Supplements can definitely help you cope with this.

 

Take the first 2 together, after food with water:

 

1. A high dose vitamin B complex. B vitamins are extremely important for your nervous system to function correctly and for energy metabolism. If you’re stressed you use up even more B vitamins than normal, so it is very important to take a supplement. Take 1 capsule daily after food. Most people will benefit from taking these all the time.

 

2. Omega 3 fatty acids, e.g. Omega 3 concentrate, are also essential for nervous system function. It’s almost impossible to get enough of these in our diets these days, so it’ s important to take a supplement. Take 1 – 2 capsules daily after food.

 

3. A multivitamin & mineral supplement is optional if you still don’t feel better with the above two.

 

Lavender essential oil rubbed onto the temples or inhaled from a tissue calms and relaxes you in moments of stress, lifts the mood and can help you sleep, but isn’t sedative. It must be pure essential oil, though, not pot-pourri oil, so look out for one like Burgess & Finch’s.

When severe stress strikes, try a Bach Flower Remedy like Bach Rescue Remedy drops or spray – this is a totally safe, non-addictive remedy that won’t sedate you and helps with shock, stress, anxiety, fear, tearfulness, etc. 

 

A healthy diet is of the utmost importance when you are feeling stressed out. Eating regularly keeps your blood sugar levels balanced. Make sure you keep healthy, proetin-rich snacks with you like seed bars, nuts and raisins, little yoghurts, etc. Stress plays havoc with your blood sugar levels, and yet the more unstable the blood sugar is the more stressed you will feel: a vicious cycle.

 

Try to eat 3 balanced meals per day, and two snacks with some protein (nuts, yoghurt, cottage cheese, etc) and fruit. The nutrients in fruit and vegetables are needed for good general health. Avoid drinking too much coffee (1 cup maximum) as caffeine raises blood pressure and heart rate, and drains energy over the long term, which worsens stress. Avoid sugary foods, sweet fizzy cool drinks and too much fried fatty food, as these are very low in nutrients, bad for general health and they destabilise blood sugar.

 

Drink 6 – 8 glasses of water daily, as this helps keep you alert and flushes out excess stress hormones.

 

 

Q: Supplements for healthy hair, skin & nails

 

A:  In general, if you have poor hair, skin or nails, a multivitamin alone won’t be sufficient. A multivitamin & mineral supplement is there to add on to a healthy diet – to cover the bases. However, if you are dealing with a specific problem, you need to take more of those things that will boost those specific areas (in this case, the hair, skin and nails).

 

Life events, like stress, operations, eating disorders, hormonal imbalance or changes or ill health will all impact on your appearance, as will eating a poor diet, smoking and drinking excess alcohol, taking certain medications (check package inserts) and nutritional deficiencies like anaemia. Hair can also fall out from too many chemical treatments (perming, straightening, dyeing) and from being tied up or braided too tightly too often. Nails can look bad due to insufficient calcium, repeated manicures (especially if false nails are applied) and fungi. It’s always best to consult your doctor first to check that there are no underlying health issues that could be causing poor hair, skin and nails.

 

I would recommend the following to help support healthy hair, skin and nails: (Note: all supplements should be taken on a full stomach with water.)

 

  • A multivitamin and mineral supplement specially formulated to support hair, nail and skin health. You can, if you wish, take this alongside most general multivitamin supplements.

 

  • Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids as these are very important for hair, skin and nails. They help with the moisture balance in the skin. Deficiency is often implicated when there are very brittle nails or acne. Not only that, they are also for brain and nervous system function, immune support, and good health in general.

 

  • If you are very stressed and busy, and/or are vegetarian, you will benefit from an additional Vitamin B complex. Not only are these important for healthy hair, skin and nails, they are also needed to help you cope with stress, and for memory, concentration and energy levels.

 

  • Sometimes, iron deficiency anaemia can cause problems with this, but then you would also be tired, weak and has pale skin, and/or mucus membranes in your eyes and mouth, and will need a blood test to establish this.

 

  • If you do not eat a calcium-rich diet (dairy products or calcium-enriched dairy replacements, dark green and leafy vegetables and tinned fish with bones), you may also need extra calcium and magnesium. Remember: if your nails are showing weakness due to lack of calcium, you could be at risk for osteoporosis, particularly if you are female, over- or underweight, do not exercise, do not go in the sun, smoke or drink excessive alcohol.

Bear in mind that hair has growth cycle of around 3 months. Also, nails take around 100 days to grow 1cm, while skin around 1 month or so. In other words, supplements for hair, skin and nails do not work overnight – you need to keep taking them for at least 3 – 6 months before you see an appreciable change.

 

Also, if there is a deficiency that is causing this, first the body needs to correct this, and will send nutrients to the most important areas of the body first – i.e. internal organs, brain, etc – and only then will it go to the hair, skin and nails. So one does need to be patient with this kind of thing.

 

Make sure you drink enough water – 6 – 8 glasses daily – as this helps keep skin moist and flushes out toxins from your system. Skin is an important excretory organ, so toxins in your system will show up on your skin. Multivitamin and -mineral supplements are there to add on to a healthy diet, to “cover the bases” in case you aren’t taking in enough nutrients. Aim for at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables– a serving is around the size of a clenched fist. The more natural your diet the better, as processed foods (ready meals, take-aways, sweets, pastries, white bread, etc) are generally very low in nutrients, and high in inflammatory constituents. Sugar, artificial additives, and excessive saturated fats can increase your inflammation levels, so avoid these, as you need to keep inflammation levels low.

 

Smoking and alcohol are definite no-nos for skin – they rob you of nutrients, increase free radicals and speed up the ageing process. Always eat regular, healthy meals, to keep energy up and give you good nutrition.

 

Q: Supplements for fertility

 

A:  There is not a lot of research and definitive scientific evidence that supplements can increase fertility. However, on the premise that a healthy, balanced body would be more likely to fall pregnant quicker and that poor diet and stress has been shown to impact negatively on hormone balance, it is possible that supplements might go some way to helping fertility. Also, bear in mind that a supplement is just there to add on to a healthy diet and will not replace healthy eating. I would suggest taking all three together.

 

Supplements that may help (female) are:

 

  • Omega 3 & 6  Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 & 6) are important for hormones, and for general health. They also help with stress, and are important when you do fall pregnant because they are needed for the baby’s brain and eye development. 1 – 2 capsules daily after meals.
  • A multivitamin for pregnant women is important because it gives you the extra nutrients you need to get your body healthier. Also, this one will be safe to keep taking when you fall pregnant, and also while breastfeeding – it has enough folic acid in it (an important vitamin to help prevent spina bifida). Take 2 capsules daily after meals.
  • Brewer’s Yeast: This contains B vitamins which are important to help you deal with stress. If you are stressed, this can make it a bit harder to fall pregnant because of the powerful effect it has on hormones, and the body in general. This supplement will also be safe to keep taking when pregnant. Take 4 – 6 tablets daily.

Supplements that may help (male) are:

 

  • Omega 3 & 6 concentrate: Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 & 6) are important for hormones, and for general health. They also help with stress, and are important when you do fall pregnant because they are needed for the baby’s brain and eye development. 1 – 2 capsules daily after meals.
  • Zinc: Zinc is a mineral required for sperm production, as well as testosterone production. It also keeps sperm healthy.
  • Vitamin B Complex: As with the Brewer’s Yeast above – this is just a higher strength supplement.
  • Multivitamin – contains ginseng. Although there isn’t a lot of research there are indications that Ginseng, a Chinese herb, can help support male fertility levels. It also contains a range of other nutrients that support men’s health in general.

He can also eat pumpkin seeds – at least 2 tablespoons daily – as these are rich in Zinc and essential fatty acids.

 

Aim for at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables – a serving is around the size of a clenched fist. The more natural both your diets are the better, as processed foods (ready meals, take-aways, sweets, pastries, white bread, etc) are very low in nutrients, and high in inflammatory constituents. Also, it has been shown that poor diet can impair hormone function in both men and women. Sugar, artificial additives, and excessive saturated fats can increase your inflammation levels and upset hormone levels, so avoid these, as you need to keep inflammation levels low. Smoking and alcohol is a definite no-no, so try to stop smoking and avoid alcohol. Research has shown that smoking reduces sperm count and increases the amount of malformed sperm produced. Alcohol also negatively influences sperm-producing activity. Try to eat regular meals, to keep energy up and give you good nutrition.

 

Q:  I am tired all the time

 

A:  It’s important to identify why you’re tired all the time. It can be, aside from a busy lifestyle that you are leading, a side effect of medication, not eating enough, eating too much ‘junk food’ (refined sugars, fatty foods, etc) or eating too little nutritious foods. It could be iron deficiency, poor sleep, depression, ongoing stress, underlying infection that doesn’t clear up, various illnesses, low thyroid function, blood sugar imbalance, etc – the list is endless.

 

It’s best to ask your doctor to test your blood for iron and thyroid problems, as well as check your blood pressure and blood sugar (and insulin) It can also be a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome – I suggest consulting with a qualified phytotherapist in private practice to establish this. You can contact the South African Association of Herbal Practitioners at www.herbalpractitionerssa.co.za.

 

There are a few things that I would definitely recommend (take the first 2 together):

 

1. A high dose vitamin B complex. B vitamins are extremely important for your nervous system to function correctly and for energy. If you are stressed you use up even more B vitamins than normal, so it is very important to take a supplement. Take 1 capsule daily after food. Most people will benefit from taking these all the time. Stress can definitely contribute to constant tiredness.

 

2. Omega 3 fatty acids  are also essential for nervous system function. It is almost impossible to get enough of these in our diets these days, so it’s important to take a supplement. Take 1 – 2 capsules daily after food.

 

3. A multivitamin & mineral supplement. This would be optional if you still don’t feel better with the above two.

 

Sometimes people can feel tired all the time because they actually aren’t sleeping well. If this is the case, try putting 2 – 3 drops of Lavender essential oil (e.g. Burgess & Finch) on your pillow at night and/or in your bath before bedtime. Lavender oil is relaxing and lifts the mood and has been shown to help with sleeping.

 

A healthy diet is of the utmost importance when you’re feeling stressed out or constantly tired. Eating regularly keeps your blood sugar levels balanced. I understand it can be difficult with a small child and full-time work, but try to set aside food for work, and make sure you at least have healthy snacks with you like seed bars, nuts & raisins, little yoghurts, etc.

 

Stress plays havoc with your blood sugar levels, and yet the more unstable the blood sugar is the more stressed you will feel: a vicious cycle. Try to eat 3 balanced meals per day, and two snacks with some protein (nuts, yoghurt, cottage cheese, etc) and fruit. The nutrients in fruit and vegetables are needed for good general health. Avoid drinking too much coffee (1 cup maximum) as caffeine raises blood pressure and heart rate, and drains energy over the long term, which worsens stress. Avoid sugary foods, sweet fizzy cooldrinks and too much fried fatty food, as these are very low in nutrients, bad for general health and destabilise blood sugar.

 

Drink 6 – 8 glasses of water daily, as this helps keep you alert and flushes out excess stress hormones.

 

Exercise is also very helpful (even if you may not feel up to it at the time) – try yoga as this has been shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being. Walking also helps by getting the circulation going, giving you fresh air and improving sleep at night.
If you have persistent low mood, feel very tired, feel hopeless and depressed, you need to see your doctor, a there may be underlying factors that would cause you to feel low in mood and energy. I also suggest having your iron levels checked to make sure you aren’t anaemic which can make you feel extremely tired, weak, fatigued and even short of breath.

 

Q:  I suffer from PMS – I get very moody, cramps, breast tenderness, etc – what supps?

 

A:  There are several supplements which, when taken together, can really help for PMS, including headaches, breast tenderness, water retention, moodiness, etc. If you can get your hormones balanced, the symptomns should clear. It can also be helpful to avoid tyrosine-rich foods like aged cheeses and wine as these can also trigger headaches. I would also suggest you check out Marilyn Glenville’s site – she is a doctor specialising in natural treatment of women’s health issues: http://www.marilynglenville.com/pms.htm

 

Avoid salt, sugar and related products (e.g. soy sauce, MSG, etc) – especially processed foods. Excess refined carbohydrates can also cause a problem, so switch to wholegrains and avoid cakes, white bread, etc. Because it’s a fairly complex problem, one often has to take several supplements, at least for 6 months, to try and get the balance right in your body. This is particularly so if there is a deficiency, as this must first be corrected.

 

  • Vitamin B Complex: Important for brain function, energy levels and dealing with stress. B vitamins are also needed when feeling moody, depressed, irritable and weepy.

 

  • Evening Primrose Oil: Omega 6 fatty acids in the EPO help to balance hormones. EPO has been shown to help reduce PMS and PMS-related breast tenderness, etc.

 

  • Salmon Oil: Omega 3 fatty acids in Salmon oil are anti-inflammatory and can help with breast tenderness as well as ‘period pain’ and headaches. Further, they form building blocks for brain cells, nourish and support the nervous system and have been shown to help with depression.

 

  • Calcium and Magnesium: This can be helpful if you struggle with ‘period pains’ and headaches.

 

  • Green tea: If you’re really struggling with water retention, especially while you wait for the supplements to balance out your system, consider drinking green tea as this helps to get rid of excess water.

You will need to persevere for at least 6 months, as these things can take some time to come right – hormones are affected by whatever you do throughout the month, so you’d need to take the supplements every day.

 

Your diet is also extremely important. Make sure you eat at least 5 – 7 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. A serving is around the size of an apple. These help your body to get rid of excess water and the nutrients are important for counteracting PMS symptoms. Eat foods high in potassium – especially bananas, avocados and melons – as this trace element is needed for proper fluid balance in the body.

 

Drink enough water – 6 – 8 glasses daily. If you aren’t taking in enough water, your body will ‘hold onto’ what it is getting, worsening water retention. Take in enough lean protein daily – fish (including oily fish like sardines & pilchards, as these give you Omega 3 fatty acids too), chicken, lentils, beans, eggs, lean dairy, etc.

 

If you still struggle, I strongly recommend consulting with a qualified, registered phytotherapist (herbal medicine practitioner) as they will be able to take a full medical history, and then look at your situation from all angles, then advise on supplements, nutrition and make up an herbal prescription for you.

 

(Jennifer Davies, April 2010)

 
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