An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Oh, how I wish this were literally true. For years, I did take the time to have an apple first thing in the morning. Every morning. But, apparently, this wasn’t enough, and last year I was diagnosed with anemia. On top of that, other problems quickly followed. A weakened immune system led to recurrent pneumonia that I couldn’t shake off for months. And I was only twenty-six.
In my desperate search to restore my health, both doctors and friends recommended using supplements like iron, zinc, and vitamins C and D. At first, I was reluctant. I thought supplements were just another bogus health fad like intermittent fasting . But after realizing that it’s not normal to experience fatigue even after getting 8 hours of sleep each night, and that I couldn’t grow out my nails for the life of me – I figured I must lack some vitamins.
Although most people get the necessary amount of vitamins and minerals through diet alone, some are less fortunate. Our busy lifestyles don’t leave us much time for eating a diverse range of vegetables, fruits, meat and other nutritious foods, do they? So, some of us can miss out on some of the important nutrients needed for our bodies to function their best. Because I’m not one to put anything in my body unless I’m sure it can cause more good than harm, I did my homework on supplements. After reading dozens of studies and research papers, here’s a quick summary of what I’ve learned about supplementing.
What Are Supplements?
Supplements are a broad category of products that includes vitamins, minerals, amino acids, botanicals, herbs, enzymes and other compounds. They can be taken by mouth in the form of a capsule, tablet, pill or liquid. Note that however efficient they may be in dealing with deficiencies, supplements can never replace a balanced diet.
What Supplements Should I Take?
Because you don’t need a prescription, supplements are super easy to shop for. You can even buy a supplement from the comfort of your sofa by visiting a licensed online pharmacy. As these products are so easily available, many people can get carried away and throw money away on products that they don’t actually need. My advice before purchasing any supplement is to determine whether you need it in the first place.
If you’re deficient in a vitamin or mineral, you will always have some symptoms. If you notice any changes in your body, mood and energy levels, this could signal a deficiency. For instance, if you frequently get mouth sores or cankers, you might lack iron. This can be because your body has trouble retaining it or because your diet lacks this vital mineral. However, before purchasing an iron supplement, get your blood iron levels checked to know for sure. In most cases, detailed bloodwork can indicate whether you’re deficient in a particular vitamin or mineral.
Also, some factors like preexisting health issues, age, diet and lifestyle can predispose you to certain deficiencies. During pregnancy, women need iron supplements as well as folic acid to prevent defects on the neural tube of the fetus. Babies who are breastfed usually don’t get enough vitamin D for proper bone development, which is why paediatricians recommend supplements. Additionally, vegans can fall short on some crucial vitamins and minerals that are found primarily in animal products, like for instance, B12.
If your immune system is impaired or you want to reduce the risk of catching a nasty bug this flu season, supplementing with some vitamins can help you. As you probably already know, vitamin C is one of the best immune system boosters. In fact, lacking vitamin C can increase your risk of getting sick. B6 is another vitamin that supports the immune system. Additionally, many studies have shown that taking zinc supplements can help prevent infections and reduce the duration and severity of colds.
What Are Some Risks Associated With Supplements?
Most supplements are safe as long as they are used in the right amount. When supplementing, more doesn’t equal better. In order for our bodies to function, only a certain amount of each nutrient is needed. If this amount is significantly exceeded, it could have serious effects on your health. For that reason, supplements are sold with a daily dose recommendation on their label. However, note that you’ll probably receive some amount of a nutrient through your diet too. With that being said, never aim to reach the highest recommended dose. If you feel any adverse side effects when taking a supplement, immediately report this to your doctor.
Additionally, you also need to be careful if you’re already taking some medications. Some supplements can interact with certain medications and cause serious harm. For instance, if you’re taking any blood thinners, vitamin K can decrease their effectiveness and vitamin E can increase it (which is equally as bad). Vitamin A when used with acne medications based on retinoids such as acitretin and isotretinoin can cause vitamin A toxicity. With that being said, always consult your doctor before supplementing if you already take some medications.
How to Increase Bioavailability of Supplements?
However, even if you use the right supplements and at the correct dosage, you may still not experience the benefits. Taking supplements is a science in and of itself. Many factors can influence the efficacy of a supplement. One of these factors is bioavailability. Bioavailability refers to the proportion of a nutrient that is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract.
For instance, coffee and alcohol can reduce nutrient absorption and speed up the excretion of vitamins and minerals. For that reason, it’s recommended to avoid drinking coffee or alcohol at least an hour before and after taking a nutrient. On the other hand, you can increase the bioavailability of almost all supplements by taking them with food. Additionally, some supplements like vitamin C can be harsh when taken on an empty stomach. Also, you can increase the absorption of vitamins that are fat-soluble (A, D, E and K), by taking them with a meal containing fats, like for instance yogurt, tuna salad or avocado toast.