Are nutritional supplements good or bad for you? It depends what you choose

Are nutritional supplements good or bad for you? It depends what you choose

Are drugs good or bad for you?  It depends. If you have pneumonia, or malaria, a short course of a relevant drug, at the right dosage is useful.

However, you wouldn’t take a cancer drug for malaria, or a heart drug for pneumonia and you wouldn’t take twice the dose. It is the same with vitamin supplements.

They need to be the right choice for you, and the right dosage.


Are vitamin supplements good or bad?

Most people I see have signs or symptoms of vitamin deficiency.

If we do a lab test, the results usually show deficiencies. The British government publishes research from time to time, showing that many people are deficient.

When someone comes to me with a sore tongue, or sore eyes, the chances are that they are short of vitamin B2, otherwise known as riboflavin. They could ask their doctor for a prescription for a drug for sore eyes, to take for the rest of their lives.

The trouble with that is that riboflavin has other functions. It is needed for making energy.

It recycles a key detoxifier and antioxidant called glutathione. It is needed to turn toxic sulphite into useful sulphate. Sulphate is an antihistamine and antidepressant. We need it for making digestive enzymes.

It prevents the gut from becoming too leaky. It detoxifies lots of harmful chemicals, including some that cause cancer. Riboflavin is needed to activate vitamin B6, in order to make specific proteins we need, like muscle protein, enzymes and hormones.

It plays a key role in adding methyl groups to harmful chemicals like homocysteine, and therefore protects the foetus, the heart and the brain.

If all people do is take a drug for sore eyes, they are likely to remain riboflavin deficient, and become tired or depressed, develop poor digestion, suffer from premenstrual syndrome, have asthma attacks when they encounter smoke or food additives, have a baby with spina bifida, or end up with cancer or a heart attack.

Some people hear that vitamin B6 is involved in making hormones. The trouble with just buying vitamin B6 is that it needs riboflavin to activate it. Just taking vitamin B6 in its own is likely to cause a deficiency in riboflavin, causing any of the problems I have mentioned.

Moreover, it will work briefly, making hormones, but once you run short of riboflavin, the vitamin B6 will stop working.

Some people buy vitamin A, usually in cod liver oil, a selenium with vitamins A,C and E, or in a multivitamin supplement. That is fine if you need it. However, vitamin A is stored in the liver.

You can build up too much of it, especially if you were given cod liver oil off a spoon as a child, if you have eaten a lot of liver, or if you combine supplements, like having cod liver oil, selenium ACE and a multivitamin every day.

Then you can damage the membranes round your liver cells, or develop pressure in the head, that feels like a tumour in your brain, but isn’t.

Vitamin E is eight chemicals. Four are called tocopherols, and four tocotrienols. Gamma tocopherol appears to be the most protective against heart disease, and the tocotrienols the most protective against cancer.

These forms of vitamin E compete for uptake. Cheap synthetic vitamin E contains only one of the eight, called alpha tocopherol, together with a mirror image of alpha tocopherol.

This mirror image of the real alpha tocopherol competes with all eight forms of vitamin E. No wonder that medical trials using synthetic vitamin E find it counterproductive.

Of course, they don’t tell you that it was synthetic. They sometimes make matters worse by overdosing their patients. When I test people who have been on alpha tocopherol supplements, they are usually deficient in crucial gamma tocopherol, because or competition between the different forms.

Are nutritional supplements good or bad for you? It depends what you choose

Are mineral supplements good or bad?

White spots on the finger nails suggest a shortage of zinc. Zinc is needed for making new cells, including those needed for producing babies and resisting infection. Zinc deficiency is a common cause of infertility. Zinc is easily absorbed from meat, but not so easily from vegetarian foods.

However, zinc and copper compete for absorption. So taking too much zinc without any copper can push your copper levels down. Copper is needed for making energy, keeping blood vessels flexible, it is part of an antioxidant, and removes excessive histamine.

We don’t need much however, as too much can make someone paranoid. Iron is often given to pregnant women without zinc, causing more zinc deficiency.

Magnesium is commonly deficient in the British population. Calcium and magnesium compete with each other. Magnesium protects us against heart attacks, and is needed to prevent osteoporosis.

It keep us serene and helps us sleep. People are prescribed as much as 1500 grams of calcium a day, without any magnesium, even though they may consume lots of calcium in milk, cheese and yogurt, and very little magnesium, if they avoid leaves, nuts and seeds.

They may end up with calcium deposits in their arteries and on their heart valves. Their bones may be heavy, but they are likely to be weak, and prone to fracture.

Selenium protects us from cancer and heart disease, but a selenium supplement, plus selenium ACE tablets, plus brazilnuts can amount to far too much, and can make people ill.

Are essential fatty acid supplements good or bad?

Fish oil supplements are valuable, if from fish harvested away from pollution. Cod liver oil is not a good idea, as to obtain enough of the important fats in fish, you would end up with too much vitamin A.

So buy capsules made from the flesh of the fish. If you are vegetarian, use flax oil, keep it in the fridge, do not cook it, and take two dessertspoons a day, as only a small proportion will convert to what fish oil provides.

Taking a good quality multivitamin-mineral supplement will help the body convert the oil. Also eat some nuts and seeds, as the omega three in fish and flax needs to be balanced with some omega six in nuts and seeds.

Check the additives

Some supplements, mainly vegetarian capsules containing oils, have carrageenan in them. Carrageenan is used in labs to produce inflammation, so that it can be studied.

There is evidence that carrageenan leads to cancer, heart disease or ulcerative colitis. So do avoid carrageenan in supplements. Sometimes people complain that their oily capsules stick together, because the oil leaks a bit. Actually that is a good sign. Those capsules are unlikely to contain carrageenan.

Dairy products, like gooey yogurts, can also contain carrageenan.

Some children’s supplements contain the artificial sweetener aspartame. There is some evidence that it may lead to diabetes and nervous system damage, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain tumours, multiple sclerosis and even motor neurone disease.

There is no reason to include this in supplements.

Multivitamins should be yellowish, because riboflavin is yellow. I suspect that sunset yellow is put into some tablets, to hide the inadequate amount of riboflavin in them.

Not too much or too little

There was a study in which people were given too large amounts of magnesium by injection, and more died in the magnesium group than on the drug used in the study.

We all know that too much of anything can kill, and studies like this are dangerous. Yet too little of anything is pointless. People can be confused.

Remember that milligrams are thousandths of a gram, while micrograms are millionths of a gram. 500 micrograms (mugrams, μg or mcg) may look a lot, but is only half of a milligram (mg). The right amount depends on the nutrient, and on your specific need for it.

If you are going to buy a nutritional supplement, ideally seek advice from someone who understands the complexities, or otherwise go for a well balanced multivitamin-mineral, without harmful additives.