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What Are The Actual Roles Of Food Supplements And Are They Good For You?

Many adults and children around the globe are currently taking one or more food supplements, most commonly vitamins. 

The use of food supplements has increased rapidly in recent times due to the COVID-19 pandemic as these supplements became ‘hot topics’ on social media platforms, where many people get to read about a lot of things, both myths, and facts. 

This article seeks to help you with the facts vis-à-vis what food supplements really are, the roles they play in the human body and how often one needs to take them.

The article also answers some common questions with regards to whether food supplements can be taken by everybody and whether they have side effects.

What are food supplements? 

Like the name suggests, food supplements are substances that are meant to ‘supplement’ the usual diets; providing nutrients or substances that one may not be consuming in sufficient quantities. 

They are usually concentrated sources of nutrients or other substances that have nutritional or physiological effects when consumed. 

They include vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts, amino acids and enzymes sold in various forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, powders, and liquids. Popular supplements include vitamins C, D, B12 and multivitamin preparations; minerals like calcium and iron; herbal extracts like lycopene, garlic extracts and products like glucosamine, probiotics and fish oils. 

What roles do food supplements play?

Food supplements are intended to correct deficiencies; insufficient intake of nutrients or reduced activity of an enzyme. 

Thus, supplements aid in normal growth, development and function by ensuring that adequate amounts needed for such processes are available in the body. Some supplements have gained roots in the fight against diseases. 

Folic acid supplements reduce the incidence of neural tube defects during development of a foetus whereas long chain omega-3 fatty acids prevent mental illnesses. In addition, probiotics have an important role in preventing gastrointestinal diseases in a variety of clinical settings. 

Some supplements in use today may one day have an established role in disease prevention and treatment. 

Are food supplements for everybody?

Sir William Osler once said, the desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals. 

Nevertheless, supplements are not and would never be substitutes for balanced diets. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, adequate protein and healthy fats which constitute a balanced diet should provide all nutrients needed for good health for most people. 

However, certain groups of individuals (high-risk groups) need supplements even when they eat a balanced diet. These include women of child bearing age. 

Research shows that both iron and folate status are critical for those who may become pregnant as their deficiencies correlate with low birth weights and delayed brain development in the case of iron. 

Also, people who get little or no exposure to sunlight may require vitamin D supplements since the amount of vitamin D in the body is not only dependent on diets but also exposure to UV light. 

That said, adults over age 50, children under 5, women of child bearing age, breastfeeding mothers, vegans and people living in cold climates may also need vitamin D supplements; the huge remaining group of individuals get this vitamin from diets such as oily fish, eggs and fortified foods. 

Vegans need vitamin B12 and adults over 50 require vitamin B12 and folate. Children under age 5 need vitamins A and C too for better and rapid growth. 

You may have realised that the supplements mentioned previously are for a certain groups of individuals; hence not all supplements are useful for everybody. 

Food supplements – Wapomu.com

How often should you take supplements?

Unless otherwise prescribed by a doctor, it is best to get your vitamins and minerals from food and not a pill. For that reason, a person who eats a well-balanced diet and is not in any of the high-risk groups mentioned above may seldom need a food supplement. 

When prescribed by a health professional, the particular supplements you need will clearly be spelt out, including how long you have to take them. 

This ensures that you don’t take more of any nutrients than you need as taking high amounts or taking them for a long time can lead to uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects.

That said, it usually takes about 1 month to 3 months to fully restore levels adequate for a healthy body.

As described earlier, supplements provide nutrients or other substances that do not meet the needs of the body for growth, development or function.

As such, steps must be taken to break the cycle of always taking supplements – targeted at the underlying cause of the deficiencies. It could be diseases, dietary problems, old age, etc. 

Do food supplements have side effects?

Yes, they do! Keep in mind that the term “natural” does not always mean safe. Just like any other substances we consume, dietary supplements can also have strong effects in the body.

Similarly, you are likely to have side effects if you take them for a long time or take many different supplements simultaneously. 

The elderly, children and people with kidney and or liver diseases have higher risk of experiencing side effects as their kidney and liver clears the supplements slowly.

Consuming  more dietary supplements than you need increases the chances of them becoming toxic. 

Vitamin A, for example, can cause liver damage, reduce bone strength and cause birth defects if too much is taken.

Excess iron can also harm the liver and other organs. Calcium and vitamin D in excess may increase the risk of kidney stones and high doses of vitamin E may lead to stroke caused by bleeding in the brain. 

Apart from direct toxic effects, supplements can also interact with prescribed medicines that you may be taking.

For example, vitamin C is predicted to increase the risk of cardiovascular adverse effects when given with Deferiprone.

Supplements can also decrease the absorption of drugs you may be taking such that the prescribed drugs work less effectively. 

Conclusion

The take-home message is that most people do not need food supplements as their diets provide all the nutrients they need with few individuals exempted.

Don’t mix food supplements with your prescribed medicines without speaking to your doctor or pharmacist, it may do you more harm than good.

Make it a point to eat a balanced diet. 

WRITTEN AND EDITED RESPECTIVELY BY:

Dr. Emmanuel Baidoo (Pharmacist)
Pharmacist at Ejisu Government Hospital

Dr. Emmanuel Baidoo (Pharm D, MPSGH) is a pharmacist by profession, a reader by heart, and handy at serving. He is passionate about gathering healthy living information for easy access by healthcare providers and the populace for well-informed health decision making.

Chief Editor at Wapomu.com

MPSGH, MRPharmS, MPhil.

Isaiah Amoo is a practicing community pharmacist in good standing with the Pharmacy Council of Ghana who has meaningful experience in academia and industrial pharmacy. He is a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, England, UK and currently pursuing his overseas pharmacy assessment programme (MSc) at Aston University, UK. He had his MPhil degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He has about 5 years’ experience as a community Pharmacist and has also taught in academic institutions like KNUST, Kumasi Technical University, Royal Ann College of Health, and G-Health Consult. He likes to spend time reading medical research articles and loves sharing his knowledge with others.

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