Hype Or Help: What You Need To Know About Health Supplements

Health supplements like vitamins, minerals, protein shakes, nutrition bars and other complementary nutritional products form an essential part of the daily diet plan of many health-conscious people. To live a healthier lifestyle, people often tend to resort to health supplements apart from eating a good diet and getting regular exercise.

Although the potential health benefits of these supplements are widely publicized, many are not aware of their side-effects. According to a study conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine, an average of 23,000 people land up in the emergency department every year owing to the adverse effects of dietary supplements.

Dietary supplements usually contain herbs like garlic and echinacea, other botanicals, enzymes, amino acids, glucosamine, fish oils, probiotics, others, besides popular vitamins like vitamin D and B12, and minerals like zinc, calcium and iron. They come in various forms including powders, tablets, capsules, energy drinks or nutrition bars. They are generally consumed to fill in nutritional gaps, ensure an adequate supply of essential nutrients, manage certain health conditions like reducing weight or muscle building, and improve overall health.

The intake of dietary supplements and micronutrients has increased significantly over the years as they are widely available in the market and can be obtained without proper prescription. They are advertised on a large scale as alternatives to a healthy nutrient-rich diet or complements to therapeutically prescribed pharmaceutical drugs. So in the general public opinion, they are considered to be natural and safe to consume.

Side-effects of health supplements:

According to researchers, health supplements pose severe medical outcomes that could even lead to death. Weight-loss and muscle building supplements have been linked with stroke, live damage, and various kinds of cancer. Vinpocetine, derived from an alkaloid found in periwinkle may cause adverse reproductive effects, harm the foetus and cause miscarriage.

Serious toxic accumulation occurs when a body is unable to excrete the supplementary nutrient and the excess of which can damage some tissues. In case of excess intake of vitamin A, iron, retinol and manganese, it begins to accumulate in the liver to cause such side-effects and also reduce bone strength.

Beta-carotene, folate, zinc, etc., are likely to increase the risk of cancer or speed up the rate of cancer growth, when taken in high doses. Supplements often cause an imbalance in the nutritional composition of the body by causing an excess of one nutrient while making another deficient.

Apart from the severe side-effects, they may also result in some non-serious issues–discolouration of urine due to excess vitamin B2, yellow tinge of the skin due to beta-carotene, excess iron leading to gastrointestinal problems, vitamin E and omega-3s lead to thinning of the blood. In contrast, vitamin C and magnesium can cause diarrhoea.

The seriousness of the side-effects is also determined by a consumer’s lifestyle–intake of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, consumer’s age, genetic factors, health condition, underlying diseases and consumption of prescribed medicines which may react with the supplements.

It is often believed that if something is good for health, consuming it in large amounts should make a person healthier. The essential nutrients are present in our conventional foods and therefore, taking extra of those may prove to be harmful rather than making the consumer healthier. Certain supplements could be dangerous for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children to consume and should only be administered under proper guidance.

Expert opinion:

According to dietician Dr Jayashree Vignesh, she does not recommend dietary supplements to her patients’ regular diet plans. She believes that as a person requires a certain quantity of protein every day, they cannot wholly rely on supplements for their purpose. Therefore, only the people whose professions demand them to acquire a desired body shape, like actors and models who need to gain or lose weight according to their work commitments, and professionals from the fitness industry who need muscle building supplements and whey protein, should opt for them. These are not compulsory for the general public, but rather a short-cut method of achieving a desired body shape.

“What is the use of that. Instead, you can take a controlled proportional meal with your daily macros and micros and a healthy meal. They say gluten-free, sugar-free, but it is not a lifetime procedure, it is not sustainable,” Dr Vignesh says.

She believes that instead of taking 1-2 spoons of supplement after workout, consuming six egg-whites would provide more protein. Even in the case of weight loss, the use of supplements is unnecessary and can be done in conventional diet methods.

Supplements are also costlier, and therefore it is wiser to go for natural foods. Dr Vignesh also mentions about the long-term effects of health supplements which are bound to lead to liver, kidney, pancreatic problems or gall bladder stones in the long run.

COVID-19 and Demand for Health Supplements

During the COVID situation, the demand for health supplements has increased rapidly as people are trying to boost their immunity.

According to Dr Vignesh, they could stand in the morning sunlight for vitamin D absorption and do regular yoga instead of taking vitamin tablets. Green vegetables contain lots of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and thus should be preferred over artificial sources to boost immunity and for overall health benefits.

Therefore, it is always advisable to consult your dietician before resorting to health supplements and draw up a diet plan compatible with your healthcare needs. It should be noted that “natural” does not always imply that a product is safe; the safety of a dietary supplement depends on several factors including its chemical composition, how it is prepared, its role in the body and the correct amount of consumption. They are not to be considered an alternative for medicines to prevent, cure, diagnose or mitigate diseases.

However, some dietary supplements can be beneficial as they contain active ingredients which interact at our body receptors. But due to the same reason, this presence of active ingredients may at times cause unwanted effects instead of the positive ones.

Aishani Sarkar

An ardent literature lover with my mind constantly travelling through far-off unexplored worlds. A lover of languages and cultures--the sweetest language in the world being my mother-tongue. Chasing the Northern Lights...taking one step closer. My pen is my sword. #BongAtHeart

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