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A Guide to Supplements

Published: 3rd May 2011 16:59

Confused by the different vitamins, minerals and supplements on the market? Which should you take, if any at all? We sift out the ones worth considering, so you can decide for yourself.

 Vitamins and minerals are complex

Biochemical substances that occur naturally in food and are vital for regulating the body's metabolic functions. But a recent survey - the largest of its kind in the UK - conducted by the Health Supplement Information Service (HSIS) revealed that one in two women is deficient in calcium and many lack B vitamins.

Men, notoriously, have low levels of zinc, magnestium and calcium. ‘Ideally, we'd get a healthy balance from our diet,' says HSIS nutritionist Dr Pamela Mason. ‘But the nutrient value of much of what we eat is depleted by modern processing and farming methods. Erratic eating habits, stress, drinking or smoking, and simply getting older, also affect our vitamin and minteral intake.'

So what's the solution? ‘Even taking one or two well-chosen supplements can make a marked difference to your health,' says Dr Mason. While the Food Standards Agency warns taking too many supplements, or taking them for too long, can be harmful, many people still find them beneficial as daily and occasional health boosters - see if there are any in this section that might supply what you need.

Remember, tablet strengths vary, so follow the instructions on the bottle for recommended dosage.


Multivitamin and minerals:

What is it? An all-in-one tablet containing the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of basic vitamins and minerals.

Good for - balancing your diet and counteracting the chemicals that can build up due to stress and smoking.

Is it safe? One pill every day meets all RDAs.


Vitamin B complex:

What is it? A combination of eight B vitamins.

Good for - helping to stabilise the amino acid homocysteine. In 2002 the Coronary Atherosclerosis Prevention Study, involving 6,605 people, showed a connection between high homocysteine levels and the risk of hardened arteries and cardiovascular disease.

Is it safe? Vitamin B is water-soluble, which means it is easily excreted. 

Vitamin A, C and E with selenium:

What is it? Antioxidant vitamins A, C and E combined with the mineral selenium.

Good for - neutralising free radicals, which can contribute to premature ageing, cancer and heart disease.

Is it safe? Vitamin A can be very toxic in high doses, so stick to the RDA of 800mg.

Vitamin C:

What is it? A vitamin found in fresh fruit (mainly citrus) and vegetables, especially greens.

Good for - boosting immunity, fighting infection, enhancing healing, and it keeps blood vessels healthy. Helps form collagen, so skin needs it too.

Is it safe? You can take 500mg a day in two separate doses. Excessove amounts (more than 1,000mg in one day) may cause diarrhoea.

Vitamin E:

What is it? Found in foods such as seed oils, nuts, wheatgerm and avocado.

Good for - its antioxidant qualities, which may protect against heart disease. Two Harvard-based studies in 1993 revealed that bitamin E reduced the rist of heart disease by 41 per cent in women and 37 per cent in men.

Is it safe? Do not take if you're on blood-thinning medication such as warfarin.


What is it? A mineral found in dairy products.

Good for - building strong bones, teeth and nails, and stimulating nerve impulses. Low calcium intake may lead to osteoporosis; the risk increasing for post-menopausal women. Take it in conjunction with magnesium to enhance absorption.

Is it safe? Avoid if you sudder from kidney problems as it may encourage kidney stones.

Fish oils:

What is it? Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel and sardines.

Good for - circulation, a healthy heart, easing arthritic pain and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Studies in New York and the Netherlands revealed significant benefits for thos taking fish oils.

Is it safe? Consult your GP if you're on any medication, particularly for blood-thinning.



What is it? A purple flower related to the sunflower family.

Good for - the immune system. In 2003, a study by The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy found that echinacea's natural antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties can keep colds, flu and chest infections at bay. Take for 10-14 days at the start of winter, or when you have a cold or feel one coming.

Is it safe? Consult your GP if you are on medication. 

Ginkgo biloba:

What is it? The extract of the ginkgo biloba tree, which originates in China.

Good for - mental performance. Since the 1950s, 50 clinical trials have shown that ginkgo can help improve memory function and concentration. A german study showed mental performance improved by 72% after three months of taking 120mg of ginkgo daily.

Is it safe? Consult your GP if you are on medication. 

Glucosamine sulphate:

What is it? A substance that occurs naturally in the body.

Good for - relieving pain, stiffness and swelling of joints. Can help to rebuild connective tissue such as cartilage, tendons, ligaments and joint lubrication fluid. Studies in Portugal, Germany and Italy have shown glucosamine is equal to, or better than, standard analgestic drugs.

Is it safe? Consult your GP if you are on medication.

Coenzyme Q10:

What is it? An enzyme produced by the body that's also found in seafood, meat, nuts and wholemeal bread.

Good for - boosting energy and its antioxidant effects help to neutralise free radicals.

Is it safe? Consult your GP if you are on medication.


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