By Kate Halim
In recent times, food supplements have gained a popularity that is almost sacred. They are marketed all over the world and are also being paraded as the panacea for all ailments.
Dr Bertha Chioma Ekeh, a consultant neurologist, Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Uyo said that maybe the popularity stems from the claim that these supplements are natural and organic extracts as against medications which are considered chemicals; even though some medications were extracted from plants.
In a paper delivered at The Sun Publishing Limited Health Talk held recently at the newspaper’s Lagos City Office, Ikeja, Ekeh stated that natural or organic generally resonates with the African heritage because Africans believe in and love all things natural.
“Some of these supplements also have the platform of Multi-level marketing with promises and glories of wealth. Hence they come as a total package of both health and wealth. That is a huge prospect,” she noted.
Ekeh said: “The name is a supplement. Therefore, they supplement. They are used for supplementary purposes. They act as add-ons or addenda to enhance, improve or increase that which is already there. It is important to note that something which is supplementary may or may not be needed.”
Ekeh revealed that there is nothing new about supplements, insisting that they have always been there and date as far back as 1940. “Whether in pill, powder or liquid form, the goal of dietary supplements is to supplement your diet so that you can get enough nutrients and enhance your health.”
According to her, the common traditional supplements include vitamins like Vitamins B Complex, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, multivitamins, folic acid and biotin. Others are minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
“Vitamins and minerals are essential in the development and function of the body. Most people get the needed essential vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet. However, some others need extra to boost their need. This may be because of increased physiologic needs like in pregnancy, during or after a prolonged fast, after surgery or after depletion by certain diseases. They strengthen the bones, heal wounds and generally improve the immune system.”
Ekeh said that these supplements are therefore prescribed by medical doctors.
Types of supplements and their importance
Folic acid is prescribed for pregnant women who have an increased need for it. Folic acid is very important in the formation of the neural tube. The neural tube is the hollow developmental tube that eventually forms the brain and spinal cord.
Folic acid, therefore, prevents certain devastating birth defects in which there is a poor formation of these structures. Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy is highly recommended. Iron tablets are also prescribed during pregnancy and in persons who have anaemia.
Vitamin D and calcium
Vitamin D and calcium are important in the strengthening and development of the bones. They are therefore prescribed as the treatment in children with rickets. Rickets is a medical condition in children where the bones are soft, leading to deformities like bow legs and knock legs. Calcium is also prescribed after the age of 50 years, particularly in women, to prevent the destruction of bones.
Almost all of your body’s calcium is found in your bones and teeth. And since women are four times more susceptible to osteoporosis than men, getting enough is essential for lifelong bone health. The remaining one per cent is critical because calcium plays a role in heart and muscle action, blood clotting and normal cell function.
Fish, such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon, is a rich source of omega-3s, namely EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These highly specialised fats can’t be made in our bodies, and because many women don’t eat enough fish, they may not like the flavour or may fear heavy metals or contaminants, so they don’t get nearly enough of these amazing nutrients.
Omega-3s are important for heart and blood vessel health and for reducing circulating triglycerides to lower heart disease risk. These special fats also support healthy joints, reduce inflammation and optimise brain operations. Some research has tied poor Omega-3 intake to moodiness and depression.
The B vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin, (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) pyridoxine (B6), cobalamin (B12) and biotin. These are water-soluble essential nutrients found in many foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin B12 is found exclusively in meat, fish and milk. Many foods are also fortified with B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for producing the energy necessary to meet the demands of everyday life, whether you are going to the gym, going to the market, doing your business or giving a presentation at work.
Vitamins B6 and B12 reduce your risk of heart disease by helping to keep homocysteine levels low. High levels of the naturally occurring amino acid raise the risk of heart attacks, stroke and blood clots. Biotin has long been recognised for its vital role in healthy hair.
Lutein is part of a fat-soluble class of nutrients called carotenoids. It is found in dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach as well as in various fruits, corn and egg yolks.
Lutein is an antioxidant that concentrates on the eyes to help protect them against free radical destruction and age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), a leading cause of blindness in older women. Lutein is found in breast and cervical tissue and seems to support the general health of those tissues. It is also found in the skin and may help protect against the sun’s damaging light.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can strengthen your body’s natural defences. It is an essential vitamin that your body needs to function optimally. Good sources include fresh fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits like oranges and lemons.
Vitamin C is needed for the body to develop and function properly. It plays an important role in immune function. Most experts recommend getting Vitamin C from the diet rather than taking supplements.
Historically, vitamin C was used for preventing and treating scurvy. Today, people most commonly use vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold.
Newer supplements have flooded the market. The most common supplements include creatine, garlic, turmeric, melatonin, zinc, beta carotene, cell gevity, stem cells treatment, gingko, probiotics and so many others. All these supplements are found in food especially when eaten in their natural forms with minimal processing.
These supplements sure have beneficial effects in improving overall well-being. However, they may also be dangerous. Some of them have harmful effects like diarrhoea, shortness of breath, increased risk of bleeding, rashes or adverse interactions with other medications.
Important points to note
One: Supplements are not a substitute for a balanced healthy diet. A diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, adequate protein, and healthy fats should normally provide all the nutrients needed for good health. Partly due to our modern lifestyle, not everyone manages to eat a healthy diet.
Two: Supplements have their place in the practice of medicine and health promotion. They are used once there is a deficiency or an increased need.
Three: Supplements should never replace the natural forms of vitamins we get by eating natural foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.
Four: The vitamins are better absorbed when consumed as food. Supplements which are synthetic forms are more difficult to absorb.
Five: Supplements do not patch the cracks or holes created by a poor diet. You must eat a healthy diet always.
Six: There are additional benefits in eating vitamins in their natural state because they also contain other vitamins and antioxidants in contrast to the purified synthetic forms.
Seven: The natural forms are also more palatable. Some of the synthetic forms have strong non-palatable tastes and odours.
Eight: Supplements should never be used to replace prescribed medications. It is common to see people discontinue their prescribed medications for hypertension, diabetes, cancer, HIV, epilepsy and others to take only supplements. The resultant effect is often disastrous and in some cases, fatal.
Nine: No supplement is a panacea for all medical conditions.
Ten: All supplements have potential side effects as well as adverse drug interactions.
Eleven: These supplements are not regulated like medications. In essence, they can go overboard.
Twelve: Show your doctor your food supplement before you start taking them.
Supplements have become so popular all over the world. In conclusion, supplements are just what they are: supplements. They are not needed by everybody. However, there are times when the body requires them either because of deficiency or increased demand.