Should I be taking supplements for my health?

  • Two Fit Premium
  • Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020

Dietary supplements come in liquid, powder, granule, tablet and capsule form. — Pixabay

No one is fond of swallowing pills, whether they are prescription medications or dietary supplements.

Pharmacist Lai Pick Juan’s father is one such person.

A decade ago, Lai was working in a retail pharmacy in Australia when his relatively healthy dad called to say he had been diagnosed with borderline diabetes and raised cholesterol levels.

The levels weren’t high enough to warrant taking drugs, so the doctor gave him three months to lower his blood glucose and cholesterol levels via exercise and dietary changes.

Lai recalls, “As a concerned son, I sent him some supplements such as fish oil, along with other vitamins.

“Months later, I returned home for a holiday and saw a few of the 400-capsule bottles still there, unopened!

“His reason was that the capsules were too big and he didn’t like the taste, so he didn’t take them, and I thought, what a waste.

“As for the other vitamins, he finished them, but was too busy to restock his supply.

“In the end, he was put on medication.”

That got him thinking that something was wrong with the healthcare system – you’re either healthy and take no medicines or supplements, or unhealthy and pop pills.

He says, “It’s almost as if it is an overnight process. If you suddenly discover you have a disease, you’ve got to take medicines.

“But there must be something we can do in the middle so that we can delay or prevent getting to that stage.”

The answer, he thinks, could lie in dietary supplements.

“They’re not as strong as medicines, but they can help improve your health.

“This is not a new concept, but why are we then not sticking to the plan?

“What are the obstacles that prevent us from continuing with supplements?” he asks.

One reason, he guesses, could be that people are afraid of commitment.

“For one, they have to spend the money upfront to get a full bottle, without any guarantee it will work.

“If, like my dad, they don’t like the taste, then the bottle is wasted.

“Or they’re so busy, they forget to take it,” he says.

Vitamin or supplement?

When Lai returned home for good in 2017, he sought to address these issues and started a blog to educate the public on the role of supplements.

Many people tend to use the terms “vitamins” and “supplements” interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.

Basically, supplements are products that provide you with added nutritional value or enhance your health.

Vitamins are a type of nutritional supplement, whereas minerals and herbs are types of functional supplements.

Functional supplements such as glucosamine are used as pre-medicines as they may contribute towards preventing chronic diseases like arthritis.

Supplements come in many forms: liquid, powder, granules, tablet (chewable and non-chewable) and capsule.

However, according to Lai, supplements are best absorbed in liquid form.

And he notes that effervescent tablets have high sodium content, while those in the form of gummy bears and chewables contain large amounts of sugar and flavouring agents.

Slowly, his blog took off, and in 2018, he expanded it by starting Malaysia’s first online supplement subscription delivery service, providing personalised supplements in pre-packaged sachets for 28 days.

Customers have to complete various health tests and reveal their medical history before their customised supplements are recommended.

“This way, people don’t need to buy big bottles and waste them.

“The shopping is done for you, so it’s convenient, and if you see benefits, you can continue receiving monthly sachets.”

However, he adds, “Depending on what area of health you’re trying to improve, it may be hard to tell if the supplements are working.

“For example, while hypertension can be measured with a home monitor, cholesterol and sugar levels need a blood test.”

Giving an example, he says, “If you’re feeling tired all the time, I might recommend ginseng or vitamin B.

“If you become active after taking these, then you know the supplements are working.

“If you have achieved the target you want, then you can stop taking the supplements.”

Balanced diet first

Lai is quick to point out though that supplements do not replace a balanced diet – they just make life a little easier.Lai shares that some brands share the same manufacturer, meaning that the exact same supplement is being sold by a few different brands, so consumers can shop around for the best price. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The StarLai shares that some brands share the same manufacturer, meaning that the exact same supplement is being sold by a few different brands, so consumers can shop around for the best price. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

With a balanced diet, you know you’re getting all the nutrients you need, but it’s hard to tell if you are achieving the daily recommended amounts.

For example, you can pop a 500mg vitamin C pill, but you probably don’t know how many oranges you need to consume to get the same dose.

And as supplements are synthetically-made, you tend to get a higher dose.

The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines recommend that we eat at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits daily – this is the minimum requirement, which most of us are not fulfilling.

Says Lai, “Even if you’re leading a healthy life, achieving that balance is not possible in this age as there are many challenges such as air and noise pollution, microwaves, phone waves, etc, which were not present in the past.

“They impact your health, so you need more antioxidants, which is where supplements come in.

“Many studies show that the soil quality is also declining much faster due to the fast turnover rate (of planting crops), so the soil doesn’t have enough time to restock its minerals, hence the nutritional quality of food is also declining.”

For healthy people, a multivitamin daily is adequate as it has all the essential nutrients necessary.

Do your research

Lai advises doing some research before making your purchase.

“Customers like to ‘be sold’. They come to the pharmacy without knowing what they want and expect the pharmacist to make recommendations.

“Find out what area of health you’re trying to improve, and if possible, go to reputable websites and research the supplements that are scientifically proven to be effective.

“For example, to help with osteoarthritis, the most popular supplement is glucosamine, but now there is also collagen and eggshell membrane,” he says.

Higher priced supplements aren’t necessarily better as you are paying for the brand name.

He explains, “Some brands might share the same factory, as each brand might outsource to different manufacturers, so you’re getting the same supplement, but sold by different companies.

“So, compare the ingredients and see who the manufacturer is.

“A lot of times, there is a cheaper version produced in the same factory.”

Ideally, vitamins should be taken in the morning after food, while minerals should be taken at night, also after food.

Lai says, “Supplements such as calcium are best taken at night because bone formation happens when you’re sleeping, so that’s when your body will retrieve calcium from the blood to build the bone.

“However, probiotics should be taken before food because you want it to be absorbed in the intestines.”

And yes, you can get adverse effects from overdosing on supplements.

“For example, red yeast rice is similar to cholesterol-lowering medications, so theoretically, it is possible to get muscle pain in the long run.

“You can also overdose on vitamins A, D E and K, which are fat soluble – anything that is absorbed by fats in the diet eventually gets stored in the liver and can damage it.

“Vitamins B and C are safe because they are water soluble.

“Generally, don’t take more than five supplements, and if you’re taking medications, seek professional advice because certain supplements can interact with drugs.”

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