Supplements: which are worth taking and how to choose the best ones...

Are supplements worth the spend? We explore the evidence for and against supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals

supplements
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'What supplements should I take'? This is a question that many of us have probably  been asking ourselves throughout winter when our immune systems tend to be down, and when many of us feel extra (borderline ridiculously) tired. Then with so many vitamin supplements and products available, all the options are there but it can be difficult to know exactly which vitamins and supplements will benefit us the most. Should you go for a multivitamin or for just a single vitamin or mineral? Will it help with specific health concerns, or just enhance your overall wellbeing? 

We answer the most common questions surrounding dietary supplements and which are the most potent and popular vitamins to take. For more useful advice, visit our health and beauty page. 

1. Should we all be taking vitamin D supplements?

The answer is 'yes', between early October and late March. During the summer months, our bodies get enough vitamin D from sunlight, but not in winter. The official NHS guidelines are clear: 

'[E]veryone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter.'

Of course, you can also increase your vitamin D intake through food by eating more oily fish, liver, eggs, and red meat, but most people probably won't be able to get enough vitamin D from their diet, alone. This vitamin is essential for bone health and the proper functioning of the immune system, so we do think everyone should try and take vitamin D supplements.

2. Multivitamins vs. single vitamins: which is better?

The logic is entirely understandable: if we're all deficient in vitamin D in winter, chances are we're deficient in other vitamins, too, so why not just go for a multivitamin supplement? 

There are two main schools of thought on this. Scientific studies have shown no reliable link between taking multivitamins and enhanced health. People in developed countries should be able to get all the necessary vitamins and minerals from their diet. 

However, many dieticians will tell you that a lot of people don't have a balanced diet, and therefore supplements are key to optimal health. It is important not to self-diagnose, so always consult your GP if you're considering supplements, especially single-vitamin ones. Overdosing on vitamins can have serious harmful effects on your health, so you shouldn't take any single vitamin supplement apart from D or C unless your doctor has confirmed you have a deficiency. 

3. Vitamin supplements for skin: what works?

There is some interesting research that suggests that the increased instances of skin problems such as dermatitis, eczema and acne are possibly due to insufficient vitamin A intake (we don't eat liver on a regular basis anymore, for example). 

Can taking a vitamin A supplement be the answer? You'll have to experiment and see if it works for you. Bioavailability can be an issue (i.e. how well your body is able to absorb a substance), so you may wish to try fish liver oil rather than a synthetic vitamin A supplement. 

Be very careful not to take too much, though, as vitamin A is stored in the liver, and overdosing poses health risks. 

4. Probiotic supplements: what are they good for?

Probiotics are very popular right now, since they've been linked to improved gut health. The problem with probiotic foods is that not everyone can eat them; if you have a sensitivity or can't digest probiotic foods very well, then a supplement could be a good option. 

5. Synthetic vs. naturally derived supplements: is there a difference? 

The best source of vitamins is always food. However, if you've decided to go down the supplement route, there is no evidence that supplements marketed as naturally derived are necessarily more beneficial than those that are synthetically derived in a lab. The most important thing is to buy your vitamins from reputable sources (e.g. pharmacy or reputable online retailer) from brands that are well-known and are transparent about how and where they make their product.