People take oral dietary supplements for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s to improve health, boost vitality, limit the signs of ageing or to try and reduce the risk of chronic disease. A recent BBC news article reported on the growing trend of vitamin IV drips in which vitamins and other substances are administered directly into the blood. But does this way of supplementing offer any health benefits and is it safe?
What are supplements?
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that the body needs in small amounts to function properly - iron, vitamin D and calcium are good examples of the type of supplement that people regularly take. Dietary supplements aim to provide additional nutrients that may not be consumed in large enough quantities from diet alone. Millions of people take vitamins and dietary supplements every day and over recent years there has been a massive boom in supplement use. Supplements can be vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other substances delivered in many different forms including a pill, tablet, capsule and liquid. It is important to note that supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy balanced diet.
The products that were once the preserve of specialist health food stores, are now easily accessible in the supermarket and online. However, now that supplements are widely available, the vast array of options makes the area something of a minefield to fully understand. If it isn’t the weird and wonderful options available such as gold collagen, propolis or bioflavonoids that are confusing, then the range of different doses and formulations for individual supplements such as vitamin D, can make it extremely difficult to know what is worth taking and what isn’t.
Who needs supplements and is it really worth injecting vitamins?
Injecting vitamins is the latest health craze, with many celebrities posting images of themselves on social media hooked up to IV bags. Those promoting vitamin IV drips claim they can boost energy, strengthen the immune system, improve skin and cure hangovers, however there is no scientific evidence of the benefits and they can be dangerous. Infusion of vitamins directly into the blood potentially puts the liver and kidneys under stress and to go ahead without screening liver and kidney function first is prohibited by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK. IVs should never be administered outside a carefully-controlled clinical environment as putting anything into the body intravenously, carries a risk of infection. Vitamin IV drips do not have a strong body of scientific evidence to back up their health claims.
Because vitamins and minerals are important for good health, many may believe that taking extra vitamins can’t really do any harm. But it is important to remember that only a certain amount of each nutrient is needed for the body to function and providing the body with higher amounts is potentially dangerous. Don’t be fooled by the notion of ‘this is good for me, therefore if I take even more of it, it will be even better'. Although the doses of vitamins and minerals found in most oral supplements are thought to be safe, if you take supplements in quantities above recommended levels there are risks. At high doses over long periods of time some supplements may have adverse effects and may become harmful.
The majority of people don't need to take supplements as they get all the vitamins and minerals they need through eating a healthy, balanced diet. Vitamin D is the exception here though, as although a small amount can be obtained through diet, most of this vitamin is made under the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. The majority of people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D so may benefit from taking a supplement.
There are certain situations and groups of people who are advised to take oral vitamin supplements as they can’t get all the nutrients they need from diet alone. Where vitamin intake is restricted such as the case with vitamin D and B12 for many people, the use of supplements is a good way to ensure the body is receiving the necessary nutrients. There are also times in life where an individual’s vitamin requirement may change, as is the case during pregnancy.
The NHS recommends the following for supplement use:
- 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily for pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Women trying to conceive and women in the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy are recommended to take folic acid supplements, which reduce their child’s risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida
- 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily for those aged 65 and over
- During the autumn and winter months, you need to get vitamin D from your diet because the sun isn't strong enough for the body to make vitamin D. Everyone should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter.
- People with darker skin and those who are not exposed to much sun should take vitamin D supplements.
- Supplementing vitamin B12 is recommended for those who follow a vegan diet, as they will struggle to get enough vitamin B12 through food alone as B12 is found almost exclusively in animal-based products.
Should I be taking supplements?
There is not a straightforward yes or no answer to this question, both because of the range of different supplements available and because everyone’s individual circumstances are unique. The need for supplementation depends on the levels of vitamins and minerals in your body as it is important not to over supplement as this can have negative health effects. To make it simple to establish and monitor your levels, we have created our Nutrition Check, to help you see whether you are getting the nutrients you need from your diet and if you could benefit from taking a dietary supplement. A Medichecks clinician will comment on your results and offer their advice regarding whether you would benefit from taking supplements to improve your levels and health.