A UK man, McCants recently fell ill from taking green tea capsules that damaged his liver so much he needed a transplant.
He thought he was taking care of his health and treating his body right and that happened. The experience has put back in the public debate the value or none thereof of supplements. Are they beneficial and what are some of the dangers of using them?
Experts point out that experiences like that of Mr. McCants, are “extremely unusual”.
Supplements are subject to EU regulations that examine the safety and health claims manufacturers make. Thus, supplements bought from reputable businesses are highly likely to be safe for use, provided the manufacturer’s instructions are followed.
More of good can be bad
But it is wrong to assume that food supplements do not sometimes have the potential to be harmful, says Dr Wayne Carter, from the University of Nottingham.
If you take supplements in quantities above recommended levels there are risks.
While excess levels of supplements may often be secreted, in some cases, it may become toxic and affect our liver, which is tasked with the job of detoxifying our bodies.
‘I think sometimes the idea that people take on board is ‘this is good for me, therefore if I take even more of it, it will be even better’,’ Dr. Carter says.
‘This isn’t without risk.’
Taking many supplements indiscriminately at the same time also has its disadvantages, says Dr. Carter.
Sometimes they can interact with one another – that is, one supplement may strengthen the effects of another – while in other cases they might contain one or more of the same nutrients, potentially leading to excess levels.
Some of us may be less able to metabolise or break down certain substances effectively, which can also influence how they affect us.
‘The caveat with taking a supplement is it could be safe in a broad population, but not in everyone,’ Dr Carter adds.
It’s not all bad news
While we’ve explored the attendant risks, what are some benefits of supplement use?
Supplements for child health
There are some supplements that are widely acknowledged by experts to be of benefit across the population. Pregnant women have been advised to have a folic acid supplement to prevent defects in babies.
The Uk government is even considering adding folic acid to flour, to prevent common birth defects in babies.
Vitamin D supplements are also recommended in babies, children between the ages of one and four, and people who are not often exposed to the sun.
This includes those who are frail or housebound or usually wear clothes that cover up most of their skin when outdoors.
The rest of the population is advised to consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
Most people can get all the vitamins and minerals they need from a balanced diet, according to the NHS
A lack of vitamin D, which we mostly get from the sun, can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children, and bone pain caused by a condition called osteomalacia in adults.
Dr. Benjamin Jacobs, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, said: ‘A hundred years ago most children in London had rickets. That was basically abolished by the practice of giving children a vitamin supplement.’
An injection of vitamin K is also offered to babies within the first 24 hours of their life to prevent a rare but serious blood disorder.
Spurious claims in an evolving science
Dr. Jacobs said supplements are also important for people with either restricted diets or allergies.
For example, the NHS says vegans might need a vitamin B12 supplement because it is only found naturally in foods from animal sources.
However, in many other supplements, the evidence of there being a benefit for most people is less clear.
For instance, the NHS says most people can get all the vitamins and minerals they need from a balanced diet, apart from vitamin D.
A study showed the claims that fish oil pills boosted focus and brain power were inconclusive and flimsy at best.
Sam Jennings, a director of Berry Ottaway & Associates Ltd, a consultancy that works with supplement manufacturers, calls the supplement manufacturing science a ‘constantly evolving science.’
She added: ‘What has become clear is that with supplements the benefits aren’t always going to be obvious in all people because it’s going to depend on that individual’s own make-up as to whether they will receive benefit from having an extra nutrient of some kind.’
Dr. Carter encourages people to investigate the scientific evidence behind the beneficial claims of supplements and ensure they are aware of the warnings of use or abuse.
Tips for taking supplements
- Buy supplements from reputable suppliers – they should have gone through rigorous quality assurance
- Check if they have been tested in clinical trials with a cohort of people that is similar to them (comparable age, sex)
- Look for warnings – for example, people with heart conditions would want to check the supplement is not toxic for the heart
- Be cautious about taking multiple supplements at the same time
- Stick within recommended doses