The Supplements Your Doctor Takes
As doctors, we are often asked what supplements we have in our kitchen. Undoubtedly, the most important part of any nutritional and dietary strategy is having a balanced diet. This is the case whether you are an elite athlete or simply want to “be healthy.” There is a myriad of confusing and often contradictory information given on diet. However, broadly speaking, most of the credible scientific literature suggests is that the optimal diet for health is one which is composed of foods that have a minimum of processing, is low in refined carbohydrate (sugar), has vegetables and fruit as the bulk supplier of energy and if meat or mammalian milk are consumed the animals that they have come from have been fed a plant based diet. The diet that most closely resembles this is the Mediterranean diet.
Supplementation is no substitute or quick fix for an excellent diet. However, there are some supplements that are not readily obtained from our foods that can be of benefit. Here are the ones that feature most commonly in our house:
A good quality Probiotic
Probiotics, derived from Greek and meaning “for life” are micro-organisms that when consumed confer a beneficial effect to the host. Their use was pioneered over a century ago by Russian zoologist, Élie Metchnicoff. There are several reasons why I recommend taking a regular probiotic. In 2011 a large meta-analysis was carried out to establish the effectiveness and safety of probiotics in preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections such as sore throats, colds and sinusitis. This study demonstrated that taking a probiotic can reduce the number of cold that children experience. In adults, probiotic supplementation seems to reduce the duration of cold symptoms. Probiotics also have a beneficial effect on our degstive system. There is evidence to demonstrate that antibiotics reduce the frequency and duration of gastroenteritis. They can also reduce the risk of diarrhea caused by antibiotics. For people with IBS probiotics consumed for at east 4 weeks have been found to have a beneficial effect. Our favorite probiotics include Biogaia, Optibac and Biokult.
Two thirds of the UK population are deficient in Vitamin D. Technically, vitamin D is not a vitamin at all. It can be more correctly described as a “prohormone.” Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with a variety of health problems including various cancers, heart disease and diabetes. 90% of vitamin D is obtained from sunlight. However, in the UK between October and April, there is insufficient ultraviolet B sunlight for skin to make vitamin D, so it must be obtained through dietary means or supplementation. Vitamin D also plays and important role in muscle regeneration and growth. Supplementation of at least 1,000iu per day is recommended during the winter. Monitoring of vitamin D levels to ensure optimal dosage can be very useful, particularly because excess levels of vitamin D may adversely affect the hormonal role of vitamin D.
Iron is not something that I ever take as my iron levels are fine. However, women often have low levels of iron because iron is lost every month during menstrual period. The use of iron for medicinal purposes is not new. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Egyptians all used iron therapeutically. Iron is not merely important, it’s essential. Most people are aware that iron is an important building block of red blood cells and that having insufficient iron levels can lead to anaemia. What is less widely known, though, is that iron deficiency itself can cause impaired mental acuity, reduced immunity and lack of energy. Taking an iron supplement has been found to improve symptoms of fatigue in women who were not anaemic but were deficient in iron. Supplementing with iron in women who had low iron stores also improves endurance and enhances muscle capacity. The effects of iron are not only limited to physical performance. Iron supplementation in women who are iron deficient but not anaemic significantly improves cognitive performance.
Having too much iron can be even more detrimental than having too little. This condition, known as haemochromatosis, causes iron levels to build up over time resulting in damage to the internal organs especially the liver, heart, brain and pancreas. This is why before starting any iron containing supplements it’s important to know what your body’s iron stores are.
As far as supplements are concerned, the most important thing is that they should be the right supplements for you. Our approach to supplementation is really “food first,” with a few notable exceptions.
Dr Hugh Coyne
Private GP, Parsons Green,