Supplements and vitamins – do they work?

Organic vegetables

Our changing dietary needs

Plate of mixed berries
Plate of mixed berries

We need a good, balanced diet, full of different fruits, vegetables and sources of protein. Some of us find it hard to get enough variety or good quality food. The older fruit is, the more vitamin content it has lost. Apples may be grown in one hemisphere and shipped to the other, or warehoused for six months in cold storage. Unless your apple has been grown locally and recently, it’s just a ball of sugar.

Processed foods generally contain more filler (such as palm fat and dextrose) and less food, while processing methods can reduce nutrients. For instance extra-virgin olive oil, made from the first light pressings of the fruit, has more nutrients than the last drops of oil squeezed from the crushed olives, which can contain carcinogens produced by heat from friction with the olive stones. More information here.

People on medications may find uptake of nutrients from diet is blocked, while health conditions such as thyroid function loss, drain the body of nutrients and stop absorption. Anyone with a physically demanding job or sport will need more nutrients suited to their body’s running repairs. Expectant mothers have a double need for nutrients. Children and young adults are growing and laying down solid bone, while older people will begin to have brittle bones. We also need these nutrients to have a healthy, functioning immune system. More information here.

Supplements and multivitamins

Supplements and multivitamin and mineral tablets are a good answer for many people. If your diet seems to be healthy and balanced, you might not need any right now. But discoveries are being made in dietary health all the time, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for news. A deficiency in one nutrient may be enough to start health problems.

My advice is to buy supplements from a recognised brand, which assures good quality, from sustainable sources. Own-brand supplements can also be found in supermarkets, chemists and health food shops. Try to match the same type of ingredient (glucosamine sulphate instead of other kinds) and same amount (50mg instead of 15mg) as the bigger brands to see if you are really saving money.

Europe’s supplements are tightly regulated for content and advertising. This is not always the case in other countries as this recent post from America shows.



Organic vegetables
Organic vegetables

Vegetarians and vegans generally eat a wide range of plant foods and try to buy organic when possible. Vitamin B12 is not included in plant matter so this is especially required for vegans. Vitamin A comes in two forms, beta-carotene from plants and retinol from animals, and we need both for optimum health. More information here.

Folic acid

Expectant mothers are now urged to take folic acid, as this B vitamin is vital for healthy nerve development in the growing baby. The supplement prevents neural tube defects. Recent studies suggest the deficiency of folic acid may be linked to cleft palate. The medical profession advises women to take this supplement while trying to become pregnant. Folic acid is found in normal diets, but doctors want to be sure the mother has enough.  More information here.

Cranberry juice

Cranberry juice makes the urine more acidic, so inhospitable to bacteria which cause bladder infections. The downside is that taking cranberry juice after the urinary tract infection (UTI) sets in is too late, as it just makes the condition more painful. The juice needs to be imbibed regularly as prevention rather than cure. A woman is more likely to contract a UTI, especially if she has a lowered immune system. Cranberry extract supplements can be taken if drinking the juice isn’t convenient. The latest research finds that polyphenols and antioxidants in cranberries can promote heart health; while warning that cranberries may interact with medications such as warfarin, amoxillin and others. More information here. 

Vitamin D

Snack bowl of mixed nuts with books and laptop
Snack bowl of mixed nuts with books and laptop

Here in Ireland we don’t get enough sunshine, especially during winter. We tend to work indoors more than our ancestors, and those of us with fair skin tend to apply sunscreen on sunny days. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin, because our skin makes this vitamin on contact with sunlight. But our skin makes D1. This travels in the bloodstream to the kidneys, which convert it to D2. This is worked on by a parathyroid hormone, produced in the thyroid gland, and converted to D3. Only now is the vitamin able to help us absorb calcium from our diet. Calcium is found in traditional dairy products and fish, also in leafy greens. Vegetarians and anyone on a low fat diet may not get enough Vitamin D and calcium, because vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble. For this reason, a good Vitamin D supplement should come in an oil-based capsule, ideally cold-pressed olive oil or cod liver oil. Calcium and magnesium are what bones are composed of, and one supplement is made from oyster shell. Vitamin D also helps maintain a healthy immune system.

My husband Allan suffered early osteoporosis which caused fracturing of his hips without a fall. He ate dairy and fish but he worked indoors and did not get enough sun. His thyroid was also underactive. Once the cause of his severe hip pains was revealed by MRI scan, he was hospitalised and his blood was tested. He was found to have five percent of the Vitamin D level required. Accordingly Allan was placed on high-strength vitamin D capsules in cold-pressed olive oil, and calcium tablets, to strengthen his bones enough to be suitable for hip replacements. He is now recovering well from bilateral hip replacements and still taking calcium and vitamin D. Further information here.

Cod liver oil

Cod liver oil has been proven to repair the telomeres, which are protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes. As we go through life our chromosomes get damaged and shortened, so we age. Keeping the telomeres in good condition means we don’t age as quickly. More information here.   And here.

Cod liver oil also carries fat-soluble Vitamins A and D into the bloodstream.  Vitamin A helps to support our sight. These vitamins can also be gained by eating oily fish like sardines and salmon. The oil is good at helping joints. I have been taking cod liver oil capsules since I was a teenager.


Snack plate of fruit with books and laptop
Snack plate of fruit with books and laptop

I first saw lutein advertised for eye health on multivitamin tablets while I was in Arizona in 2002. Walgreens health store included it in their own brand tablets. The continuous strong sunlight made this a good choice. When I came home I asked my optometrist about lutein for eyes and he had never heard of it. I had to do my own research. These days we are looking at bright screens a lot of the time, and the retinas need protection from these as well.

Lutein is a xanthophyll found in yellow and orange fruit and vegetables like peppers, sweetcorn and oranges, and purple berries like blueberries. Lutein is used by the body to make the retinal surfaces more reflective, so excess light entering the eye is bounced back out and the retina does not get damaged. Blueberries also have a high content of anthocyanidins, which help to generate antioxidants. These protect the body against free radicals – damaging, volatile molecules with unpaired electrons, which may be familiar to you as the causes of cancers. They occur in the eye through sunlight radiation; as well as age-related macular degeneration they can cause cataracts in the lens. Ideally, enjoy blueberries on porridge or dessert. I do, and I regularly take a lutein supplement for my eyes. Further information here.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

Vegetables on a chopping board
Vegetables on a chopping board

Glucosamine, usually made from shellfish, helps to repair soft tissue and joint oil. As the joints are used the tissue gets worn away, especially in knees and hips which bear weight. Then the hard bone edges scrape off each other, which causes painful arthritis. When glucosamine is combined with chondroitin, which repairs cartilage, the connective tissues are much improved and the pain goes. Studies vary because they do not all test the same form of glucosamine. The most effective form is glucosamine sulphate. This was proven to work in sport horses. Horses ridden as showjumpers and eventers do severe impact work regularly and their knees often suffer, causing them to be reluctant to jump on hard ground. Many riders will only train on soft training surfaces for this reason, and they keep the horse on a low dose of butazoladin in the feed, allowed in eventing as a painkiller and inflammation reducer.  Horses are unable to be swayed by placebos or faith healers. Either their knees are sore or they are not. More information here.

Glucosamine was recommended to me by my doctor for very sore knees. I had worked outdoors all my life, cycled everywhere, rode horses daily, climbed trees. I had got to the stage where going up or down stairs hurt, bending my knees lying in bed hurt, and as I walked along the footpath I would automatically go for the dish in the kerb when I crossed a road. I started to feel a difference within a month and started combining the tablet with chondroitin, which I could feel sped up the repair work. I can safely say that if I did not take glucosamine regularly, with occasional additions of chondroitin, my joints would be in a much worse state and I would be on heavy painkillers. I would require knee replacements because the bones would have been damaged. I recently tried collagen tablets in place of my usual joint care, and this worked very well.


Snack bowl of nuts with books
Snack bowl of nuts with books

Biotin is another supplement that was tested on animals, and in horses it promotes healthy hoof growth and mane and tail growth. This is also called Vitamin B7 and it helps the body make energy as well as metabolising amino acids, the building blocks of protein. A protein called keratin makes up our hair and nails – and horses’ hooves, and rhino horn. While biotin is found in small quantities in foods like eggs, it’s water soluble and it’s easy not to get enough unless you eat eggs every day. More information here.

Don’t overdo it!

Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble, so taking too much can cause them to be stored in the liver. For this reason we are told not to overdo Vitamin A in particular; pets which are fed liver regularly can absorb too much A, which is toxic at high doses. More details here.

Vitamins B, C and other nutrients, like magnesium, are water soluble so if you don’t need it, it will wash though the body and be excreted. This is why it’s pointless to take expensive tablets if you don’t need them. Those working physically, or athletes, will need more supplementation, but should primarily take a good rounded diet, prepared by healthy cooking methods and not heavily processed.

Is there money in supplements?

Broccoli and asparagus
Broccoli and asparagus

Why are our diets lacking in nutrients which our bodies expect to use, and why is more not being done by the medical system to counter this? Do firms just want to make money selling supplements?

Organic farming uses natural compost and rich soil, but the minerals and compounds are leached out of the soil by growing plants and the movement of water through the soil. Cover crops such as clover are ploughed in to fix nitrogen and make compost, or animal manure and rejected vegetables are used to replace the nutrients naturally. Trees draw nutrients from deep soil and scatter them in leaves. Crop rotation means that different nutrients are taken up by different plants in succeeding years.

Modern agricultural methods use pellet fertiliser instead, made from synthetics, usually nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in differing proportions. Much of this is made from oil. More information here.  And here.  The field is not rested for a year, and trees are felled to make wider fields. We are essentially eating oil, and not just in terms of tractors, trucks and plastic packaging. If the nutrients are not in the soil they can’t be in the crop.  

Processing, storage and transport all reduce the nutrients once the crop is harvested.

Book cover: Orangutan by Rita Goldner
Book cover: Orangutan by Rita Goldner

Another issue is that palm fats are found in 50% of supermarket goods today. This is a cheap, bulky fat without the nutrients we would expect from other oils. For instance many nuts contain selenium and vitamin E, grass-fed dairy butter contains vitamins A, D and K, avocado oil contains vitamin E. But palm oil in almost all cases contains nothing but fat. Vast swathes of tropical rainforest are being destroyed to grow oil palm trees, eliminating wildlife habitat and killing half of all orangutans during the past thirty years. The consumer does not realise that their food, such as so-called dairy spreads, has fewer nutrients than in previous years. Learn more here. Palm oil gained popularity because it can be solid at room temperature and does not have to be hydrogenated, a process which made liquid fats solid but not digestible and linked them (trans fats, partly hydrogenated or hydrogenated fats)  to clogged arteries, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart conditions. More information here.

The medical / pharmaceutical industry spends a great deal of money on generating and trialling medications. What is most required is medications that can be patented. These make a great deal of money for the firm, which lasts until the patent expires, after which other firms can start to make that medication too. Some medications are for long term use, like asthma inhalers or arthritis pain relievers. The pharmaceutical industry can’t patent vitamins or minerals, and it doesn’t have an interest in curing asthma or arthritis. If few people got cancer, anti-cancer drugs would not be sold.

Health supplements do make money for firms, but not as much as prescribed medicine would, and taking supplements is voluntary, by informed people. Governments, Non Governmental Organisations like cancer charities, and healthfood companies have to do the advertising and education, aided by news media on the lookout for stories.

All photos (C) Clare O’Beara 2018.