Science casts doubt on the pills that claim to cure all ills

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Some claim to calm nerves, others promise to fight ageing. Few have any proof. Sarah Freeman reports on the rise of the health supplements.

Wind back 50 years and a swig of cod liver oil was about as close as most families came to a health supplement.

These days supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of pills promising to boost energy levels and reduce sleepless nights. Beside the usual vitamins A to D, extracts of everything from sea kelp to green tea and cayenne pepper have now been turned into tablets claiming a myriad of health benefits.

Pop a couple every day and your skin will be brighter, an erratic metabolism will be stabilised and liver function boosted – or at least that’s what the back of the bottle tells you.

However, recently doubts have been cast on the benefits of health supplements.

According to a report in The Lancet, latest research showed there was little reason to prescribe vitamin D supplements to healthy adults in the hope of reducing 
the risk of future diseases or fractures.

The study analysed the results of more than 100 trials and concluded there was no obvious benefit.

“People take supplements for all kinds of reasons. They want to boost vitality, limit the signs of ageing, extend life, cut the risk of chronic disease and treat specific ailments like arthritis,” says a spokesman for NHS Choices, which has carried out its own research into the supplements industry.

“Recent years have seen a massive boom in supplement use and products that were once the preserve of specialist food stores have become available alongside our groceries in the supermarket and on the internet.

“It’s not to say that they’re aren’t supplements which work, but the perceived benefits of many popular products have not been confirmed through research. The problem is once a supplement is taken by millions and sold everywhere from the chemist to the corner shop it’s unlikely that even a robust scientific study would put people off.

“However, while different supplements can vary in their effects, the one common impact they have is on your wallet. Take zinc, for example – although it has been found to have some benefits, you would need to take it for at least five months to reduce your chances of catching a cold, at a cost of around £35.”

The more the team probed the claims of many health supplements, the less convinced they became. Even echinacea, which many swear blind helps prevent colds, failed to deliver convincing scientific results.

Yet, despite the lack of evidence the industry seems resilient. While it took a bit of a knock during the economic downturn, there are signs it is thriving again and is worth in excess of £385m.

“In an ideal world we’d all get the vitamins and minerals we need from our diets,” says GP and nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer.

“But in reality, few achieve this, and our diet can change from one week to the next depending on different lifestyle factors.

“Even for those who consciously eat healthily, the nutritional content of food is depleted compared with how it was even a few decades ago. For example, the beneficial fatty acid content of meat and eggs is significantly lower in animals that have been intensively reared and an increase in refined grains has also seen a drop in B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and iron.

“We also know that there are growing numbers of children being diagnosed with rickets, which is associated with lack of vitamin D and osteoporosis, which can be linked to poor calcium intakes and supplements may well be helpful in those cases.”

While many medical professionals believe there is a place for supplements – women, for example are encouraged to take folic acid in the early stages of pregnancy – they also agree that it’s an industry surrounded in misconceptions.

“Mostly supplements are taken as an insurance policy, so people shouldn’t expect to experience radical changes in health, rather gradual changes over time,” says Dr Brewer. “It’s a common myth that ‘taking more will have a greater effect’. The body’s only able to take in what it needs; the remainder will either get passed out when you go to the toilet or will be stored in fat within the body. It’s really important not to exceed dosage recommendations as there can be adverse effects.

“Ultimately, supplements can only help with deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, they cannot cure other health problems, whether that be high blood pressure or heart disease, and they certainly can’t balance out an unhealthy habit like smoking.”