There’s considerable controversy over whether we should be taking supplements. It has long been believed that taking a daily multivitamin will stave off a whole host of chronic diseases.
Why some people believe in the benefits of supplements
In the ‘yes’ camp, we have had years of recommendations from the medical community, and the common-sense idea that we likely aren’t getting a complete set of vitamins and minerals from our diet and can supplement in our deficiencies.
Why some people do not believe in the benefits of supplements
On team ‘no’, there were numerous studies that were published in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 2013 addressing whether supplements had an impact on chronic disease. The first study looked at 400,000 people in order to update recommendations for the US Preventative Services Task Force and found no link between supplements and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality; and the second study looked at nearly 6,000 men over 65 years old and found no link between a multivitamin and cognitive performance and verbal memory. These studies are just part of a growing body of evidence that for people without specific micronutrient deficiencies (most of us in developed countries), supplements are not effective.
That being said, in a recent Gimlet Media podcast on this topic, one of the researchers thus far has found little effect of taking Omega-3 supplements on human brain function was still taking Omega-3s because “the downsides are small”. What he’s saying is that we don’t know yet whether supplements are effective at preventing certain things. Vitamins and minerals are in our food and water so it’s challenging for researchers to isolate them.
Why living in Hong Kong may influence the need for supplements
So, what should we be doing? Should certain populations be taking or not taking supplements? We spoke to HK-based naturopathic doctor, Dr. Benita Perch about whether her opinion on whether we should be taking supplements.
Should the general population in Hong Kong be taking supplements?
A lot depends upon a person’s environment, their access to quality foods, what they actually eat and their genetic predisposition; an emerging field known as epigenetics.
In Hong Kong, as we live in a polluted city and environment, with less access to nutrient-rich foods, with added factors such as high stress, then yes, my experience is that people here generally need more support than in some other countries.
To protect our bodies from the pollution, in our air, water and homes, our need for antioxidants is higher. We also need certain vitamins and minerals that support the day-to-day detoxification processes in the body to eliminate harmful chemicals. Examples include certain forms of absorbable magnesium, zinc and B vitamins.
An added challenge we face in Hong Kong is that many foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish tend to be of poor quality. This could be from toxicity – the addition of pesticides or chemicals to the foods, or the loss of nutrients from imported foods during transportation.
Even if people have access to good quality foods, I find that increasingly many people still are not eating a healthy diet. This could be for lots of reasons – a general lifestyle trend to more processed, convenience foods containing more sugar; misinformation about what a healthy diet really is; higher levels of stress and poor sleep.
Aside from poor food choices, and higher alcohol consumption stress also has other implications on the body, such as weakened digestion or immunity. Carefully prescribed herbs and supplements can support the body in times of stress, including the nervous system and the hormones. Of course we advocate lifestyle changes where possible, but we also have to work with the reality of the client’s situation and give their systems some immediate support.
Another common issue in Hong Kong is many people are Vitamin D deficient. Some research suggests up to 60%. Working indoors, tinted windows and avoiding sun exposure including using sunscreen are the main reasons. It is very difficult to get enough vitamin D through diet alone and a good quality vitamin D supplement can help.
In summary, there are several reasons why I would recommend supplements in Hong Kong: high pollution levels in the air, the water and our homes; lower food quality, such as foods containing less nutrients and/or more toxins; high stress and fast paced living; over-use of antibiotics and other medications; lack of exposure to sunlight.
Are there any specific populations you would recommend taking supplements?
For all of these reasons and more, from my clinical practice I have found that in Hong Kong most people, even those who are on an impeccable diet, need the support of a good quality multivitamin, an omega 3 or fish oil, probiotics and vitamin D. That said, everyone is different, and there are so many factors that are influencing an individual’s health. Rather than guess, and potentially waste a lot of money on unnecessary supplements, my advice would be for people to be assessed and tested to see what specific supplements they actually need. Then it is better to invest their money on fewer, targeted high-quality supplements that are potent and pure. In the market, especially Hong Kong, there is a huge variance on the quality and efficacy of supplements as well.
Specific populations who may need even more support include:
- Premature babies
- Children who are getting sick often and may be in a cycle of antibiotics, or showing signs of allergies, such as asthma or eczema.
- The elderly
- People suffering from stress – be it mentally or physically
- Pregnant women and couples planning to conceive
- People who have a chronic illness and are on medications that may be nutrient depleting
It’s especially important for people in these more vulnerable groups to receive targeted support by a qualified professional, who can understand their medical history, including current medications and responsibly prescribe supplements or herbs that are safe.
There are also some people who, from their genetic predisposition need more support for a process called methylation. This has an impact on many different biochemical reactions in the body affecting the regulation of the cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive and detoxification systems. There are so many critical functions which depend on effective methylation, such as repairing DNA, fighting infections and eliminating toxins to name a few. People can have a simple test to find out more about their methylation cycle, including specific enzymes that are affected by your genetic makeup.