Supplements made easy: how to work out which ones are best for you.
9 min read
When you’re looking to support a particular health goal with vitamins, such as immune function, energy, cognitive function, sleep or beauty, the world of supplements can feel like a minefield of confusing jargon to try to navigate.
From the dosage, form and the manufacture of them, to the quality and the absorption of the ingredients and their health claims, there’s an overwhelming choice of vitamins and minerals on the market. Trying to figure out which vitamins are the right one for your needs in a confusing market can prevent you ever embarking on a vitamin routine.
But don’t let the industry jargon deter you. This article simplifies the world of supplements to help you understand why our bodies need daily vitamin and mineral support, and the vital role they play in our biology, whilst helping you decide which ones best suit your needs.
Why do you need supplements?
In an ideal world, we’d be able to obtain all the nutrition we need from food. Food always comes first. Nutrition is the foundation for creating new cells and hormones in the body, and your body can only use what you give it. Not only are you a result of what you eat but also what you absorb.
We all know that supplements are in no way a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet, but very few of us are lucky enough to get all our body's nutrients from food alone. We often need an extra helping hand to complement our nutrition, especially when leading a busy, fast-paced lifestyle where cooking a daily nutritious meal can be challenging.
It is not always easy to get freshly made organic foods bursting with nutrition. Sometimes we are left with no choice but to consume food with questionable nutrition content such as packaged, ready-made or processed plane food when we’re travelling.
Supplements provide a concentrated source of nutrients that we can consume in addition to a healthy diet to provide our body with vital substances that may otherwise be lacking.
You can think of supplements as an ‘insurance policy’ for the days when you are on the go and too busy to eat all of your recommended servings of fruit and vegetables.
There is an extensive list of nutrients to consider taking from vitamins, minerals, herbal botanicals to live bacteria cultures and enzymes. The first step to knowing which supplement is right for you is defining your goal and current nutrients that may be lacking in your lifestyle.
What micronutrients does your body need and what can’t it make itself?
Although your body makes many of the nutrients it needs to carry out its functions (known as non-essential nutrients), some nutrients can’t be made rapidly enough, or at all, to meet daily needs. These are called essential nutrients, and they must be obtained from outside sources such as our diet or supplements.
Whereas the body can create vitamin D (from sunlight) and vitamin A (from consuming enough orange coloured vegetables) it can’t produce the nutrients; Omega 3 essential fatty acids, B vitamins, Vitamin C and E, and minerals.
In addition, your body needs minerals to function properly, which it can’t produce. There are 16 essential minerals that optimum nutrition requires. Firstly, ‘macro minerals’; sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and sulphur, are needed in larger amounts by the body.
Secondly ‘trace minerals’; Iron, Zinc, selenium, copper, fluoride, chromium, molybdenum and manganese are needed in smaller amounts. Minerals are often known as electrolytes as they help regulate nerve and muscle function and maintain water balance.
Now that we know what micronutrients are, the next hurdle is understanding what our bodies need depending on what goal we are trying to achieve.
Best supplements for skin
It’s true that your skin is one of the best indications of your overall health, so if you are suffering from dry, dull or problematic skin, your diet may have a role to play in this.
The vitamin C glow is real! This is because it plays a vital role in the body’s natural collagen synthesis.¹ In addition to this, vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is one of the most potent antioxidants and helps fight against free radicals, our skin is exposed to every day.
You can definitely get vitamin C from your diet - rich sources include bell peppers, kiwi and citrus fruits. However, if you find you are not eating your 5-a-day every day, a supplement may be a good back up.
One of the most interesting and upcoming areas of research is the role our gut microbiome has to play in relating to skin health. If your skin concern is related to eczema or acne, then a supplement containing live bacteria is one to consider adding to your daily regime.
One study assessing the efficacy of the lactobacillus bacterial strain in 230 subjects with eczema found a greater reduction in the severity of the condition and symptoms compared to placebo.²
Zinc is one of the essential minerals to our body that is sometimes overlooked. Most commonly found in milk, red meat, and cashews, zinc is a nutrient that many people are borderline deficient in. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) found that 7% of men and 8% of women were found to have intakes of zinc below than the lower reference nutrient intake.³
We know that acne is a multifaceted condition, but some evidence suggests that taking a zinc supplement can improve acne compared to a placebo. For example, in a double-blind investigation of 54 patients suffering from acne, the effect of 0.6 g of oral zinc sulphate daily versus placebo was studied. During the active treatment period of 6 weeks, the acne improved by about one-third, as rated with a score system.⁴
Immune support supplements
Public Health England recommends that everyone should supplement with 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily. This is because you may not be getting enough vitamin D from sunlight, particularly during the winter months.⁵ This is particularly important in the current climate as vitamin D plays a pivotal role in immunity.
There have been multiple cross-sectional studies associating lower vitamin D levels with increased infection. One report studied almost 19,000 subjects between 1988 and 1994. Individuals with lower vitamin D levels (<30 ng/ml) were more likely to self-report a recent upper respiratory tract infection than those with sufficient levels, even after adjusting for variables including season, age, gender, body mass and race.⁶
It is no secret that vitamin C is crucial for the immune system’s normal function. Vitamin C supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens and promotes the oxidant scavenging activity of the skin, thereby potentially protecting against environmental oxidative stress.
Vitamin C promotes healthy immune function in various ways; in particular, it promotes killing microbes by increasing the number of fighter cells within our body.⁷
Energy and performance supplements
B Vitamins is an umbrella term given to a group of 8 water-soluble vitamins. There are several different ways B vitamins play a role in energy and performance. For example, biotin contributes to the normal metabolism of the foods we eat. At the same time, vitamin B2 reduces tiredness and fatigue by actively playing a direct role in converting foods we eat into ATP (the body’s energy molecule).
It’s no secret that caffeine is a natural stimulant and helps us all get a spring in our step in the morning. Guarana is a plant naturally rich in caffeine and for this reason may be an excellent addition to your supplement regime if you need some help in the energy department.
One study assessing the effects of Guarana on breast cancer patients found that 50mg of Guarana twice daily helped improve fatigue over a 21 day period.⁸
Relaxation and sleep supplements
Research indicates supplemental Magnesium (Magnesium citrate) can improve sleep quality, especially in people with poor sleep. Magnesium can help insomnia that's linked to the sleep disorder restless-leg syndrome as well as stress reduction and mood stabilization. Magnesium increases GABA, which encourages relaxation as well as sleep.⁹
The body makes 5-HTP from the amino acid tryptophan, which is then changed into the neurotransmitter known as serotonin. Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ and is also involved in sleep induction as it is a precursor to melatonin, the primary hormone involved in sleep.
The effects on sleep of increasing brain serotonin with 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), the immediate precursor of serotonin, were studied on twelve normal subjects. In each subject, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep increased from 5 to 53% of placebo baseline.¹⁰
The simple act of drinking herbal tea before bed can certainly help you nod off and mentally prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
A study of 80 women with poor sleep quality evaluated the effects of chamomile tea on sleep quality. Compared with the control group, the experimental group demonstrated significantly lower scores of physical symptoms related sleep inefficiency.¹¹
Gut health supplements
A positively diverse gut microbiome is key to digestive health - the type and number of friendly bacteria have a significant impact on your gut health as well as your overall health.
A meta-analysis of 20 randomised control trials, including 1404 subjects found an improvement in IBS symptoms with the administration of friendly bacteria. Although the exact mechanisms of how these mighty bacteria work are still being studied, the proposed mechanisms of actions include stabilising the intestinal barrier function and decreasing gut inflammatory markers.¹²
5 great advantages of taking vitamins and food supplements
- We're easily able to manipulate our nutrient intake, knowing exactly how much we are taking; however, supplements should not be used in place of food.
- We can use nutrients in isolation for a specific reason which is impossible to do when relying solely on food.
- We can take a larger dose of a nutrient without having to eat a meal - some supplements are suitable for taking on an empty stomach.
- They are compact, allowing us the flexibility to carry them in our bag rather than the original food source, e.g. one dose of Vitamin C, 125mg provides the same amount of Vitamin C as in 5 oranges. Few would want to carry 5 oranges, let alone eat them at once.
- You can carry supplements through airports and abroad when you may not be able to transport therapeutic foods. Not many countries let you take food across the border. How do we know the quality of the food we may find on the other side?
It’s not what you take; it’s what you absorb that matters.
Remember, not all supplements are equal. It’s not what you consume that’s important but what your body absorbs.
There is a massive difference in the way vitamins are produced, and the nutrient forms used. Some lower quality supplements may provide nutrients in less absorbable forms which have lower efficacy. Whereas, premium-quality supplements provide nutrients that are most useful to the body and easily absorbed and guarantee the nutrient quality at the end of the shelf life.
JetFuel takes great pride in the fact that our supplements absorb within 30 minutes of taking them, compared to hours in the case of some other capsules.