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7 health supplements that actually work

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There’s a vitamin and mineral supplement for almost every ailment and deficiency in life. And we mean every deficiency. Sure, there are iron supplements for individuals suffering from anemia, but there are also supplements that are guaranteed to improve your hair, your skin, and even your mood.

Women, who aren’t pregnant, are now taking pre-natal supplements – because Gwyneth Paltrow has said they can assist people suffering from luscious hair-deficiency or glowing skin-deficiency. (They’re real conditions. Just ask your doctor.)

But with so many varieties of vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones are backed up by science; and which are nothing more than snake oil. For readers who need more than a catchy tagline promising better health and a better YOU, we’ve done the investigating so you know which supplements you can rely on. Here they are:

1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is like the kale of the supplements world at the moment: everyone is talking about it, and people who have been converted to the Vitamin D camp see it as a cure-all for many ailments. Vitamin D performs some pretty essential functions in the human body. It is needed to help absorb calcium (one of the body’s key building blocks); the immune system uses vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses; nerves use it to carry messages between the brain and the body; and muscles need it to move.

Dr. Rosemary Stanton, a leading Australian nutritionist, says that Vitamin D supplements can be useful for individuals who don’t get out in the sun very often and have trouble absorbing the vitamin.

“Vitamin D is needed by those who do not get into the sun – usually the frail and aged, but also people with dark skin (who need much more time in the sun to absorb vitamin D compared with those with fair skin), small children or anyone who never gets outside,” she says.

Dr Stanton notes that, “For those who can get some sunlight on their skin – an average of about 10-15 minutes/day exposure of arms to sun in summer and 20-30 minutes in winter – vitamin D supplements should not be required.”

2. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells happy, and also helps prevent a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia – which makes people feel weak and tired.

Dr Ginni Mansberg (also known as the Sunrise and Morning Show GP) says that for people suffering from a specific B12 deficiency – which is more common among vegans and vegetarians – a B12 supplement can improve health.

Dr Rosemary Stanton agrees, saying, “Vegans need a vitamin B12 supplement. This vitamin is found only in animal foods – meat, fish, chicken, milk, cheese and yoghurt.” She also notes that, “The frail aged often need vitamin B12 because absorption may decreases in the very old.”

3. Magnesium

Magnesium is a big player in the human body, although you may not have noticed it on your supermarket shelves in the health aisle. It is involved in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood pressure regulation and blood glucose control. It also plays a role in muscle contraction and maintaining a normal heart rhythm.

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Dr Ginni Mansberg recommends people look into taking a magnesium supplement – despite the fact that more research still needs to be done into the specific benefits of magnesium supplements – because many Australians have insufficient magnesium due to a packaged diet of pre-made and highly processed foods. More importantly, unlike many vitamins and minerals, there is “no such thing as a magnesium overdose”.

“If you did want to take a magnesium, talk to your chemist about the right one,” Dr Ginni recommends. “There are some forms that I think make a lot of sense, particularly if you are someone who has quite a packaged diet.”

4. Fish Oil

Which health supplements actually work
Fish oil supplement. Image via Wikipedia

Fish oil supplements – which are taken to get the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – are usually taken for heart and blood conditions. Some people take them to lower their blood pressure or triglyceride levels (these are the fats related to cholesterol).

Some small studies have shown that fish oil is an effective treatment for people with high blood triglyceride levels, and can provide a benefit in coronary heart disease prevention. (It should also be noted that fish oil supplements, like burnt toast, have been linked to cancer.)

However, Dr Ginni says that while fish oil has been linked to the prevention of heart disease, improvement of mental health, and better pregnancy outcomes – we don’t yet have the data to say whether or not these are proven benefits of taking the supplement.

So whom does fish oil definitely benefit? Dr Rosemary Stanton says that it has benefits for people suffering from “rheumatoid arthritis and mothers who are breastfeeding babies born prematurely.”

5. Iron

Iron is a fairly important mineral that assists with various bodily functions, such as the transport of oxygen in the blood. Red meat is one of the best sources of iron, which is why many vegetarians take an iron supplement.

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Dr Ginni Mansberg recommends taking an iron supplement if you have a specific deficiency – which you can easily find out by visiting your doctor and getting a blood test. Dr Rosemary Stanton agrees.

“Iron deficiency can occur in people who have a poor diet, but also in those who have undiagnosed coeliac disease,” she says. “Poor diet may also occur in some girls or women who eat a junk-food diet with or without red meat. However, there is no more likelihood of being iron deficient on a well-balanced vego diet than on a diet that contains red meat.”

A lot of people take iron supplements when they’re feeling a bit run down, because they think it will make them feel less tired – however, this is not necessarily a good idea. Too much iron can be toxic, lead to bowel problems, or even a condition called haemochromatosis. Ironically, a symptom of haemochromatosis (which affects about 1 in every 250 people) is tiredness.

6. Folate

Folic acid supplements are one of the few on this list that are not contentious at all. In fact, some sources recommend that all women who are of an age where they might have children be taking extra folate, as almost half of pregnancies are unplanned.

Folate (or folic acid) is a vitamin that is essential for healthy foetal development, which prevents neural tube defects including spina bifida.

Dr Ginni says, “Folic acid is normally found in green leafy vegetables, and things like that. But a lot of Australians don’t get enough green vegetables, and so don’t have enough folic acid.”

She recommends all pregnant women take folic acid supplements, but notes that, “Ironically the women who are most likely to take folic acid supplements are probably the ones who have enough folic acid in their diet. And the ones who can’t afford the supplements, are the ones who need it most.”

Dr Rosemary Stanton says, that folic acid “is recommended for women who may fall pregnant and do not have a good diet - which is most!”

7. Iodine

Iodine is another trace element that is important during pregnancy, and also hormone development. A lack of iodine can cause an enlarged thyroid gland or other deficiency disorders. Pregnant women need higher levels of iodine, as a deficiency can cause mental retardation in children.

“Iodine is needed during pregnancy to ensure adequate levels in the baby,” Dr Rosemary Stanton says. “For children and adults who aren't pregnant, the mandatory use of iodised salt in bread has provided enough iodine, but many pregnant women don't get adequate levels from their food.”

Dr Ginni Mansberg says that maintaining iodine is important from “pregnancy to breastfeeding”.

Do you take any supplements not on this list? Why do you take them, and have you noticed any improvements in your health?