By Ore Taiwo Makinde
Nutritional supplements are all over the market, especially in this pandemic season. Also known as food, dietary or herbal supplements, many of such products are being ingested by several people with the intent of boosting their immunity against illness.
The Greek Physician, Hippocrates authored a great quote, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. However, sometimes it seems like everyone is looking for something in a pill or bottle to take the place of food.
What is a dietary supplement? According to the Webster dictionary, it refers to a product taken orally that contains one or more ingredients that are intended to enhance ones’ diet. The major content of supplements are vitamins and minerals such as folic acid, zinc, calcium, magnesium, iodine, iron, and amino acids. Most cereals, beverages and even salt are fortified with supplements.
There are several reasons why physicians prescribe such supplements, but it certainly becomes worrisome when sick patients opt for such supplements in place of medication. Recently, someone called my attention to the fact that a relation abandoned the use of his blood pressure medication for a supplement, the brand name of which I would hesitate to disclose. This was sadly the beginning of the decline in the health of this individual.
In a period when everyone is combing the market for supplements and even willing to pay millions for unverified products, here are a few tips to keep in mind so as not to make avoidable mistakes by way of purchase or ingestion:
- Nutritional supplements are not food substitutes. It is impossible for one or two pills to contain all food nutrients, particularly fruits and vegetables. Even when some of these food nutrients are swallowed in a pill, the effects on the body cells are different. Studies, for example, show that dietary calcium, potassium, and magnesium play a dynamic role in lowering or controlling blood pressure, but researchers observed that consuming these elements in a pill or bottle did not confer the same effect. Another example is fibre, which found in whole grains and plants protects against heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. You cannot get this in a supplement.
- Nutritional supplements are not for everyone. In so far as your daily diet covers a wide variety of nutrients, you are very unlikely to need a food supplement. However, there are certain categories of people who would get this recommendation from their physicians. This includes pregnant women, those with bleeding disorders, older adults especially age 65 and above, vegetarians who eat limited food types, patients with medical conditions like food intolerance and patients who have undergone stomach or bowel surgery that limits their absorption of certain nutrients.
- Nutritional supplements cannot replace medication or drug treatment. I have observed that several persons would rather prefer to swallow a supplement than medication because of the notion that it is a chemical whereas the food supplement is herbal. Both nutritional supplements and drugs used in treatment go through similar processes to ensure the active ingredients are within the expected dosages. Some excipients may be added to stabilise the medication. However, many of these medications including antimalarials and some antibiotics are manufactured from plants and trees.
- Nutritional supplements can be over-dosed. Food or dietary supplements are also known to cause side-effects especially when taken in high doses. I have seen some patients taking up to two or three supplements at a time at the instance of a friend or health worker. For example, an overdose of iron could have harmful effects on the liver whereas an overdose of vitamin K could result in haemolysis (blood loss). Excess vitamin A is known to cause headaches, but you are unlikely to get the same effect from eating a lot of carrots which also contain vitamin A.
- Nutritional supplements are regulated to protect the populace from unverified claims. Virtually all nutritional supplements are marketed as immune boosters. Foods are important to sustain our immunity and persons living in poverty are likely to become malnourished due to lack of good food, putting them at risk of ill-health. It, therefore, follows that the food supplement would help boost the immunity of such persons. However, more health claims now surround these supplements misleading sick persons to abandon their prescribed medication. The Federal Government through regulatory bodies such as NAFDAC and FDA has instructed certain words to be inscribed on their labels. Please always be in the lookout for this statement: These products are not medicines and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please note that these products can also be withdrawn by regulatory bodies if the regulations are violated.
In conclusion, nutritional supplements may play a role in boosting the immunity of certain individuals. However, a healthy lifestyle is in fact what determines how strong our immune system will become. Activities such as regular physical activity, consumption of fruits and vegetables, adequate sleep quality and duration, avoidance of hard drugs or substances, social connectedness and stress management cannot be bargained to ensure a great immunity.
Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is a Consultant Family Physician and certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.
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