So, are health supplements a waste of money? With a multi-billion-dollar industry built around them, we’d all like to think that health supplements deliver on the promises that they offer.
In this article, we’ll explore whether or not health supplements actually work and how you can learn to be more selective in choosing your supplements.
We’ll look at examples including the vitamin supplement market, under-researched supplements, and some ‘supplements’ that are just plain wrong.
If you’re taking well-researched supplements in addition to a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle you should definitely see some great benefits.
First of All: Health Supplements Are Not Medicine!
Are health supplements a waste of money? Yes, if you treat them like you’d treat prescription medicine or a magic pill.
Health supplements are not medicine. By law, health supplements cannot be marketed as a being able to treat, diagnose or cure any disease or ailment.
For example, Green Tea Extract has the potential to help support and boost a healthy metabolism. This means that you can get some great health benefits from Green Tea Extract, and it may be beneficial to people who are looking to control their weight.
It doesn’t mean that Green Tea Extract is a ‘magic-bullet’ that will make you lose weight instantly. Our bodies are far too complicated for this. There are so many factors that contribute to the speed of your metabolism.
If you are overweight and taking Green Tea Extract, don’t expect to lose weight without first changing your diet and lifestyle (and taking any medicine prescribed by your doctor).
Health supplements are intended to supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle. They are not used as medicine. That being said, many well-researched supplements do have some great scientifically verified benefits.
Just don’t use them in the same way that you’d use prescription medication.
Vitamin Supplements – Waste of Time or Helpful?
The vitamin supplements market makes up a huge portion of the $37 billion supplements industry in the US alone.
They’ve been marketed for any number of reasons: vitamin A to improve your heart, vitamin C to ward off colds and flu, calcium supplements for your bones, the list goes on.
But do they actually work? A growing number of concerned scientists have been publishing more and more data, and the results aren’t what we expected.
Let’s take a look at a few examples below:
1. Vitamin A
A 1997 study, published in The Lancet, found that for 1862 men with coronary heart disease, taking vitamin A (B-Carotene) supplements actually increased their rate of death compared to placebo.
According to Dr. Michael LeFevre, of the US. Preventative Task Force, healthy adults should not be taking vitamin A or vitamin E supplements. The 16-member panel, who’ve examined all the existing data on vitamin A supplements, found that there is no evidence that B-Carotene supplements can prevent heart disease or cancer.
However, B-Carotene deficiency causes blindness in around 250’000 – 500’000 children every year, and tragically, almost half of them will die from the deficiency, according to the WHO.
This clearly indicates that Vitamin A is essential for optimum human health. However, if you already have enough Vitamin A in your diet, it’s unlikely that supplementing with more will be of any further use.
For this section, we’ll just look at one of the many studies that have found similar conclusions about the use of multivitamin supplements. You can find many, many similar articles on PubMed.
A recent long-term study looked into the effects of multivitamins in elderly women. Over 38’000 American women took part in the massive study, which was conducted over a 20-year period.
The average age of the participants was 61 years when the study began in 1986. Over 1997 and 2004 and 2008, results were taken.
The results were astounding. The use of multivitamin supplements was associated with a higher rate of morbidity – more women died in the group that was taking vitamin supplements than in the group that wasn’t!
Most importantly, iron supplements showed a dose-dependent risk of mortality. The higher the dose of iron supplements, the greater the risk was of dying. Calcium was the only vitamin supplement that slightly reduced the risk of death.
The massive study made sure to account for many possible increased risks of death, including being post-menopause, age, weight, race, blood pressure, the presence of any diseases, physical activity and smoking status.
However, the study did have its limitations. Some women developed cancer over the time period, which may have slight offset the results.
Also, the researchers were unable to say whether the use of multivitamin supplements increased the quality of life for those who took them.
Taking calcium supplements to help prevent bone fractures and improve bone density does not seem to be effective. This has been recorded in a number of studies, as reported in the <Telegraph>  and on <Healthline>.
Another important myth is that because milk contains calcium it is good for strengthening bones. Believe it or not, increased milk consumption does not do anything to protect your bones.
A long-term Swedish study on over 100’000 participants found that higher milk intake was related to more bone fractures and a higher morbidity rate.
A 2005 meta-analysis review found that cow’s milk had no beneficial effect on children’s bone density.
This was backed by a previous 18-year long study on over 72’000 women which found that milk and calcium supplements did not improve bone density or reduce the risk of bone fractures. However, vitamin D supplements appeared to have a slight beneficial effect.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - a group of over 10’000 practicing physicians - consuming dairy products poses serious health risks. Women who drink three or more glasses of milk a day have a 60% increased risk of hip fracture.
Overall, consuming more than the daily recommended dosage of 1000mg of calcium has no benefits on your health.
This amount can be easily obtained through fruits, grains, and vegetables.
So, Does That Mean You Shouldn’t Take Vitamin Supplements?
Vitamin supplements are sometimes beneficial and necessary for people who have a vitamin deficiency. If you think you have a vitamin deficiency, speak to your doctor.
Beta-carotene is a necessary and life-saving supplement for many vitamin A deficient children around the world.
Remember, health and vitamin supplements are not prescription medications. They are intended to supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle, not to treat or cure diseases.
In the case of vitamins, they’re only really beneficial if you have a vitamin deficiency.
Under-Researched and Scientifically Verified to Not Work
A few supplements have been scientifically proven to have no beneficial effects whatsoever. Some are used in traditional medicine and some are far more common. There isn’t actually a comprehensive list of substances that are marketed as supplements that don’t work.
You can make sure that your supplement is worthwhile by purchasing from a reputable vendor with a well-researched catalog. Ideally, you’ll want to read through a thoroughly researched and well-referenced product description before purchasing a health supplement.
Let’s look at two groups of substances that are marketed as supplements:
1. Fish Oil Supplements
Fish oil supplements are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. The oversimplification of how fatty acids work in your body has resulted in a boom in fish oil supplements.
Western diets are extremely high in Omega-6, which is found in processed foods and vegetable oils.
The ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 is very important in maintaining healthy levels of homocysteine in your body. High levels of homocysteine correspond to increased risks of developing heart disease and stroke.
A diet that is high in Omega-6 and low in Omega-3 (like most Western diets) increases the concentration of homocysteine in your body. This increases your risk of developing heart disease and cancer.
By swaying the Omega-3 / Omega-6 ratio, you’re able to reduce the levels of homocysteine in your body. However, your homocysteine levels are not the only thing that can increase your risks of heart disease and cancer.
Consuming a diet that is rich in processed foods significantly increases your risk of developing heart disease.
As does smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and alcohol and drug consumption.
There’s also a myriad of genetic and environmental factors, as well as other diseases that can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease.
Animal-derived omega-3 sources may increase your LDL-cholesterol levels and may contain a host of potentially health-damaging products. LDL-cholesterol significantly increases your risk of heart disease.
An excerpt from a recent meta-analysis of all studies looking into the benefits of Omega-3 supplements:
"Except for plant sources (e.g., soybeans, walnuts, and canola oil, which contain ALA), all contain a mixture of EPA and DHA, but may also include saturated fats, other lipids, and potentially harmful ingredients" (Fialkow, 2016) 
There is growing evidence that Omega-3 supplements are beneficial in reducing triglycerides and some forms of cholesterol. If you'd like to try an Omega-3 supplement for helping to maintain healthy fatty acid levels, we'd definitely recommend taking krill oil or plant-based Omega-3 sources over fish oil.
2. Rhino Horn and Endangered Wildlife
The scourge of rhino poaching in Southern Africa is directly related to consumer demands for these products in China and Vietnam.
Rhino horn is comprised entirely of keratin. The hair on your head, as well as your finger- and toenails are made of keratin. It has no beneficial effects whatsoever, whether ground up, boiled, chewed or snorted.
However, the demand for rhino horn has not stopped increasing even with this information. It is now one of the most expensive illegally traded commodities on Earth, with one kilo of rhino horn having a street value upwards of $300’000.
Other animal parts that are used in certain forms of traditional medicine and taken as supplements include tiger’s teeth, elephant tusks, and deer musk. None of these animal products have any beneficial effects.
Don’t Despair! Some Supplements Do Work
Despite the over-marketing of under-researched products, some supplements are actually very beneficial. The effects of well-researched supplements are always felt better when they’re taken in addition to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
We cannot overstate the importance of choosing to buy your supplements from a reputable vendor with well-researched product descriptions. Once you find a vendor who sells only thoroughly researched supplements, you won’t need to worry about whether health supplements are a waste of time.
Below we’ll outline three of our favorite health supplements with loads of well-conducted research behind them to show that they actually do work.
1. Berberine HCl
Berberine HCl is an amazing health supplement with a great number of benefits.
A growing number of studies have pointed to its potential benefits in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation factors.
One 3-month study, published in 2008, was conducted on 36 adults with type 2 diabetes. The results showed that berberine was as effective at reducing blood sugar levels as a common hypoglycemic agent.
Over the 3-month clinical trial, blood glucose, triglycerides (cholesterol), and hemoglobin A1c (an inflammation marker) all decreased significantly.
Another study, published in 2004, looked into Berberine’s effects on cholesterol. 32 patients with clinically high cholesterol levels were given Berberine over a 3-month period. Triglycerides were reduced by an average of 32%, total cholesterol by 29% and LDL-cholesterol by 25%.
The growing interest in Berberine’s effects prompted scientists in 2015 to published a meta-analysis of all the studies to date on Berberine’s effects in humans.
Researchers sorted through the data from 27 clinical trials, with a total of over 2500 patients. Across the board, berberine was found to have significant effects reducing inflammation markers (HbA1c), blood sugar, and cholesterol. No serious adverse effects were found in any of the studies.
Please note that although the studies referred to above provide compelling data for Berberine’s potential health benefits, Berberine is sold strictly as a health supplement. It is not intended to cure, treat or diagnose any disease or ailment.
2. Green Tea Extract
Green tea is known to many as the healthiest drink on Earth. Green tea contains a number of compounds – namely, catechins, polyphenols, and EGCG – which have been scientifically proven to have beneficial effects.
Green Tea Extract helps your body to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, works as a powerful antioxidant and may help to maintain a healthy weight.
In a recently published journal article, scientists examined the effects of Green Tea Extract on how your body burns fat. In two separate studies, the researchers found that fat oxidation rates for the participants who took Green Tea Extract were an average of 17% higher than in the control groups.
Another review found that Green Tea Extract may have the potential to help support a healthy circulatory system and metabolism.
According to the authors, there was a dose-dependent relationship between the amount of green tea drunk and the health of the participant’s circulatory systems and metabolisms.
These effects were only seen for people who drank an average of 5-6 cups of green tea per day. However, by taking a powerful Green Tea Extract supplement, you’ll only need to take one dose per day.
The most important health-promoting aspect of Green Tea Extract is its ability to reduce the negative effects of free-radicals. Green Tea Extract is one of the most potent antioxidants available.
This means that it helps to destroy dangerous free-radicals, which can cause something called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress increases your risk of developing a number of diseases.
Please note that although the studies referred to above provide compelling data for Green Tea Extract’s potential health benefits, it is sold strictly as a health supplement. It is not intended to cure, treat or diagnose any disease or ailment.
L-Theanine is another component of tea and a nonessential amino acid. It’s also found in some mushrooms. L-Theanine has been scientifically verified to have a number of great benefits for healthy people.
Firstly, L-Theanine is a calming and relaxing substance. A 2008 study found that L-Theanine increased alpha brain-waves, which are markers of relaxation, calmness, and attentiveness.
Secondly, a growing number of studies are indicating L-Theanine’s ability to improve mood and reduce feelings of stress. One study was conducted on 20 patients with Major Depressive Disorder, over 8 weeks. The study found that L-Theanine had multiple benefits, including improved cognition and reduced feelings of stress.
The above study was an open-label study, meaning that the participants knew that they were receiving L-Theanine. So, to review the result, scientists tried a new experiment in 2016. This was a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover study (the best you can get).
Neither the researchers nor the 34 participants knew who was getting what until the results were analyzed. Again, the results showed found significant reductions in the feelings of stress for the people who received L-Theanine.
Thirdly, scientists have found that combining L-Theanine with caffeine has some great benefits. The combination appears to improve cognitive performance, memory, and relaxation. L-Theanine is also able to reduce some of the negative effects of caffeine, including anxiety and restlessness.
Please note that although the studies referred to above provide compelling data for L-Theanine’s potential health benefits, it is sold strictly as a health supplement. It is not intended to cure, treat or diagnose any disease or ailment.
So, are health supplements a waste of money or not? Well, let’s just say “it’s complicated”. We’ve looked at some supplements that have been proven to have no benefits at all. But then we’ve also found some supplements with large pools of data showing how beneficial they are.
Are health supplements a waste of money? Not if you buy them from a reputable vendor. Finding a supplements vendor who sells only -researched supplements and freely provides lots of referenced information about them greatly reduces your risk of being duped.
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