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Are Health Supplements a Waste of Money?

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.

health supplements natural table Health supplements are often derived from natural sources. This doesn't mean that they don't work, it just means you shouldn't treat them like medicine

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.[1]

For example, Green Tea Extract has the potential to help support and boost a healthy metabolism.[2] 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.

woman holding green tea extract smoothie Green Tea Extract helps support a healthy metabolism

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.[3]

Multivitamin supplements over fruit Multivitamin supplements offer a host of potential health benefits

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.[4]

vitamins carrots Carrots are a great source of vitamin A

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

 

2.     Multivitamins

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.

elderly woman in wheelchair Unfortunately, it seems that multivitamins do not improve life expectancy

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.

two elderly women enjoying lunch Researchers couldn't say whether or not the multivitamin supplements improved quality of life

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.[7]

 

3.     Calcium

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> [8] and on <Healthline>.[9]

food sources of calcium Common food sources of calcium

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.[10]

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.[11]

A 2005 meta-analysis review found that cow’s milk had no beneficial effect on children’s bone density.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

Overall, consuming more than the daily recommended dosage of 1000mg of calcium has no benefits on your health.[15]

This amount can be easily obtained through fruits, grains, and vegetables.[16]

So, Does That Mean You Shouldn’t Take Vitamin Supplements?

Pretty girl pouring fruit smoothie No vitamins? Really?

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.

Anemia is the most common disease caused by a vitamin deficiency (iron).[17] Vegans and vegetarians should supplement with extra vitamin B12.[18]

Beta-carotene is a necessary and life-saving supplement for many vitamin A deficient children around the world.[19]

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.[20]

Under-Researched and Scientifically Verified to Not Work

woman with protein shake eating a spoonful of supplements Some supplements just don't 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.[21]

woman taking fish oil supplement Omega-3 is important for promoting a healthy body

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.[22]

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.[23]

By swaying the Omega-3 / Omega-6 ratio, you’re able to reduce the levels of homocysteine in your body.[24] 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.[25]

As does smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and alcohol and drug consumption.[26]

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.[27]

Animal-derived omega-3 sources may increase your LDL-cholesterol levels and may contain a host of potentially health-damaging products.[28] LDL-cholesterol significantly increases your risk of heart disease.[29]

fish oil supplements Fish oil supplements contain Omega-3

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) [47]

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.[30]

 

2.     Rhino Horn and Endangered Wildlife

The African rhino 150 years ago there were millions of rhino in the world. Today there are less than 30'000.

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.[31]

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.[32]

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.[33]

Don’t Despair! Some Supplements Do Work

anemic woman, upset Don't worry! 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.

berberine HCl, Liftmode health supplements Liftmode's Berberine HCl 200 grams, 98+% purity

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.[34]

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%.[35]

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.[36]

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.[37]

Green Tea Extract helps your body to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, works as a powerful antioxidant and may help to maintain a healthy weight.[38]

Best antioxidant and anti-inflammatory supplements Liftmode's Green tea extract, high purity polyphenols and EGCG

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.[39]

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.[40]

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.[41]

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.

 

3.     L-Theanine

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.[42]

Top facts about caffeine Liftmode's Caffeine + L-Theanine

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.[43]

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.[44]

Thirdly, scientists have found that combining L-Theanine with caffeine has some great benefits. The combination appears to improve cognitive performance, memory, and relaxation.[45] L-Theanine is also able to reduce some of the negative effects of caffeine, including anxiety and restlessness.[46]

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.

 

Conclusion

pretty girl happy smiling l-tryptophan Health supplements are great if you get them from the right people!

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.

 

top nootropics

References:

 

[1] Dietary Supplements, US Food and Drug Administration online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[2] The effects of green tea consumption on metabolic and anthropometric indices in patients with Type 2 diabetes, A Mousavi et al., J Res Med Sci. 2013 Dec; 18(12): 1080–1086.

[3] NBJ: ‘The US supplement industry is $37 billion, not $12 billion’, By John Bradley, Content Director & Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal, 01-Jun-2015

[4] Randomized trial of α-tocopherol and β-carotene supplements on incidence of major coronary events in men with previous myocardial infarction, JM Rapola et al., The Lancet, Volume 349, No. 9067, p1715–1720, 14 June 1997

[5] Healthy Adults Shouldn't Take Vitamin E, Beta Carotene: Expert Panel, B Goodman, HealthDay Online, 2014, retrieved on 1 December 2016

[6] Micronutrient deficiencies: Vitamin A deficiency, World Health Organization online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[7] Mursu J, Robien K, Harnack LJ, Park K, Jacobs DR. Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women, The Iowa Women's Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(18):1625-1633.

[8] Calcium supplements don't work, say experts, L Donnelly, Health Editor, The Telegraph, available online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[9] Americans Spend Billions on Vitamins and Herbs That Don’t Work, C Scott, Healthline News, available online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[10] Is Milk Good For Our Bones? Nutrition Facts, NutritionFacts.org, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[11] Study suggests milk doesn't strengthen your bones - it ages you instead, BEC Crew, Science Alert, ScienceAlert.com, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[12] Protecting Your Bones, Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, pdf letter available on PCRM website, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[13] Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women, D Feskanich et al., Am J Clin Nutr February 2003 vol. 77 no. 2 504-511

[14] Health Concerns about Dairy Products, Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, pcrm.org, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[15] The Risks and Benefits of Calcium Supplementation, CS Shin & KM Kim, Endocrinol Metab (Seoul). 2015 Mar; 30(1): 27–34, Published online 2015 Mar 27.

[16] Calcium in Plant-Based Diets, Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, pcrm.org, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[17] 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common, A Bjarnadottir, Authority Nutrition, available online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[18] Vegan diet, subnormal vitamin B-12 status and cardiovascular health, KS Woo et al., Nutrients. 2014 Aug 19;6(8):3259-73

[19] State of the World’s Children: Vitamin A Supplements save pregnant women’s lives, UNICEF, 1998, available online

[20] Kamangar F, Emadi A. Vitamin and Mineral Supplements: Do We Really Need Them? International Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;3(3):221-226.

[21] The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids, AP Simopoulos, Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.

[22] Ganguly, Paul, and Sreyoshi Fatima Alam. “Role of Homocysteine in the Development of Cardiovascular Disease.” Nutrition Journal 14 (2015): 6. PMC. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

[23] The omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio, genetic variation, and cardiovascular disease, AP Simopoulos, Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:131-4.

[24] Effect of omega-3 supplementation on serum level of homocysteine in hemodialysis patients, Tayebi-Khosroshahi H et al., Iran J Kidney Dis. 2013 Nov;7(6):479-84.

[25] Protein and coronary heart disease: the role of different protein sources, PM Clifton, Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2011 Dec;13(6):493-8.

[26] Risk factors for heart disease also increase cancer risk, World Cancer Research Fund International, February 2015, available online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[27] Environmental risk factors for heart disease, TE O’Toole et al., Rev Environ Health. 2008 Jul-Sep;23(3):167-202.

[28] Making Sense of Foods, NutritionMD.org, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[29] Cholesterol, coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of published evidence from observational studies and randomized controlled trials, R Huxley et al., Semin Vasc Med. 2002 Aug;2(3):315-23.

[30] Taking Fish Oil to Lower LDL Naturally? Watch Out for This Danger of Fish Oil Supplementation, UHN Staff, University Health News, Dec 2015, available online, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[31] Medical claims for rhino horn: you’re better on an aspirin or biting your nails, Africa Check, Sept 2012, available on africacheck.org, retrieved on December 1, 2016

[32] Why Does a Rhino Horn Cost $300,000? Because Vietnam Thinks It Cures Cancer and Hangovers, G Guilford, The Atlantic online, May 2013

[33] Ten Threatened and Endangered Species Used in Traditional Medicine, J Stromberg & S Zielinski, Smithsonian Mag online, Oct 2011

[34] Efficacy of berberine in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, J Yin et al., Metabolism. 2008 May;57(5):712-7.

[35] Berberine is a novel cholesterol-lowering drug working through a unique mechanism distinct from statins, W Kong et al., Nat Med. 2004 Dec;10(12):1344-51. Epub 2004 Nov 7.

[36] Meta-analysis of the effect and safety of berberine in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus, hyperlipemia and hypertension, J Lan et al., J Ethnopharmacol. 2015 Feb 23;161:69-81.

[37] Nagle, Dale G., Daneel Ferreira, and Yu-Dong Zhou. “Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate (EGCG): Chemical and Biomedical Perspectives.” Phytochemistry 67.17 (2006): 1849–1855. PMC. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

[38] Chacko, Sabu M et al. “Beneficial Effects of Green Tea: A Literature Review.” Chinese Medicine 5 (2010): 13. PMC. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

[39] Green tea extract ingestion, fat oxidation, and glucose tolerance in healthy humans, MC Venables et al., Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Mar;87(3):778-84.

 

[40] Effects of green tea and EGCG on cardiovascular and metabolic health, S Wolfram, J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Aug;26(4):373S-388S.

[41] Neurological mechanisms of green tea polyphenols in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, O Weinreb et al., J Nutr Biochem. 2004 Sep;15(9):506-16.

[42] L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state, AC Nobre et al., Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:167-8.

[43] Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study, S Hidese et al., Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2016 Jul 11:1-8. [Epub ahead of print]

[44] Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial, DJ White et al., Nutrients. 2016 Jan 19;8(1). pii: E53.

[45] The combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness, T Giesbrecht et al., Nutr Neurosci. 2010 Dec;13(6):283-90

[46] L-Theanine and Caffeine in Combination Affect Human Cognition as Evidenced by Oscillatory alpha-Band Activity and Attention Task Performance, SP Kelly et al., J. Nutr. August 2008 vol. 138 no. 8 1572S-1577S

[47] Omega-3 Fatty Acid Formulations in Cardiovascular Disease: Dietary Supplements are Not Substitutes for Prescription Products J Fialkow, Am J Cardiovasc Drugs. 2016; 16: 229–239, Published online 2016 Apr 30.