Nothing beats natural foods when it comes to delivering nutrients to the body. Vitamins and minerals in food are naturally balanced in a way that allows easy absorption and use by the body, apart from all the other nutritional goodies—like proteins, carbohydrates or fibre—the food provides. Why then do we need supplements at all? Why do most doctors, and that includes me, prescribe vitamin pills?

The answer is simple. Poor dietary choices, the use of pesticides in food, high stress levels and environmental pollution leading to oxidative stress all cause either inadequate absorption of nutrients or depletion of nutrients. So unless you are growing your own organic vegetables and raising your own poultry, chances are you do need a supplement.

Here are a few examples of how, and which, supplements can help in specific health situations.

Heart health

Omega 3

In an online study in The Lancet published in August 2011, lower rates of hospitalization and death in heart failure patients were noted in those who took 1,000mg of an Omega 3 fish oil supplement. The American Heart Association recommends a fish oil supplement for those at high risk of a heart attack. Try and find a brand that has been tested for mercury, since high mercury levels in fish are toxic for the body.

Omega 3: To avoid heart attack risks, take Omega 3, found in fish oil supplements or flaxseed oil.

CoQ10

Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant that’s also found naturally in the body, is especially good for patients on statins (the medicine used to lower cholesterol). It can help prevent the muscle pain and liver damage that can be caused by statins.

Soy

It’s found both in food and as part of a multivitamin and is used to reduce triglycerides and bad LDL cholesterol. Women with hormone-sensitive cancers—like breast, ovarian and uterine—are advised not to consume extra soy. The same goes for women with benign tumours like uterine fibroids.

Vitamins B6, B3, B12, and folic acid

Folic acid reduces homocysteine, an amino acid linked to heart disease. Vitamin B3 or niacin is found in fish and legumes. It is well-established that taking niacin supplements lowers triglycerides and bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol (HDL). Niacin is known to cause hot flushes. So speak to your doctor before you start this supplement.

Psyllium

This is basically a concentrated dose of fibre. It helps decrease both triglycerides and bad cholesterol, lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Eye health

Apart from carrots and greens, which have been touted for ages as magical sight boosters, also increase the intake of foods with phytonutrients, like grapes, berries, non-citrus fruits and cruciferous vegetables. Or take a capsule of resveratrol (also found in the skin of red grapes), which stimulates an anti-ageing chemical and is now available in the Indian market.

Lutein and zeaxanthin help prevent macular degeneration.

According to the US National Eye Institute’s Age-Related Eye Diseases Study (Areds), Antioxidant Vitamins And Zinc Reduce Risk of Vision Loss From Age-related Macular Degeneration, antioxidant vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and zinc reduce the risk of developing advanced AMD (macular degeneration) by about 25%.

Omega 3 can help ease dry eye syndrome, according to a 2011 study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, US.

Immunity

Probiotics

A 2009 study in the journal Pediatrics showed children who took a probiotic formula twice a day for six months had a decrease in incidence of fever by 73%, coughing by 62%, missed less of school and used fewer antibiotics.

Manuka honey

This honey comes from the flowers of the Manuka bush, a native plant of New Zealand. It’s not only good for immunity, but also has powerful antibacterial properties, and is useful in treating the deadly MRSA (or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), a bacteria responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections. I recommend it to boost immunity in both children and adults, and am very happy with the results.

Zinc

This mineral is most commonly used to increase immunity. Vegetarians need a higher dose, as the body absorbs less zinc in a diet rich in plant-based foods.

Beta-carotene

The Institute of Medicine, US, says that if you get 3-6 mg of beta-carotene daily, your body will have levels that may lower the risk of chronic diseases.

Hair and skin

Biotin is the more common name for vitamin B7. It’s also known as vitamin H. A deficiency of biotin is often marked by dry, brittle nails and hair. Biotin supplements result in optimized hair, skin and nail growth and health.

Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, extracts of green tea, and CoQ10 are great for the skin. They help prevent wrinkles and keep the skin looking young.

Vitamin B3 is great for dry and sensitive skin.

Vitamin C helps mop up the free radicals that trigger wrinkling, sagging and other ageing changes. Vitamin C also keeps the skin smooth and firm, and helps fade brown spots.

The mineral selenium plays a key role in skin cancer prevention. It is either taken in supplement form or in a cream, and protects the skin from sun damage. If your profession requires you to spend time in the sun or you spend holidays sunbathing, selenium could lower your risk of skin cancer. The best dietary sources of selenium include wholegrain cereals, seafood, garlic and eggs.

Another skin-friendly mineral is zinc, especially important if you have acne. Taken internally or used topically, zinc works to clear the skin by controlling oil production. Food sources of zinc include oysters, lean meat and poultry.

Hyaluronic acid keeps the skin looking smoother and younger. Another plus is its ability to hold water up to 1,000 times its weight, which means more moisture in each skin cell, so the skin remains well hydrated. This acid is found in starchy tubers and roots like potatoes and sweet potatoes, and in fruits like banana.

Finally, eat a good, well-balanced diet. That has to be your base—supplements can only enhance an already healthy diet, not replace it.

Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

Close