For anybody who has a vested interest in the food wellness movement, he’d know that it started with juicing. Green sludge that was purported to “reinvigorate and energize the body”; even better if you dust “powder” inside the blender before going to town.
Next came the Bone Broth, a soup that was made from boiled animal bones and meat that was supposed to improve gut health, relieve joint pain and give you shinier hair.
Enter 2020’s health status symbol — the supplement. While we have an inkling that the rise of supplements can be chalked up to fear mongering (are you not taking enough magnesium? Are you losing hair because of a lack of zinc? Vitamin K2 isn’t as dubious as it sounds?) or placebo effects, we’re setting it straight.
We spoke to Dr Teo Wan Lin, dermatologist at Dr.TWL Dermaceuticals on what they are, what they do and why they might not work for you.
Actually, what exactly is a supplement and why can’t we just eat our greens?
A supplement is an additional component — a “supplement” as the term suggests to one’s diet and it contains one or several of the following groups of following groups of compounds — vitamins, essential nutrients which include minerals, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids.
A supplement can include one of the above as well as components of essential nutrients.
From a medical perspective, if one is taking a healthy, well-balanced diet which includes a variety of food, fruits as well as vegetables, there is no real need to consume supplements. However, if one is vegetarian and does not take meat, one may be deficient in iron.
In this case, taking an iron supplement is sometimes recommended. In other cases, if one has an underlying disorder, such as an family history of early onset osteoporosis, then vitamin D and calcium supplementation may be necessary.
What is the difference between a vitamin and a supplement?
A supplement is a broad umbrella term which includes vitamins and other essential nutrients such as amino acids, fatty acids as well as minerals which all cannot be produced by the body and yet is necessary for the body functions.
The term “vitamin” is very specific. It is a molecule we call an essential micronutrient which all living beings require for the proper functioning of our physiological processes and is required in the functioning of our body metabolism.
The key issue is essential vitamins have to be consumed orally for metabolic needs to be met.
Why do you personally think there has been a rise in supplements?
I feel that there is a lot of marketing and vested commercial interest to promote supplements. It’s important to note that supplements themselves are derived from food substances. They are not regulated in the same way prescription medications are, which allows for a viable commercial market to flourish.
There is already an ingrained mindset that what we ingest can already influence our health in positive or negative ways.
The best perspective to adopt is yes indeed, while you are what you eat, ideally what you eat should come from your diet. Supplements are unnecessary unless you are not able to obtain a certain nutrient in your diet, and are not without risks either.
For example, if you are taking excessive amounts of vitamin A (which is not recommended as a vitamin supplement for healthy individuals), you are exposing yourself to a risk of liver damage. I’ve had patients who had come to see me after purchasing vitamin A tablets online (without regulation of the HSA). Vitamin A compounds meant for the treatment of acne are likely related to a prescription medication for acne — isotretinoin — which is specifically liver toxic.
I think apart from the fact that there are no added benefits from taking oral supplements, provided you have a well-balanced diet and you’re a healthy person, there’s a danger that you could be taking something which can cause liver or kidney problems.
Everything edible can be sold as a “supplement” but its compounds could interfere with one’s metabolism, blood clotting and even interact with existing medications.
I don’t think it’s a big issue in Singapore if you’re purchasing it from a pharmacy, but if you are purchasing it online or getting it by word of mouth then I would seriously caution against doing that.
Is there a supplement that is good for everybody of any gender and age?
It is not necessary to take anything in tablet form unless your doctor recommends you to do that. The story is slightly different for anti-ageing benefits though because there is increasing research in nutraceuticals in dermatology where concentrated amounts of bioactive botanical extracts have been proven to prevent and delay cell ageing, help with UV protection and improve the physical appearance of one’s skin including pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.
However the overall data is still not rigorous and would not be considered as part of treatment protocol.
What I recommend my patients to do that’s closest to taking a “supplement” for the maintenance of healthy skin is to encourage them to incorporate larger amounts of antioxidant rich food, blueberries, colourful fruits, and olive oil in their diet.
Orally ingested or olive oil has been proven in several studies to help with cardiovascular health. It’s recommended by the American Heart Association to take a tablespoon of olive oil daily for heart health. From a skin perspective, it is also one of the very few orally ingested foods that has positive benefits on skin health and retards the process of ageing.
For eczema patients, I do sometimes recommend evening primrose oil which contains essential fatty acids which has been proven to help restore the skin’s lipid (fat) barrier.
Will ingesting a vitamin c supplement be more efficient than just eating oranges?
The answer is no and when you’re just taking supplements you’re missing out on a whole lot of other nutrients derived from fruits, such as potent antioxidants and antioxidants. It’s possible for supplement companies to extract antioxidants in a way that ensures 100% physiological benefits, although one would not know. So if it were me, I’d much rather get it from the actual food sources.
Be aware that one is not taking oranges just for vitamin C, one is also consuming it for fibre. The overall sensation of feeling full helps the body’s metabolism and regulates your appetite and overall this will contribute to your health.
One of the superfoods that I love to take myself and I encourage my patients to consume for their skin health are blueberries. Blueberries contain very high levels of antioxidants and they also contain essential micronutrients.
Are there any vitamins or nutrients that are so hard to get from food that we have to take supplements for them?
As of common consensus in the dermatology community and for general health, no. However, emerging research on nutraceuticals does suggest that more data may be emerging in the next few years on the benefits of certain ingested active ingredients.
What about supplements for the skin like collagen powder? Are you able to tell us about the efficacy?
Supplements for the skin have not been definitively proven to help although there is emerging data on the benefits of nutraceuticals which are nutrients with cosmeceutical benefits.
Collagen itself is a very large molecule and for it to be absorbed by skin even in a hydrolyzed state is quite doubtful.
There have been individual small scale studies which show that it does improve elasticity without any additional side effects. Bioactive peptides, glycosaminoglycans and fish cartilage have all been tested in small scale studies which are all commercially driven, so one should take it with a pinch of salt until further studies are done.
What helps your body produce more collagen in a significant way would be topical stimulation either via laser or cosmeceuticals. We often use peptides, oligopeptides and retinoids to stimulate the production of collagen.
I’d rather be applying topicals versus orally ingested collagen until studies prove more clearly about the efficacy of the latter. Taking olive oil for example; it has been proven to be anti-aging for the skin but no one is going to make an olive oil supplement because you’re not going to make money out of it.
Are there any vitamin pills you’d recommend then?
Not specifically, although I feel if one does want to take an oral supplement for the skin, look for one which is derived from botanical plant actives and antioxidants. Examples are polyphenols, carotenoids, coenzyme Q because these compounds have been proven in research studies to help.
Photo Credits of Dr Teo Andrea Claire