Supplements: Who needs them? A special report

Behind the Headlines

Tuesday May 31 2011

What does the evidence actually say about supplements?

Millions of us take vitamins and dietary supplements hoping to achieve good health, ease our illnesses and defy ageing. In 2009 the market for dietary supplements and vitamins was worth more than £670 million in the UK alone.

However, the huge range of dietary supplements available and the conflicting messages from the media may leave some people confused about whether they need supplements or not.

Our special report on nutritional supplements (PDF, 4Mb) aims to make sense of some of the issues surrounding them, and looks at a selection of the evidence on some of the most popular supplements in use today, including:

  • vitamin and multivitamin pills
  • weight-loss supplements
  • supplements for preventing and treating colds
  • glucosamine, ginkgo and ginseng for ageing
  • fish oils
  • body-building supplements

So if you want to know whether the marketing matches the evidence, download a copy today.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices


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The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Bear24 said on 14 June 2013

A terrible one sided report. These things should be written externally by academics and experts in the field of nutrition and sports science. Of course the NHS wouldn't fund this!

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sowhat said on 04 June 2013

According to all NHS reports over the years I shouldn't be taking supplements because I'm not in an at risk category. I wish I ignored that advice and had carried on taking supplements. I now have osteomalacia.

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Nadeem haq said on 03 February 2013

These kind of companies are in millions & their workers are in billions & their aim of life is to make more & more money & no education for the importance of human life. We don't need to go all over the world for fighting & should make some education system, which can explain these kind of people that how expensive & important is a human life. UNO can make International education laws for these kind of companies & international media can advertise them all over the world.

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astewart said on 13 July 2011

The booklet has been revised and Version 2 was released on 1st July 2011. Though this is improved the booklet does not give clear indications about the main indications and contraindications to the use of nutritional supplements. Readers are advised to "ask their doctor" if they have any medical conditions. Some such as osteoporsis and cancer can be worsened by the inappropriate use of nutritional supplements. More information on this would have been helpful. Additionally there was no reference to the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in the UK population as found in the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys. Again this information is central to answering the question posed in the title. A further and more detailed revision of the booklet would be of considerable more use to health care workers and the public.

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User565805 said on 18 June 2011

If patients are to have REAL choice in their healthcare be it through allopathic medicine, complementary or an alternative approach, a full balanced discussion on risk and benefit on all approaches (medication included) is needed, if people are to make an informed decision on how they wish to maintain their health and well-being.

The Alliance for Natural Health has written a piece expressing concern over the bias and quality of the evidence used to support the content of this NHS document on supplements.

Can we really get all our nutrients from food? John Ikerd thinks not in the 2011 William A Albrect Lecture

Of equal interest is ...

The peer reviewed Orthomolecular Medicine News Service in their 14 June 2011 press release highlights results of an analysis of the US Poison Control Centre's Annual Reports study concluding, "No Deaths from Vitamins - None in 27 years."

The Safer Medicines Trust ( publishing in The Lancet (Reference: 377(9781), p.1915 4 June 2011) expressed concern over the increasing reports of drug failure and adverse drug reactions, citing 2008 evidence that adverse reactions kill 197,000 people in the EU a year.

Work by Prof A Dalgleish at St George's Hospital, London, appears to suggest the benefits of vitamin D supplementation (instead of certain medication and at a significantly reduced cost)as highlighted in a 12 May 2011 article ...

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User492629 said on 08 June 2011

I agree that some supplements may be dangerous but not all. I personally find homeopathic medicine extremely effective and helpful . Antibiotics can also be very harmfull if over prescribed which is often the case . I think they weaken the immune stystem if taken too often so maybe our GPs should consider using some of the many alternative medicines which do seem to help people. After all , the NHS is supposed to be about choice. I really wish someone would do a report about the dangers of ADHD stimulants because these drugs can cause sudden death. I think they should be banned for children altogether.

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Dan P said on 07 June 2011

I'm really glad this section of the NHS website exists to look into the truth behind the headlines. There are so many charlatans out there successfully convincing people to buy into products that simply do not work. Glucosamine is a great example of a product with absolutely no benefit over and above the placebo effect, but people still waste their money on it; rhodiola rosea is another example.

When alternative therapies work, they are soon adopted by the mainstream - an extract from the bark of a willow tree which was proven to help reduce headaches was refined and became aspirin. It is now a safe and regulated medicine.

If companies are unable to produce reliable, replicable evidence for efficacy they should not be allowed to sell their product. They should not be allowed to get away with using non-committal terms such as '... has long been believed to help with ...'. The same goes for homeopathy, chiropractic and other pseudo-science.

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Spectator said on 06 June 2011

I take glucosamine with Chondroitin and MSM to good effect. I live in Scotland and find that while I am symptom-free in the South of England, as soon as I come back here the pain starts. I get swelling and pain in knee and finger/knuckle joints, plus ankle when driving. I have tried with and without supplements and pain always returns when I stop and it takes a few weeks to build up the effect again. I take omega 3 fish oils too but am not sure if it is entirely necessary. I feel it adds a little help. My sis has just had a knee replacement so am keen to avoid this.
I also take Rhodiola rosea if I feel stressed or am sleeping poorly. It improved my sleep when I was severely depressed and had been waking at 3 am for months and months.

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