Dr. Arup Paul

How to take better care of your health and wellbeing

12 October 2018

vitamin supplements

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With so much wellbeing news and information available to us, it can be confusing to know what we should or shouldn’t be eating, doing, or thinking about. 

For anyone considering making healthy changes, big or small, it’s difficult to know what’s best, when and how to start.  Sometimes, we just need to get back to basics.

With this in mind, Dr Arup Paul, AXA PPP’s deputy chief medical officer, is here to cut through the noise.

The right time is always now

You don’t have to wait for the start of a New Year, season, or month to kick-start your health and wellbeing habits. If you’ve decided to take a proactive approach to take better care of yourself, be it physically or emotionally, then any time is a good time – you just need to take that first step.

For some of us, it’s improving our diets, increasing the amount of physical activity, or simply taking time out to slow down, sleep better, be mindful and find what we enjoy. For others it might be a combination of these things as we try and balance the demands of work and family life, alongside finding time to invest in ourselves.

Should I take a vitamin supplement?

One question I’m frequently asked is whether taking vitamins or dietary supplements can provide additional benefits when making healthier lifestyle changes. This has been a bone of contention in an ever changing world of advice and guidance about what’s good for us and in what amounts.

This isn’t an easy question to answer with a definitive yes or no because everyone’s different and it depends on many factors, but do read on because this is important!

Vitamins are a popular way of supplementing our diets. In fact, the UK vitamins and supplements market seems to be booming, with 65% of all adults having taken some form of vitamin or supplement, either daily or on an occasional basis in the 12 months ending June 2016, according to Mintel.

It’s understandable. The pressures of everyday life mean we sometimes fall off the wellbeing wagon and our good intentions can slip down the list of priorities; we choose convenience food when we get home from work, grab something quick on the go, or leave out meals completely. It’s at these times many of us consider vitamins to supplement our health, especially if we feel we’re lacking in nutrients we’d normally get from a healthy, balanced diet.

Feed your body healthy nutrients

It’s important to remember that vitamin pills are by no means a shortcut to better health, vitality and the prevention of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or cancers. Instead, any supplement should be considered as just that – an ‘added extra’ to support your existing healthy lifestyle choices.

Nutritionally speaking, it’s the food you put into your body, managing portion sizes, reducing the amount of trans fat (too much is bad for heart health), saturated fat (increases your cholesterol), salt and refined sugar in your diet that will help decrease your chances of developing health issues longer-term, not to mention leave you feeling good about yourself. 

If you’re a healthy individual, without any known deficiencies, then you should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit, veg, legumes (beans and pulses) and wholegrains, dairy or fortified dairy alternatives, meat and fish, or plant foods rich in protein, such as tofu, and healthy fats from oils, nuts and seeds.

But…

There are some exceptions, since some of us are more likely to be deficient in certain nutrients by default of our life stage or circumstance. For example pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised by Public Health England to take a vitamin D supplement, as well as folic acid, until the 12th week of pregnancy (from the time of trying to conceive).Children aged six months to five years should take a supplement containing Vitamin A,C and D. And those at risk of vitamin D deficiency (vitamin D is normally made when the skin is exposed to sunlight), such as people with darker skin, people who aren’t exposed to much sun (for example, older people, or those who might be housebound) are recommended to take a supplement all year round.

With recent confusion about whether vitamin D is beneficial for good bone health, Public Health England still recommends that people consider taking a supplement in winter months, since sunlight is scarce and getting enough of it through diet can be difficult.

In addition, for anyone cutting down on animal products, or excluding them from their diet completely, certain nutrients (iron, B12, Omega 3 fatty acids, for example) are more likely to be missing unless you take a supplement (B12 is difficult to get solely from a plant-based diet). 

Exercise 

Of course, feeling well isn’t just about what you eat; it’s also about staying physically active. The benefits of regular moderate activity on our physical and psychological health are well documented (the government recommends we do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week – that could also look like 30 minutes, 5 days a week. You can even break it up into shorter bursts of 10 minutes). Whatever our reasons to exercise (there are many besides weight loss), it’s worth knowing that moving your body is an excellent way to boost your energy and immune system, promote better quality sleep, and improve blood flow to the brain, which helps you keep mentally focussed. Things we may turn to a supplement for as a quick fix. 

Not only this, but when you’re physically active, it increases the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with memory and learning. As if that wasn’t reason enough to move more, when we exercise, another bit of magic happens to our body; our cells start to renew, which, in short, helps slow-down our body’s ageing process.

woman mid run

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 Do your research

Whatever you’re aiming to achieve, ensure you do your research using trusted sources. 

While single vitamin supplementation has gained popularity for targeting specific health concerns, consumer research from Mintel shows that multi-vitamins remain the most commonly bought. Perhaps because they’re considered low risk (taking a multi-vit will do no harm) and relatively low cost, helping to fill potential gaps in our diets. 

While some experts deem it worth considering a multivitamin as part of a healthy lifestyle, others argue that the chemicals in fruit and vegetables work together in ways which can’t be replicated in a tablet. For example, half an apple has the antioxidant activity of 1,500 milligrams of vitamin C, despite only containing 5.7 milligrams of the vitamin. 

It’s a rolling debate and there’s still more to learn. We’re all different and it’s worth finding out what you may be deficient in, before making assumptions about needing a supplement and what that supplement should be. If you’re tired and lacking in energy, it’s easy to assume you need more iron, but without knowing that for sure, you could be making a misinformed choice.

In addition, research has shown that high doses of certain vitamins (A and E especially) are potentially harmful, especially for expectant mothers, or those planning pregnancy, most at risk. It’s also worth knowing that certain supplements can interfere with some prescribed medicines – so it’s a good idea to check with your GP or medical practitioner before deciding to supplement your diet.

If taking a vitamin supplement is right for you, AXA Active Plus, has a broad range of health and wellbeing products and is a good starting point for inspiration on how you can top-up a better diet and lifestyle. 

Sources and further information

Mintel  Vitamins and supplements market in good health

NHS supplements: who needs them?

BDA Food Fact sheet

HSIS (the Health and Food Supplements Information Service)