Jan 12th 2018

What supplements do scientists use, and why?

Supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry. But, unlike pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of these products don’t have to prove that their products are effective, only that they are safe – and that’s for new supplements only.

We wanted to know which supplements are worth our attention (and money) so we asked six scientists – experts in everything from public health to exercise physiology – to name a supplement they take each day and why they take it. Here is what they said.

Turmeric

Simon Bishop, lecturer in public health and primary care, Bangor University

Turmeric is more familiar as an ingredient in South Asian cooking, adding an earthy warmth and fragrance to curried dishes, but, in recent years, it has also garnered attention for its potential health benefits. I have been taking ground turmeric root as a dietary supplement for around two years, but I have been interested in its use in Ayurvedic medicine for far longer.

Turmeric is used as a traditional remedy in many parts of Asia to reduce inflammation and help wounds heal. Now, mounting evidence suggests that curcumin, a substance in turmeric, may also help to protect against a range of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementia and some cancers.

The evidence underpinning these claims of health-giving properties is not conclusive, but it is compelling enough for me to continue to take turmeric each morning, along with my first cup of coffee – another habit that may help me live a bit longer.

Vitamin D

Graeme Close, professor of human physiology, Liverpool John Moores University

Vitamin D is a peculiar vitamin in that it is synthesised in our bodies with the aid of sunlight, so people who live in cold countries, or who spend a lot of time indoors, are at risk of a deficiency. People with darker skin tone are also more at risk of vitamin D deficiency as melanin slows down skin production of vitamin D. It is estimated that about a billion people are deficient in the vitamin.

Most people are aware that we need enough vitamin D to maintain healthy bones, but, over the past few years, scientists have become increasingly aware of other important roles of vitamin D. We now believe vitamin D deficiencies can result in a less efficient immune system, impaired muscle function and regeneration, and even depression.

Vitamin D is one of the cheapest supplements and is a really simple deficiency to correct. I used to test myself for deficiencies, but now – because I live in the UK where sunlight is scarce between October and April, and it doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation during these cold months – I supplement with a dose of 50 micrograms, daily, throughout the winter. I also advise the elite athletes that I provide nutrition support to, to do the same.

Probiotic

Justin Roberts, senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition, Anglia Ruskin University

Having diverse beneficial gut bacteria is important for your physical and mental health. However, the balance of bacterial species can be disrupted by poor diet, being physically inactive and being under constant stress. One way to support the health of the gut is to consume dietary probiotics (live bacteria and yeasts), such as yogurt, kefir and kombucha.

I first came across probiotics after years of triathlon training, often experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms – such as nausea and stomach cramps – after training and races. I was also more susceptible to colds. After researching the area, I was surprised at how many people experience similar gastrointestinal problems after exercise. Now I have found that taking a probiotic regularly lessens my symptoms after training and benefits my general health.

A recent study we conducted showed that taking a probiotic in the evening with food, over 12 weeks of exercise training, reduced gastrointestinal problems in novice triathletes.

There is also a wealth of research supporting the use of probiotics for general health benefits, including improving intestinal health, enhancing the immune response and reducing serum cholesterol.

Prebiotic

Neil Williams, lecturer in exercise physiology and nutrition, Nottingham Trent University

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as a “fertiliser” to increase the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This is turn can have positive effects on inflammation and immune function, metabolic syndrome, increase mineral absorption, reduce traveller’s diarrhoea and improve gut health.

I first came across prebiotics in my research to target the gut microbiota in athletes suffering from exercise-induced asthma. Previous research had shown asthma patients to have altered gut microbiota, and feeding prebiotics to mice had been shown to improve their allergic asthma. Taking this as our launching point, we showed that taking prebiotics for three weeks could reduce the severity of exercise-induced asthma in adults by 40%. Participants in our study also noted improvements in eczema and allergic symptoms.

I add prebiotic powder to my coffee every morning. I have found that it reduces my hayfever symptoms in the summer and my likelihood of getting colds in the winter.

Omega 3

Haleh Moravej, senior lecturer in nutritional sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University

I started taking omega 3 after attending a Nutrition Society winter conference in 2016. The scientific evidence that omega 3 could improve my brain function, prevent mood disorders and help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease was overwhelming. After analysing my diet it was obvious that I wasn’t getting enough omega 3 fatty acids. A healthy adult should get a minimum of 250-500mg, daily.

Omega 3 is a form of fatty acid. It comes in many forms, two of which are very important for brain development and mental health: EPA and DHA. These types are primarily found in fish. Another type of omega 3 – ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – is found in plant-based foods, such as nuts and seeds, including walnuts and flax seeds. Due to my busy schedule as a lecturer, during term time my diet is not as varied and enriched with omega 3 fatty acids as I would like, forcing me to choose a supplement. I take one 1,200mg capsule, daily.

Nothing but real food

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology, King’s College London

I used to take supplements, but six years ago I changed my mind. After researching my book I realised that the clinical studies, when properly carried out and independent of the manufacturers, clearly showed they didn’t work, and in many cases could be harmful. Studies of multivitamins show regular users are more likely to die of cancer or heart disease, for example. The only exception is supplements for preventing blindness due to macular degeneration, where randomised trials have been generally positive for a minor effect with a mixture of antioxidants.

In many cases, there is some experimental evidence these chemicals in supplements work naturally in the body or as foods, but no good evidence that when given in concentrated form as tablets they have any benefit. Recent evidence shows that high doses of some supplements can even be harmful – a case in point being calcium and vitamin D. Rather than taking expensive and ineffective synthetic products, we should get all the nutrients, microbes and vitamins we need from eating a range of real foods, as evolution and nature intended.

Simon Bishop, Lecturer in Public Health and Primary Care, Bangor University; Graeme Close, Professor of Human Physiology, Liverpool John Moores University; Haleh Moravej, Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University; Justin Roberts, Senior Lecturer, Anglia Ruskin University; Neil Williams, Lecturer in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition, Nottingham Trent University, and Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King's College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.
Oct 18th 2018
Leaving a major political body is nothing new for mainland Britain. In 409AD, more than 350 years after the Roman conquest of 43AD, the island slipped from the control of the Roman Empire. Much like the present Brexit, the process of this secession and its practical impacts on Britain’s population in the early years of the 5th century remain ill-defined. As with the UK and Brussels, Britain had always been a mixed blessing for Rome. In around 415AD, St Jerome called the island “fertile in tyrants” (meaning usurpers) and late Roman writers portrayed a succession of rebellions in Britain, usually instigated by the army – many of whom would have been born in the province.
Oct 16th 2018
One of the oldest Greek myths, the story of Pandora was first recorded more than 2,500 years ago, in the time of Homer. In the original telling, Pandora was not some innocent girl who succumbed to the temptation to open a forbidden jar......Pandora was deliberately devised to punish humankind for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus. Essentially a seductive AI fembot, she had no parents, childhood memories, or emotions of any kind, nor would she ever age or die. She was programmed to carry out one malevolent mission: to insinuate herself in an earthly setting and then unseal the jar......With AI/machine learning quickly evolving into a “black box” technology, the symbol of Pandora’s sealed jar has taken on new meaning.
Oct 11th 2018
The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is currently exhibiting a substantial selection of Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, and prints – focusing on those works that reveal the story of “Britain’s Discovery of the Master.” Exploring the significance of Rembrandt to British collectors, artists, and writers provides us with the occasion to revisit some fifteen major oil paintings.....
Oct 10th 2018
On the fiftieth anniversary of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu’s first coloration, Buenos Aires’ National Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to the landmark early accomplishment of its native son..........Uriburu’s role as an early environmentalist has never been appreciated outside of his native country. It is sad that this neglect was not remedied in his lifetime, but at least it should be done now; a full-scale retrospective of his pioneering work should be presented in the art world’s capitals, to inspire young artists.
Oct 2nd 2018
The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two immunologists for their revolutionary approaches to treat cancer. James Allison, based in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, based at Kyoto University in Japan, led exciting and groundbreaking work on developing new types of immunotherapy that help our immune system fight cancer.
Sep 20th 2018
We all want other people to “get us” and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a “real me”. But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple – we are a product of our life experiences, which we can be easily accessed through our memories of the past. Indeed, substantial research has shown that memories shape a person’s identity......................But it turns out that identity is often not a truthful representation of who we are anyway – even if we have an intact memory. Research shows that we don’t actually access and use all available memories when creating personal narratives. It is becoming increasingly clear that, at any given moment, we unawarely tend to choose and pick what to remember.
Sep 20th 2018
The research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, compared how much mothers reported using cleaning products with the rate of obesity in 757 children at the age of three. Faecal samples were taken from the infants at three to four-months-old and the researchers investigated associations between microbial changes and being overweight at age three. The researchers found a link between heavy use of cleaning products, microbial changes and children with a higher body mass index (BMI). However, higher disinfectant usage was also reported among households with infants who received antibiotics around the time of birth; who were exposed to cigarette smoke; or were delivered by caesarean section. The results may therefore reflect several interlinking factors. Obesity was less likely to occur in breastfed children, but breastfeeding was also linked to lower disinfectant usage, which makes it difficult to tease apart these two factors.
Sep 11th 2018
If there’s a story that unites success in Silicon Valley and the new economy that’s given us iPhones and Uber, it’s that geek innovators are rewarded. Engineer the killer app and the cash will roll in. Big brains mean a big pay day. It may be a new economy, but this is a very old mistake. The idea that those at the top of a business are the ones who should be celebrated makes little sense to anyone who actually works in an organisation like Tesla. They might be the ones who make the headlines, but it’s the ordinary employees who do the work and produce the value.
Aug 15th 2018
The ability to reverse ageing is something many people would hope to see in their lifetime. This is still a long way from reality, but in our latest experiment, we have reversed the ageing of human cells, which could provide the basis for future anti-degeneration drugs.
Aug 14th 2018
We all like to think of ourselves as morally sound individuals. However in doing so we often assume that morality is static – that we are consistently moral to some extent over time. In reality, research suggests that most of us will behave in contradictory ways and act both morally and immorally from time to time. Interestingly, when we think about our past moral actions, we are likely to engage engage in compensatory behaviour and act immorally going forward.
Aug 8th 2018
This year marks the hundredth anniversary since the death of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), two of Austria’s greatest artists. That same year, 1918, also saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following its defeat in World War I – the end, that is, of an entire era, of a world. Fin de siècle Vienna was a place of extraordinary innovation – in music (with Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School), in literature (with Modernists such as Robert Musil and Herman Broch), in science (with Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis), and, of course, the visual arts, with the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897, whose first president was Gustav Klimt. In Vienna, the rupture caused by the war was total: the city became the archetype of “a doomed society, in which brilliant achievements glowed in the gathering twilight.”
Jul 24th 2018
A decade ago, as the scale of the disaster in Iraq began to sink in, American historians often compared the United States to ancient Rome. Both seemed to suffer from an imperial disease whose symptoms began with overreach and ended in collapse. This is a useful way for Americans like me to consider our troubles abroad. But when it comes to our democracy’s problems at home, the closer parallel is with 18th century Britain, the “mother country” from which the United States broke away in 1776. Britons of that time enjoyed many liberties unknown to their favourite bogeymen, the French. These freedoms had many roots, including the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights from 1689 and various parts of English common law. Most Britons saw their country as God’s favourite and thanked their “Constitution” — a general term for established forms of law and government — for their rising glory. Yet for all the liberties it tolerated, that Constitution’s real goal was to shield wealth and privilege from popular demands.
Jul 17th 2018
There are two ways of tackling chronic lifestyle diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes: discover new drugs and treatments or persuade people to make positive lifestyle changes to avoid developing them in the first place. Health coaching is one of the most powerful ways of changing people’s mindsets for the long term. Practitioners are rapidly taking their place alongside executive coaches, life coaches and personal trainers as another means of making us better people through one-to-one improvement sessions.