Supplements, yay or nay? The answer, as always, depends on whom you believe. In the red corner you have the medical and scientific establishment, who as a general rule say “Nay (apart from specific exceptions, where a particular vitamin or nutrient deficiency exists)”. In the blue corner there are the manufacturers and distributers of these products - which incidentally accounted for global sales of $3 billion in 2015, and $643 million in the USA alone (see the link below for reference) - who make the claims for the efficacy of what they produce.
Let’s look at the issue of brain health supplements, on the subject of which there has been a recent scientific study.
The report into the study was issued by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) in collaboration with the non-profit organisation AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). Their conclusion is that there is no evidence for improvement in brain health from taking vitamins and dietary supplements. There is evidence that deficiencies of certain nutrients (e.g.vitamin B12) are associated with cognitive problems, but not that reducing the deficiency by supplementing the intake of what is missing will reverse those problems. Another point that GCBH makes in the introduction to their report is that there is a lack of awareness, among the older population to whom these supplements are marketed, that the regulations around the sale and advertising of dietary supplements are looser, at least in the USA, than those surrounding for instance medical products, with which these products might be identified. Medical products must be proven to be safe as well as effective, whereas it is less well known that dietary supplements only need to be proved to be safe.
The report makes many recommendations the first of which, and the most relevant in our opinion, is that for most people “the best way to get your nutrients for brain health is from a healthy diet”. What else can you do for the health of your brain? Exercise! We have reported on many examples of research which have shown that exercise, particularly running and other aerobic activities, is the best thing you can do for brain health. See here, here and here.
Another area of recent interest has been research into the effectiveness or otherwise of taking Vitamin D supplements to improve bone health. Bone health for older people is naturally an important area to focus on given that the consequences of falls and fractures can be severe and long-lasting. The Department of Health guidelines suggest that people who don’t get enough vitamin D through exposure to sunlight should take a supplement. However, a study, published in The Lancet in October 2018, which was a meta-study of 81 existing research papers into the effectiveness of Vitamin D supplements, came to the following conclusion “Our findings suggest that vitamin D supplementation does not prevent fractures or falls, or have clinically meaningful effects on bone mineral density. There were no differences between the effects of higher and lower doses of vitamin D. There is little justification to use vitamin D supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health. This conclusion should be reflected in clinical guidelines.”
Again, there is a huge market for these supplements - $1.1 billion in the USA alone in 2019 - so don’t expect anytime soon that the companies producing and marketing these products will change their “advice”. And there are huge tax revenues that flow to the coffers of the governments from the sales of these supplements. But no-one is saying that they are harmful products, as long as they are taken according to the manufacturers directions.
So, what should you do about bone health? The main thing to know is that the body produces vitamin D itself in response to sunlight. So make sure you get outdoors for 10-30 minutes, several times a week. And if you do your ‘brain-health” running outdoors you’ll be getting two hits for the price of one effort?
What is another way to strengthen your bones? Resistance exercise! We have written on this site about several pieces of research demonstrating this but you can also read here and here about yet more research into the benefits for bone health of weight training.
So save your money to spend on something else, gym membership perhaps, as the benefits of that are far more deep-seated and wide-ranging than those emanating from a trip to the local pharmacy!