There are supplements for any application. Whether you’re an athlete looking to improve your performance or a student aiming to get more out of those late night study sessions, there’s a supplement stack for everybody.
So why are nutritional supplements so popular?
Nutritional supplements are widely considered to be an important part of maintaining optimal health and wellness. They’re used to prevent nutritional deficiencies, optimise diet plans, support digestion, and even target specific health benefits.
Learn why 46% of the people living in the UK take supplements on a daily basis (as of 2016), and why your daily multivitamin is only the beginning. Many people are buying their supplements online — which suggests there’s a desire to understand the benefits of a customized supplement plan above and beyond simple multivitamins.
Let’s get started with the top 6 reasons you should be taking nutritional supplements.
Why Are People Using Nutritional Supplements?
1. Nutritional Deficiencies
Nutritional deficiencies are more common than you might think — here are some shocking figures from a recent article from Healthline:
- Iron deficiency — found in 25% of the world population
- Iodine deficiency — affects nearly 33% of the world population
- Vitamin D deficiency — affects roughly 20% of people in the UK
- Vitamin B12 deficiency — 20% or more of adults around the world
- Calcium deficiency — affects as much as 90% of women over the age of 50
- Vitamin A deficiency — affects 75% of people eating a Western diet
- Magnesium deficiency — found in 9 – 65% of hospitalized patients
Even in today’s world where we have access to just about any kind of food imaginable at our local grocery shops — nutritional deficiencies remain common at all ages. This is especially true in people who eat a predominantly Western diet consisting of processed foods and empty carbohydrates.
Deciding which supplements to take can be challenging, as there are a lot of options and many nutrient deficiencies have similar symptoms (for example; fatigue, dry skin, poor concentration, low immunity). Most of this comes down to your age group (calcium deficiencies more common in older people), sex (iron deficiencies more common in women), diet (B12 deficiency most common in vegans), and geographical location (vitamin D deficiencies are common in Northern latitudes).
It’s wise to have your diet assessed by a nutritionist or dietician to spot potential deficiencies before they become a problem.
2. Supplementing Diet Plans
Another common use for supplements is alongside a regimented diet plan. The supplements people take with their diet will depend heavily on the type of diet they’re on.
One of the best examples of this is for vegan diets.
All the nutrients we need to survive and thrive can be obtained from plants — however, some are not as easy to find. Nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron are commonly deficient in vegans, so many people choose to supplement these nutrients while on the diet. B12 is mainly produced in animals. It’s rich in foods like fish, beef, and chicken — but very hard to find in plant sources. One of the only sources of plant-based B12 is from seaweeds or algaes. So unless these foods are a frequent part of the diet, it’s a good idea to take vitamin B12 supplements.
Iron is another example — this element is abundant in many plant sources, but very poorly absorbed through the digestive tract. Compounds in animal-based foods help iron absorb better. In carnivorous diets, iron has an 18% absorption rate, while those on a vegan diet can only absorb about 5% of the iron they consume — which often leads to deficiencies over long periods of time.
Other diets can benefit from nutritional supplementation as well, here are a few more examples:
- The ketogenic diet — supplementing vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, caffeine, electrolytes, magnesium, digestive enzymes
- Paleolithic diet — magnesium, vitamin D, probiotics
- Atkins diet — pantethine, chromium selenium
3. Weak Digestion
Many people take supplements to support weak digestion. This can include low stomach acid, poor microbiome health, slow movement in the digestive tract, food intolerances, and more.
The digestive process is very complicated. It begins in the mouth as you chew your food. Enzymes like amylase are secreted in the saliva to breakdown sugars and starches into their individual sugar molecules.
Once in the stomach, more enzymes are released to begin the breakdown of proteins. Stomach acid disassemble cell structures and denatures proteins to make them easier to absorb later on.
Most digestion takes place in the small and large intestines. Enzymes and bacteria that make up the microbiome consume and process the food into its individual molecules which can then be absorbed by the walls of the intestines.
People suffering from weak digestion can have issues with any of the processes noted above. This often leads to poor absorption, nutritional deficiencies, inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract, and low energy levels. It’s a problem more common than you might think, with as many as 11% of the American population reported to suffer chronic digestive disorders.
There are many different supplement options depending on the cause of the digestive issue. Here are some of the most popular examples:
- Ginger — supports blood flow to the digestive tract and reduces nausea and vomiting
- Fennel — increases stomach acid production to help breakdown foods more thoroughly
- Probiotics — supports microbiome diversity to break down foods more efficiently
- Slippery elm bark — provides food and nourishment for the microbiome
- L-Glutamine — supports digestion and absorption in the small intestines
- Magnesium — helps with the absorption of nutrients from the lower digestive tract
4. Focus & Concentration
Supplements are also useful for optimising cognitive performance to help students or creative professionals concentrate on their work for longer periods of time. These supplements are not comparable to cognitive-enhancing drugs like Adderall — instead of stimulating specific areas of the brain, they support the brain’s natural function by providing it with all the nutrients it needs.
In effect, cognitive enhancement supplements are used to prevent even the slightest nutrient deficiency in the brain so it can function at peak performance for longer periods of time.
Here are some of the most common focus and concentration supplements:
- Alpha-GPC — supports acetylcholine production
- L-Theanine — promotes a calm, clear-headed focus by modulating GABA receptors and inducing alpha-brain wave activity
- Uridine monophosphate — supports memory and concentration
- Caffeine — arguably the most common stimulant in the world, caffeine delays the onset of mental and physical fatigue
- Lion’s mane mushroom — supports the production of nerve growth factor to support overall health of the brain and nervous system
- Magnesium — one of the most important elements in the brain. Magnesium is used to both create and destroy new nerve cells and neurotransmitters
5. Mood & Sleep
The regulation of our mood and sleep are both very complicated processes — relying on the efficient production of hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymatic activity. All of these processes depend on having access to the right nutrients at the right time.
If any of these nutrients are in short supply, it can begin to affect our ability to control our mood, induce sleep, or maintain a deep sleep throughout the night.
There are a number of nutritional supplements specific for supporting our mood and sleep, let’s cover a few examples in more detail:
- Magnesium — Magnesium is needed to manufacture hormones associated with our mood, as well as an important neurotransmitter known as melatonin, which is what induces sleep and regulates our sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm)
- Cannabidiol (CBD) — CBD is a popular health supplement for its ability to support our endocannabinoid system, which is heavily involved in both mood and sleep regulation
- L-Theanine — this supplement is extracted from the tea plant and is used to support relaxation and sleep by targeting the GABA receptors in the brain (important for supporting and maintaining sleep)
- Rhodiola rosea — a herbal extract used to improve our stress response and better regulate mood and energy levels
- Ashwagandha — the ashwagandha plant is an important stress-reliever and sleep-supportive health supplement with a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine
6. Athletic Support
Perhaps the largest group of people using health and nutritional supplements on a daily basis are athletes. It’s very common for athletes to be on highly controlled dietary and supplement regimens as a way to optimise their performance.
The types of supplements athletes are using will depend heavily on dietary choices, type of physical exercise, and performance goals.
When you’re working hard to reach high levels of athletic conditioning — whether this is for strength, endurance, flexibility, or all three — it makes sense to include health supplements as a way to further optimise your efforts.
Here are some of the most common health supplements used by athletes:
- Rhodiola rosea — this herb is used to provide a boost in energy levels and combat the effects of stress on the body as a result of intense or frequent exercise
- Caffeine — a natural stimulant used to boost energy and muscle contractility during an exercise
- Boswellia — a potent anti-inflammatory useful for speeding recovery and protecting the joints between workouts
- Cannabidiol (CBD) — popular among athletes for managing pain and inflammation after an intense workout or injury
- Magnesium — exercising demands extra magnesium to support energy production in the muscles
- Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — these amino acids are quickly depleted during and after a workout
Summary: Why Take Nutritional Supplements?
There are many reasons you should be interested in taking supplements.
The most common reasons are to prevent common nutrient deficiencies, support digestive health, promote focus and concentration, get better sleep, or optimize your physical performance. The reason for taking health supplements, and the supplements you choose to take will depend on your age, sex, country of residence, and health goals.
While the examples listed above can be helpful in deciding which supplements are best suited for you, it’s wise to speak with an experienced health professional to determine the best course of action for you.
Nutritionists and dietitians can assess your diet and lifestyle habits using various tools, and compare this to the current body of knowledge on nutritional science to give you a customized supplement regimen.
Overall, health supplements are widely considered an important part of a healthy lifestyle in the modern era, and something more and more people are turning to every year to support their health and wellbeing.