Are personalised supplements better than generic vitamins?
Post-Covid, personalised supplements and nutrition are gaining in popularity as we all strive for optimum health. Given the differences in the ways we react to foods and nutritional products, is targetted supplementation the future of vitamins?
Hands up if you’ve taken a vitamin or other supplement in the last week. The UK vitamin and supplements market was worth an estimated £520 million in 2022, so I’m guessing quite a few of us are popping those pills each day.
And while the majority of the products on the market are generic, research shows there’s a growing trend for personalised vitamin and mineral supplements, driven by an increased desire for tailored solutions to wellness (think fitness trackers, but for nutrition).
Taking targeted supplements is not an entirely new concept – we’ve been sold a variety of pre- and post-natal vitamins, for example, for decades, as it’s widely accepted that the needs of a pregnant woman differ from those of a non-pregnant woman. And while a balanced, healthy diet is undoubtedly the best way of ensuring we are meeting our nutritional needs, there’s a strong argument that tailored supplementation has an important role to play.
“It used to be said you can get everything you need from a healthy balanced diet,” says Dr Adam Carey, chief medical officer for Indi Supplements. “In 20 years, I have rarely met anyone who has managed to achieve this goal – most of us will need some support some of the time.”
We asked the experts if these products work and if they’re worth it.
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What are personalised supplements?
It’s a complicated marketplace, but, in simple terms, there are a couple of routes to tailor-made supplementation: you can either take a set of questions/quizzes about your lifestyle and/or health concerns, or you can embark upon a more detailed study of your physiology.
It’s simple to find an online quiz that will determine what supplements you should be taking. Large pharmacies such as Boots offer this service, along with a growing number of smaller vitamin companies, including Wild Nutrition and Vitamin Buddy. You’ll be asked a series of questions about your diet, lifestyle, stress and genetics.
It’s important to bear in mind that at the end of this, you’ll still be recommended a bundle of generic vitamins and supplements already available on the market, so while this method gives an insight into where you may be lacking (I’ve done this method, and it is interesting), the products aren’t specifically tailored to you, so if that’s what you’re after, read on.
“In practical terms it’s an easy swab to the mouth to collect the DNA itself,” Louise Westra, naturopath and author of You FIRST: Your Body, Your Needs, Guilt Free, assures Stylist. “It takes around three weeks for the genetic information to be coded, and from this, we can analyse your genetic responses to nutrients.”
There are a number of ways this may be useful, including as a way to support cases where there is active ill-health or diagnosis, and as a preventative strategy to mitigate risk when there are family patterns/risk factors that someone wants to avoid or potentially slow the progression of.
This is a far more tailored (and expensive) approach and can reveal issues such as how quickly your body ‘clears’ certain nutrients – meaning you’ll need a higher dosage to meet your needs.
“Some people have a tendency to clear vitamin B6 faster than others,” explains Westra. “This means that they may struggle to relax, as B6 impacts our ‘off-switch’. Others may feel fatigued and crave sugar – this is a sign that they need a specific form of vitamin B12.”
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What are the benefits?
“The personalisation of supplements must be the only way forward,” argues nutritionist Hannah Hope. “Qualified nutritionists study for a long time to make sure we are able to understand what an individual needs or is lacking. This can be from symptom presentation, functional testing, health history and understanding if there are any interactions with any medication the individual may be taking.”
Interaction with other medications
“We have to be very careful that taking certain supplements don’t interact with any medications,” advises Hope. “For example, lemon balm shouldn’t be taken with thyroxine, a medication taken for thyroid problems, and if you’re a smoker, it’s not recommended that you have high dose vitamin A in tablet form as it can increase the risk of cancer.”
These types of contra-indications will only be revealed by some kind of questionnaire, as most lay people wouldn’t be aware of these factors.
It could save you money in the long run
“You could be wasting your time taking a supplement that is no benefit to you because, for example, you saw someone on social media recommending it or you saw it on the shelf and bought it with no prior knowledge,” says Hope.
“Supplement ingredients are all different too, so buying a cheaper supplement with fewer active ingredients may not offer much benefit at all, or they may make you unwell. Personally, I have to be careful if I take supplements containing zinc as they make me vomit.”
Dosage and length of time are personal
“A benefit of personalisation is that you’ll know how long to take a supplement for,” advises Hope. “Certain supplements shouldn’t be taken for too long, as they may put pressure on the liver or stop your body trying to produce it itself, whereas others are OK to be taken for longer alongside dietary changes.”
Are there any drawbacks?
It’s not effective as a standalone approach
Tailored supplementation on its own will clearly have a limited impact on health and wellness – it must be supported by a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet, so it’s not a quick fix.
There’s no denying that any form of personalisation is nutrition is pricey. “I do understand that this is an expensive option,” agrees Westra. “The cost is in the hundreds of pounds, so I appreciate that a level of privilege is necessary. However, if you are able to afford it, many of my clients consider our work together the best health investment they have ever made.”
Remember that regardless of which route you go down, you should always seek professional advice when starting a new health regime, as Hope recommends: “It’s always a good idea to get advice when it comes to adding supplements into your diet.” But it’s up to you (and your wallet) how far you want to take this.
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