Personalised wellness: tailoring supplements to your specific needs
Nov 20, 2023
Food supplements are concentrated sources of vitamins, minerals, or other substances such as fibre or herbal extracts.
Supplements may be taken to reduce deficiencies, improve wellbeing, enhance endurance, or as support during specific life periods.
Some supplements are helpful during certain times in our lives, such as pregnancy, or during times of stress.
Taking too much of certain vitamins or minerals can be dangerous for some people, so it’s important to consider this when taking supplements.
According to your genetics, blood biochemistry, health status, and lifestyle, your supplement needs can change over time.
If you browse your local health store you may well find hundreds of supplements promising better health. These concentrated sources of vitamins, minerals, or other substances make it easy to get nutrients into the body, but it’s important to design your supplement routine to maximise the effects it has on your body.
Food supplements are concentrated sources of vitamins, minerals, or other substances such as fibre, herbal extracts, or probiotics. They come in many forms, including pills, capsules, powders, pills and gummies and are intended to supplement a balanced diet (1). Supplements are taken for various reasons, some of which are listed below.
Supplementing nutritional gaps: Not getting enough essential nutrients due to an unhealthy diet, such as consuming many ultra-processed foods (UPFs). UPFs typically contain five or more ingredients such as preservatives and artificial sugars, and nonessential nutrients (2).
Supporting overall health and wellbeing: Consuming enough vitamins and minerals decreases the likelihood of chronic disease (3).
Addressing specific deficiencies: When nutrient levels are low enough to prevent the body from functioning optimally (4).
Enhancing Performance: Some supplements can support processes in the body which may enhance energy, performance, or increase the speed of recovery after exercise (5).
Vitamins and minerals for lifestyle and specific needs
Specific supplement needs can vary greatly from person to person, depending on factors such as age, sex, diet, lifestyle, and health status. The decision to take supplements should be based on your individual requirements, specific circumstances, and your doctor’s recommendations.
Lack of access to sunlight – Vitamin D3
Vitamin D3 is produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight. A recent study suggested that 40% of Europeans are deficient in vitamin D, with 13% being drastically deficient (8). Living far from the equator, having darker skin, covering the skin in clothing or SPF, and working or staying indoors most of the time are all health risk factors for vitamin D3 deficiency. Vitamin D3 requirements in humans also increase with age due to the skin becoming less efficient at making it, increasing the need for vitamin D supplementation (9).
Vitamin D3 is a fat soluble vitamin and humans require it for a healthy immune system, strong bones, and mental wellbeing (6). You can increase your levels of Vitamin D3 from supplements and certain foods such as oily fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon), liver, cheese, egg yolks, and mushrooms (morel, oyster, shiitake) (7).
Women trying to conceive – Folic Acid
Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is a water-soluble vitamin which plays a role in DNA synthesis, cell division, and formulation of red blood cells which help carry oxygen around the body. It also helps reduce levels of tiredness and fatigue. Folate in the form of folic acid is found in a variety of foods such as leafy green vegetables, fortified foods, fruits, and legumes.
For women who are pregnant or considering having a child folic acid is even more important. Adequate amounts of folate in the body can prevent dangerous birth defects to the baby’s brain and spinal cord, called spina bifida and anencephaly (9).
Healthy ageing - Folic acid, B12, multivitamin and mineral
Folic acid and B12, or cobalamin, are important for healthy ageing. Deficiency in elderly people may be associated with the process of the brain ageing, which can sometimes lead to dementia (10). Folic acid and vitamin B12 may also contribute to a healthier cardiovascular system as levels of homocysteine tend to increase as people age, and high levels of homocysteine are linked to the early stages of heart disease. Folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in elderly because of malabsorption, medication interactions, or an increased need in the body for B12 which it is unable to get from food sources.
Multivitamin and mineral (MVM) supplements are also important for healthy ageing. A large randomised trial found that older adults who took daily MVM supplementation for three years improved their cognition, memory, and executive function (21).
Plant-Based Diet – DHA B12, Zinc and Iron
Plant-based diets offer a variety of health benefits, such as decreased blood pressure and cholesterol levels but may not provide all essential nutrients (11). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), for example, is an omega-3 fatty acid, needed for normal brain function and health and vision. It helps regulate blood pressure and triglyceride levels. It’s found in fatty fish and seafood but also in algae-based supplements.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin found in animal foods, making it difficult to access for vegans or plant-based eaters.Vitamin B12 is essential for proper immune health and nervous system functioning. It also provides the body with energy and supports normal psychological function.
Zinc is a mineral required to support immune health, wound healing, and DNA synthesis. It's also an essential element for both male and female fertility. It can be found in some plant-based foods such as beans and nuts, but since zinc tends to be low in plant-based diets, so supplementation may be considered in those cases.
Dietary iron is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including oxygen transport, energy production, and DNA synthesis. It comes in different forms and is available from animal or plant sources. The iron found in plants is non-heme which isn't absorbed as well as the type from animals, called heme iron.
Essential vitamins and minerals everyone should consider
The need for dietary supplements can vary widely from person to person, depending on factors such as age, sex, diet, lifestyle and health status. However, there are a few dietary supplements that you may consider incorporating into your routine for general health and wellbeing. Consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement to determine the right choice and dosage based on your specific needs.
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are important for heart and brain health. They are found in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, but some people may benefit from taking additional fish oil in the form of supplements, especially if you don't regularly eat fish in your diet.
Magnesium is involved in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body and supports muscle and nerve function, bone health and more. Some people benefit from taking regular magnesium supplements if they have a deficiency. For those looking to up their levels of Magnesium in their diet, it is naturally found in leafy green vegetables, nuts and beans.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotic supplements can support gut health by promoting a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. This type of supplement may be useful for individuals with gastrointestinal issues or those taking antibiotics. However, prebiotics are even more important because they fuel the healthy bacteria you already have in your gut. Prebiotics are found in fibre-rich foods like banana, oats, or whole wheat, or alternatively may be sourced from fibre supplements.
Since supplements contain higher doses of vitamins and minerals, it is possible to get more than necessary and could even cause problems (12). This is one reason why personalisation is important.
Factors such as our age, sex, genetics, microbiome, lifestyle, and overall health can determine our disease risk and the way we absorb and use nutrients. For example taking vitamin E may reduce the risk of cancer in men while it may not have an effect for women (13). Similarly, older individuals or those with a higher genetic risk of age related macular degeneration may benefit more from supplements that support vision, while those with higher cholesterol levels could lower their risk of cardiovascular disease through personalised supplementation. Recent scientific advances have been unveiling how our bodies respond differently to the same nutrients.
Even though a lot of research still needs to be done and the field is developing quickly, it’s now possible to start personalising supplements based on your individual needs and goals.
What supplements should I take?
Deciding whether you need dietary supplements should be a considered process. It's essential to think about your individual circumstances, including your diet, lifestyle, health status and specific nutritional requirements.
Testing blood biochemistry
Blood tests can measure the levels of various vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients in the body. Blood tests can also assess various biomarkers and health indicators, such as cholesterol levels and glucose levels. Markers of inflammation can also provide insight into specific supplements for heart health, blood sugar regulation or inflammation control.
Genetic variants can influence the activity of enzymes, or proteins that speed up chemical reactions in the body. These are responsible for metabolising and using nutrients, potentially affecting the effectiveness of taking in nutrients from foods and supplements. Genetic factors can also influence how the body responds to medications, potentially affecting the safety and efficacy of certain supplements.
Choosing quality over price
A healthcare professional, such as a doctor, registered dietitian, or pharmacist can provide guidance on whether a particular supplement is appropriate for your specific needs and can recommend trusted brands that sell that supplement.
Read the product label to ensure that it contains the ingredients and dosages as advertised. Check the list of other ingredients and watch for fillers, binders, or additives. Check for any potential allergens or substances that you may be sensitive to.
Some vitamins and minerals enhance or inhibit the absorption of others. For instance, vitamin C can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron, the type of iron found in plant-based foods, while calcium can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.
The chemical form or structure of a nutrient can also affect its absorption. For example, the form of folate found in supplements, folic acid, is more readily absorbed than the naturally occurring form of folate in food.
Some supplements may have higher bioavailability than others due to differences in the way they are formulated. This is why it’s important to follow your physician’s recommendations, consider any other medicine interactions and focus on taking high quality supplements that take these factors into consideration.
Making informed choices for optimal health
Supplements should ideally be recommended and monitored by a qualified healthcare professional or companies who have registered dietitians, nutritionists, or medical doctors on board. These professionals can interpret genetic data, design a safe and effective supplement plan, and provide you with ongoing support.
It's important to note that while personalised supplements offer the potential for optimised nutrient intake, they may not be necessary for everyone. For most people, a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods should be the foundation of good nutrition.
Wierzejska, Regina Ewa. 2021. “Dietary Supplements—for Whom? The Current State of Knowledge about the Health Effects of Selected Supplement Use.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18 (17): 8897. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18178897.
Woods, Katherine. 2019. “Ultra-Processed Foods.” Bhf.org.uk. British Heart Foundation. May 30, 2019. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/news/behind-the-headlines/ultra-processed-foods.
USDA. 2015. “DIETARY GUIDELINES for AMERICANS EIGHTH EDITION.” https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf.
Kiani, Aysha Karim, Kristjana Dhuli, Kevin Donato, Barbara Aquilanti, Valeria Velluti, Giuseppina Matera, Amerigo Iaconelli, et al. 2022. “Main Nutritional Deficiencies.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene 63 (2 Suppl 3): E93–101. https://doi.org/10.15167/2421-4248/jpmh2022.63.2S3.2752.
National Institutes of Health. 2016. “Office of Dietary Supplements - Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance.” Nih.gov. 2016. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/.
Spiro, A., and J. L. Buttriss. 2014. “Vitamin D: An Overview of Vitamin D Status and Intake in Europe.” Nutrition Bulletin 39 (4): 322–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12108.
Cardwell, Glenn, Janet Bornman, Anthony James, and Lucinda Black. 2018. “A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D.” Nutrients 10 (10): 1498. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10101498.
Cashman, Kevin D, Kirsten G Dowling, Zuzana Škrabáková, Marcela Gonzalez-Gross, Jara Valtueña, Stefaan De Henauw, Luis Moreno, et al. 2016. “Vitamin D Deficiency in Europe: Pandemic?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 103 (4): 1033–44. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.120873.
NHS. 2020. “Vitamin D - Vitamins and Minerals.” NHS. NHS. August 3, 2020. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/.
Reynolds, E H. 2002. “Folic Acid, Ageing, Depression, and Dementia.” BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.) 324 (7352): 1512–15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1123448/.
Tuso, Philip, Mohamed Ismail, Benjamin Ha, and Carole Bartolotto. 2013. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal 17 (2): 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085.
Wooltorton, Eric. 2003. “Too Much of a Good Thing? Toxic Effects of Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.” CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal 169 (1): 47–48. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC164945/.
J, Šelb, Cvetko F, Deutsch L, Bedrač L, Kuščer E, and Maier Ab. 2023. “Personalization Matters: The Effect of Sex in Multivitamin-Multimineral-Based Cancer Prevention.” GeroScience, August. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11357-023-00882-7.