Should you take this supplement?

Siski Green / 03 January 2014

Supplements offer you a world of good things but do they deliver? We look at the evidence for some popular supplements on sale.



Co-enzyme Q10

This is an antioxidant and almost every cell in your body contains some. Being an antioxidant means it fights free radicals, those pesky particles that mess around with your DNA and are linked with health problems such as cancer, as well as contributing to the ageing process.

How it might work

As the antioxidant works against the substances that can hasten ageing, the idea is that by adding more of it to the body ageing can be slowed.

The facts so far. Studies are ongoing on CoQ10 but one study, from Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark, found that people who had had a heart attack and who then took daily CoQ10 within three days of the event were less likely to have repeat heart attacks and less likely to die of heart disease too. A review of 12 clinical studies came to the conclusion that regular supplementation with CoQ10 can reduce lower systolic blood pressure by up to 17 mm Hg.

Preliminary studies also suggest that a supplement may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s but more research is needed.

Should you take it?

There are dietary sources of CoQ10, such as oily fish, liver, and whole grains. Most people, especially those with a healthy diet, get enough for their bodies to function perfectly well and may not see the same benefits as others who do not eat a varied or healthy diet might.

Propolis

Propolis is a tree resin, but it usually collected from bee hives where bees use the substance to build the hives.

How it might work

As it is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral, it could potentially help prevent colds or get you better more quickly. It could also potentially help people with H.pylori bacteria, a cause of peptic ulcer disease. Finally, as it is anti-viral it may help treat herpes and cold sores.

The facts so far

Research from University of Strathclyde showed that propolis works well in fighting certain strains of the MRSA bug, which has proven resistant to antibiotics. Research on preventing colds isn’t extensive but one study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that children taking propolis regularly, along with echinacea and vitamin C did reduce their likelihood of getting sick (cold, flu, other respiratory illness) by around 50%. But by far the best results so far have been with cold sores where it has been shown to reduce severity of symptoms.

Should you take it?

According to research from the National Centre for Epidemiology, National Institute of Health, Rome, Italy, adverse reactions to propolis can and do occur – mainly allergic reactions causing skin rashes or breathing problems. Some have been serious. For that reason if you know you’re sensitive to pollen it’s probably best to avoid taking it. In fact, Asthma UK recommends that people with asthma and allergies do not take propolis. If you’re still keen to try it, see your GP or try a skin patch test first, applying the propolis to see if there is any reaction.

Gingseng

This is a plant root. It’s sold in root form (in Asian food shops), in powdered form and in capsules.

Why it might work

It’s been used for centuries as a traditional Chinese medicine, used for boosting energy. It’s also supposed to be good for sharpening your mind, boosting your immune system and even fighting cancer.

The facts so far

A study from the Mayo Clinic, US, found that cancer patients had dramatically higher energy levels when taking the supplement. Patients saw a 20-point improvement on an energy scale of 1-100 after taking 2000mg for eight weeks. Preliminary research suggests it may improve concentration but it’s not conclusive. Similarly, studies looking at how it might boost immunity or fight cancer haven't proven conclusive. That doesn’t mean ginseng doesn’t work in those ways, it just means there’s no concrete evidence either way.

Should you take it?

From the research that’s been done so far, side-effects are uncommon and usually mild. However, the root does affect blood sugar levels so check with your GP before taking any if you’re diabetic. The researchers who undertook the study at the Mayo Clinic recommend getting pure ginseng that has not been treated for optimum results.

L-carnitine

This is an amino acid found in meat such as beef and chicken, dairy products, fish and asparagus. It helps the body produce energy from food. Most people get what they need from their diet, except vegans who might need to up their intake of certain foods (wholewheat bread, for example) to avoid deficiency.

Why it might work

It’s used by the body for energy production and so could potentially work as a much-needed pick me up when you’re feeling tired or fatigued. Because of this it might also potentially work to help slow the ageing process and even against Alzheimer’s. Finally, certain diseases or medical problems that involve lower energy levels or muscle disorders – AIDS, male fertility problems, Lyme disease, for example – could potentially be improved with use of l-carnitine.

The facts so far 

There have been several studies looking at whether l-carnitine might boost energy for sportspeople but none have been able to show that it has a significant effect. Studies with rodents have indicated that it might help slow the ageing process, however, with animals moving about more and showing better memory than their non-l-carnitine-taking counterparts. And one study from University of California School of Medicine in San Diego, US, found that regular supplementation helped slow mental decline for early-onset Alzheimer’s patients.

Should you take it?

Few or no side effects are reported. That said, unless you’re vegan or a strict vegetarian, it’s unlikely that you’re low in l-carnitine so it might not make a huge difference to you. If you’re in any doubt, see your GP first.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.