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Supplements 101: What are they, and what should you take?

Everything you need to know about finding the right supplement for you.

July 13, 2021
6 min read

Nutritional supplements are nothing new. Go back 150 years and you’ve got cod liver oil, but really, people have been supplementing their standard diet with nutrient-heavy food for millennia. 

What is new, however, is the size of the industry. In 2020, the global dietary supplement market was estimated at $170bn. Which is a lot of cod liver oil. There are plenty of reasons for the growth in the number of supplements out there. Some could be seen as positive—a wider awareness of our health needs. Others less so—predatory businesses taking advantage of lax regulation and enormous markups. 

So if you want to start taking a supplement, you need to be armed with the facts. We’ve put together this guide, so that you have a place to start.

Article breakdown

Why should I take a supplement?

Not everyone needs to. It’s possible to get all the nutrition you need from your diet alone, and no supplement should be seen as a replacement for a balanced diet.

That said, how good is your diet? If we’re being honest. And there’s no shame in having a less than perfect diet. We’re not here to moralise. So many factors play a part, from time, to cost, to convenience, to mental health. And once you recognise that you aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals you need to feel great, you can do something about it. That’s where supplements come in.

Nutrition is a funny thing. We think about it quite a lot, at least in the sense of calorie counts,  carb intake, and processed foods. But we don’t tend to think about the tangible benefits that come with it. For many people, it’s a chore without reward. But it shouldn’t be. Getting the right nutrients in the right quantities, regularly, can help you feel better, every day.

The problem with most multivitamins

Head into any pharmacy and you won’t find a shortage of multivitamins to choose from. Rows and rows of plastic bottles with lots of italics and plus-signs. Quite a lot of blue and orange. It can be overwhelming, and making any choice can be difficult.

And that’s before you realise that many of those multivitamins are less than ideal. They can contain dodgy ingredients, and nutrients in useless doses. There’s no requirement for any scientific input before someone releases a multivitamin. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid all supplements. Just that you need to do your research. 

The truth about multivitamins

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What is an NRV?

If we were to tell you here, you’d never read the article.

In all seriousness, different supplements have different quantities of nutrients. One might have ten times the vitamin C in another, but both would be allowed to say that they contain vitamin C. And that can be used to skimp on ingredient costs, and increase margins.

Governments decided to standardise the system, and developed NRVs. That way you could see how much of a vitamin or mineral was in a supplement, and know whether that was a lot, or not. They’re a good way to compare supplements, and they certainly create a more transparent landscape, but you don’t want to rely entirely on them. Instead, think of them as a weapon in the arsenal of an informed decision.

Find out what it actually is

What time should I take a supplement?

That seems like a strange question, perhaps not something you’ve considered. But it makes sense that certain nutrients should be taken at certain times of the day. After all, you wouldn’t knock back a few coffees just before bed.

For example, B vitamins often contribute to feeling energised, therefore it makes sense to take them in the morning. Something like magnesium can relax your muscles, so a night-time dose would be more appropriate. You’ve also got to think about what nutrients you’re taking together. Magnesium, for one, has a tendency to inhibit absorption of other nutrients, so you don’t want to mix it with anything. Thinking about things like this is just another way to make sure that you’re getting the best rewards from your supplements.

Read more about supplement-timing

As we saw earlier, the supplement industry is huge. But one of the areas that’s been on the rise is brain supplements. This isn’t particularly surprising. As we become more open about mental health, it makes sense to look for ways to keep your brain in great shape. A pandemic sending stress, loneliness and anxiety levels through the roof is also going to lead to more people seeking an answer. 

But brain supplement is a wide-reaching term, and encompasses everything from fish extract to nootropics. Needless to say, some of these are more effective than others. And unfortunately, there’s no solution other looking past the brand, at the science and evidence beyond.

Learn more about brain supplements

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Bioavailability 101

Quantities aren’t the only important factor when choosing a supplement. It doesn’t matter how much vitamin E you take if your body can’t use it.

Most nutrients can come from multiple sources, and the specific compounds will vary. The names of these compounds can quickly become obscure (hello DL-α-tocopheryl acetate) but they matter, and the difference in how much of the key nutrient you can absorb can be huge.

Add in the fact that other nutrients, such as magnesium, can affect bioavailability, and it can be a bit of a minefield. So we put together a quick primer to get you through.

Read more

How to spot a quality supplement

At Heights, we care about the science. It’s important that what we do is using the most up-to-date research, and for that, we want to engage with the professional nutrition community. That’s why we’ve started a series of events for professionals.

In the first event, our co-founder Joel and our Head of Nutritional Research Sophie discussed the integrity of the supplement market, as well as the product development process, and how to spot a high-quality supplement among the many alternatives.

What makes a good supplement

Sophie’s six-point plan

You can see that there’s a lot of choice on the supplement market. And also a lot of dross. And while not everyone needs to explore the world of supplements, for those that do, it can be overwhelming. Even this introductory article has added six more articles to your reading list.

So we had Sophie Medlin, our Head of Nutritional Research, break it down for us. On this episode of the Braincare podcast, she gives us a simple, six-step plan for choosing the right supplement.

Listen now 

We considered all of these factors, and more, when we developed the Smart Supplement. It contains 20 essential nutrients, in forms that you can absorb and in quantities that make a difference. 

Of course, we would say that. But don’t take it from us. See what our customers have to say.

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