With hundreds of new supplements flooding the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets each year, it can be hard to work out what's what.
Should I take probiotics, and how do they differ from vitamins? Where do herbal medicines fit in? It's a crowded and complicated field, where age-old remedies compete, and often collaborate, with cutting-edge science.
Let's look at the key players and answer some common questions.
Vitamins get their name from the Latin word for life, and with good reason. These organic molecules play a significant role in our metabolism, the series of chemical processes that occur within our body that convert our food and drink to energy.
However, our bodies cannot naturally manufacture certain vitamins, so we obtain them regularly from the food we consume.
We can get all of the vitamins we need from the food we eat and this is the best source, but since the 1930s, vitamin supplements have become an additional way to take them on board.
Life was a bit different in the days before we figured out the important role of vitamins. A scarcity of vitamin D would sometimes contribute to rickets, while quite a while ago, sailors would develop scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C on long sea voyages. (Ever wondered why we call Brits 'limeys'? It's because the British navy used to stock up on citrus fruits to keep scurvy at bay.)
The name 'probiotics' also comes from the word for life (from the Greek this time). Like vitamins, probiotics are designed to support our general health and wellbeing, but they differ from vitamins in important ways.
Unlike vitamins, probiotics are living organisms. These friendly strains of beneficial bacteria can help to maintain the health of the microbiome - the ecosystem of microbes, including beneficial bacteria that live on and inside us.
While vitamins go to work once they're absorbed into the bloodstream, probiotics remain in the intestines, where they can encourage a healthy, diverse bacterial balance. The microflora of the gut can play an important role in maintaining our immune and digestive system health.
Natural probiotics have been around for centuries, in the form of bacteria-rich foods such as yoghurt and kimchi, but advances in science now allow us to cultivate specific strains of bacteria to target different health needs.
Our bodies also require other essential minerals, such as calcium, iron and iodine. Like vitamins, these aren't manufactured by the body and must be regularly consumed through the diet. Good sources of calcium include milk and milk products, leafy green vegetables and certain fish, while iron features in lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, and iodine appears in seafood, which are generally rich in this mineral.
Unlike vitamins, minerals are simple, inorganic substances, so they don't degrade through heat or age.
Herbal and traditional medicine
Beyond vitamins, probiotics and minerals lie the sprawling fields of traditional medicine. Ancient remedies come in all forms and are not easily categorised. Chinese traditional medicine, for instance, includes both animal matter and minerals, as well as herbal cures.
The present can learn from the past, and modern supplements have begun to incorporate some of these traditional ideas into product development. For instance, Life-Space Children Immune Support Probiotic contains Elderflower, which has traditionally been used in Western Herbal Medicine to help relieve symptoms of the common cold.
When can I take vitamins?
We can get all the nutrients we need from eating a balanced diet, but supplements can provide additional support if dietary intake is inadequate.
When can I take probiotics?
Modern food hygiene and certain medications have reduced the spread of disease in the developed world, but we're now exposed to a smaller variety of bacteria than our ancestors were, meaning our microbiome is exposed to less diverse bacteria. Processed foods, heightened stress, lack of exercise and antibiotics can all affect the number and types of bacteria in our gut, but we can support it. A healthy, varied diet of fresh foods and regular exercise, for instance, can fuel the bacteria in our microbiome.
Bacterial diversity is the hallmark of a healthy microbiome, and probiotics offer an additional way to support microbiome health, helping to restore and increase beneficial bacteria in the intestine, which can, in turn, help support a healthy immune system and maintain digestive system health.
Can I take probiotics with other supplements?
Many probiotics already include selected vitamin and mineral supplements to provide additional health benefits.
For instance, Life-Space Immune Support Probiotic and Life-Space Children Immune Support Probiotic not only contain living bacteria, but also zinc. Plus, Immune Support Probiotic contains vitamin C and Children Immune Support Probiotic contains vitamin D to support the health and function of the immune system.
Likewise, Life-Space Probiotic for Breastfeeding contains the mineral iodine, which supports a baby's healthy brain development whilst breastfeeding.
Does a larger dose mean better health?
Short answer: nope. It’s not believed that surplus vitamins provide any additional benefit.
Similarly, while probiotics offer health benefits when taken as recommended, there's no real reason to exceed this amount. It’s important to always follow the recommended dose on the label, or consult your healthcare professional.
Some supplementary advice
Remember, they're supplements, not substitutes.
The best way to look after yourself is a healthy lifestyle with a fresh, balanced diet. And be sure to include lots of fibre-rich foods. The bacteria of your microbiome use this as fuel.
Supplements are useful, but they're designed to complement a healthy lifestyle rather than replace it.
Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist talk to your health professional. Supplements should not replace balanced diet.