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KaiJuly 19, 2018

Vitamin supplements: how much should we believe the hype?


The road to health is long and winding but should it be paved with vitamin supplements? Madeleine Chapman dives into the world of monthly vitamin subscriptions.

Seven-minute abs, that one trick for a slim waist, and the perfect fruit to get rid of cellulite. They all promise a better you with little to no effort. And they almost invariably promise more than they can deliver. Then there are vitamin supplements.

Over the past six years I’ve taken supplements for approximately six months, meaning every year I decide that what I really need in my life is vitamins and I take them for a month before deciding that what I really need is something else. I do this because every year is a New Year and every New Year is a New Me. We’ve all made the promises: no more drinking, no more smoking, more going to the gym. All the promises that, if kept, would lead to a better me. I make these promises to myself and then I try to undertake them all at once. A full lifestyle shift. And the cherry on top is a multivitamin.

Quitting even a casual habit of drinking or smoking is an effort. Going to the gym is physically exhausting. Swallowing a pill every morning is neither. It’s the equivalent of writing a to-do list and including a few things you’ve already done just so you can cross them out immediately. You technically haven’t done anything but it still makes you feel more productive.

More recently I’ve been trying to to be healthier in ways that don’t cost money. But despite my efforts, vitamin supplements have made a comeback in my life through the conduit of Instagram influencers. Sponsored posts for monthly vitamin subscriptions are the new normal, with Matilda Rice, Simone Anderson, Anika Moa, and Black Sticks Charlotte and Sam Harrison all singing the praises of various products.

Whether or not they work for these women (and they are all women) is unclear, but the endorsement is as real you’ll find, and once again I wondered if perhaps vitamin supplements were exactly what I needed in my life. So I went shopping.

Vitally Vitamins offers an online quiz and, based off your answers, give recommendations on which vitamins you should take. Once you’ve decided, there’s a choice of packaging and a personalised naming for each vitamins packet, one for each day of the month, delivered to your door as a subscription. The packaging looks neat and feels professional. It’s the pill equivalent of buying a new planner and nice coloured pens and arranging them neatly on your desk to feel more organised. When I took the test acting as a very unhealthy person (heavy drinker, heavy smoker, always stressed), Vitally recommended four products at a total cost of $39 per month. When I took the quiz acting as the healthiest person alive (non-drinker, never smoked, regular exerciser), Vitally recommended four products at a total cost of $57 per month.

Recommendations for unhealthy Mad (L) and healthy Mad

It seems ridiculous and yet it makes sense. Because, aside from those with medically diagnosed deficiencies, supplements are likely to appeal to two types of people: those who hope that a supplement will be a substitute for healthy habits, and those who have all the healthy habits but still feel like they might be sick. The former group is everyone who thinks a salad cancels out a pizza if eaten together, and the latter group is the Worried Well.

The Worried Well is a term given to the rising number of people who live their lives certain that they’re ill, often visiting the doctor to be reassured or given confirmation of their suspected health issues. It’s the Worried Well who regularly turn to vitamin supplements for comfort.

A week into my new Vitally Vitamins regimen, I attended a seminar by Ben Warren, founder of holistic health business BePure. The theme was “tired, stressed and all the rest” and the audience appeared to be made up entirely of the Worried Well. If the small sample is anything to go by, the Worried Well are white, middle-to-upper-class, and female.

I had read glowing reviews about Warren and his BePure products. He’s changed many women’s lives, particularly those suffering from the adverse side effects of menstruation. His products are expensive but apparently a worthy expenditure. You can’t put a price on health, and so on. But I was a little sceptical of his methods thanks to a “free virtual consult” I’d had earlier that week. Someone at the BePure clinic asked, over the phone, about the quality of my sleep, digestion, and menstrual cycle, all to which I answered a safe “pretty good”. I was then recommended a multivitamin and a fish oil supplement, and told that if those didn’t bring about a noticeable change, I might be suffering from something called adrenal fatigue, in which case they had a third product I should try. But more on that later.

I went into that seminar sceptical, which didn’t stop me from being worried that I was in fact dying. I came out of that seminar very much impressed. Ben Warren is the best salesman I’ve ever seen. If I wasn’t already sure I had some sort of health condition going in, I certainly left believing it.

Warren began with the basics. Drink more water, develop a sleep schedule, try some form of meditation. Everyone was nodding. We’re on the same page. We believe the same things. He did this for a full hour. By the time he started to introduce more extreme scenarios, we’d all been agreeing with him (read: believing he was right) for long enough that it was easy to assume he’d continue being right. He’d established that we were all dehydrated (I certainly was), and needed more sleep, and probably still wanted to lose that last few kilos of stubborn weight, but now he was getting into the why.

Warren mentioned the process by which cells transfer energy and burn fat, and showed how some (keyword: some) people with severe deficiencies will struggle to lose weight not because they’re doing anything wrong but simply because their cells aren’t working properly. Everyone in the room nodded. I nodded. Because who wouldn’t want to hear that it’s not their fault? Weight gain can be a very real symptom of very real illnesses, but I struggled to believe that all 60 of us in that room were suffering from the same serious deficiency. This continued for another hour. Vitamin B12? Probably deficient. How so? Warren listed the four foods with the most B12 in them, including beef liver and sardines. He then asked who eats those foods daily. No one raised their hand. Well – no wonder so many New Zealanders are deficient in B12.

The BePure website (Screengrab: BePure)

What he said was at least technically correct. He did list four foods very high in B12. And it’s true that barely anyone eats sardines daily. But what he didn’t list or even mention was the dozens of other foods that contain B12, for example eggs, all meats, a lot of fish, milk, and bran cereals.

It was much the same story on vitamin D and iodine. He then displayed an impressive and wholesome daily meal plan, followed by a list of everything you’d be deficient in if you followed it. Fruit and vegetables in New Zealand supermarkets have next to no nutrients, he added. “You’ve got to take something,” he said, introducing the idea of supplements to the audience. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get nutrients needed simply from food.”

The messaging I got from the seminar was you’re probably very unhealthy. But it’s not your fault! But there’s nothing you can do. But we have the solution!

In order to sell a solution there must be a problem. And if people aren’t aware that they have a problem, they need to have it laid out. Warren introduced so many problems to his audience in so short a time it would’ve seemed almost cruel not to offer up a solution.

The final illness introduced: adrenal fatigue. This was something I’d never heard of four days earlier but was apparently suffering from. The symptoms?

Tired in the morning.
Not hungry until around 10am.
A slump at 3pm.

Here I was thinking that those were merely symptoms of being alive. As Warren continued the nodding reached its peak. We were no longer the Worried Well. We were dying.

But is adrenal fatigue even a real thing? I spoke to medical professionals in various fields, all of whom sighed when I said the words. Dr Ben Albert, paediatrician and research fellow working in the field of supplements, assured me that adrenal fatigue “doesn’t refer to any illness that’s known to medicine”.

A systematic review of adrenal fatigue titled Adrenal fatigue does not exist, published in a peer reviewed science journal, can be found online, though you’ll need to scroll down in a Google search to find it. Its conclusion: “there is no substantiation that ‘adrenal fatigue’ is an actual medical condition. Therefore, adrenal fatigue is still a myth.”

BePure countered by saying it is “a common term used in the natural health space”. It is used, a spokesperson said, “to describe ‘burn out’ of the HPA axis – the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis, which is recognised as being pivotal in our stress response”.

While the symptoms the term describes may be real, and the functionality of the HPA axis important, the systematic review found that “no confirmed methods of clinical screening for adrenal fatigue are available”.

What the review did acknowledge, however, is people’s need to assign a name to a set of symptoms in order to feel that it’s real. In that way, the medical-sounding “adrenal fatigue” has been heavily used to describe the common symptoms of stress. Being told you’re stressed and should sleep more and drink less coffee isn’t welcome news. Being told you suffer from adrenal fatigue, completely out of your control, and here’s an adrenal regenerator pill to help, is much better. It’s not your fault. Here’s a solution.

I told the BePure worker over the phone that I felt tired in the mornings and was advised I may be suffering from adrenal fatigue. It is hard to see how that diagnosis can be made with any confidence based off what little I said (we never met in person) and yet the clinical-sounding term was presented and a supplement offered.

At the seminar Warren stressed that the while there are daily recommended intakes for vitamins and minerals, these are not “optimal”, with the “optimal” intake being much higher. The BePure Optimal Health Pack is a daily intake of 13 pills. That’s a lot of vitamins and minerals. But our bodies don’t always need that many nutrients and unfortunately they have to go somewhere.

While some vitamins can be stored within the body (like B12 from sardines), “most vitamins, our body can’t store them,” Dr Albert said. “So if you take large amounts of them you just excrete them out in your urine.”

In a statement (read it in full here), BePure defended its products, which had been “formulated based on years of research and the first-hand experience of clinical nutritionist Ben Warren and the BePure Clinic team,” it said.”On top of this, we have an in-house research and laboratory team that includes two PhD scientists that contribute to the formulation of our products.”

BePure’s approach to health was “holistic” and “personalised to the individual”, encompassing “diet, lifestyle and nutritional support,” it said. “We spend the majority of our time educating first and foremost on the positive impact diet and lifestyle changes can have on our health and the importance of finding what balance of these works right for you …

“We also utilise high quality, high strength nutritional supplements in the most bioavailable forms. This is what research shows is most important, alongside the duration of time you supplement for, to support health. Which does make sense, eating healthy for one day or even just a week doesn’t have too much impact! It’s what we do every day that accounts for our health.”

A lot of people bought BePure products that night after the seminar. I couldn’t afford to pay almost $200 for a month’s worth of supplements. But was I feeling healthier from the vitamin supplements I had taken. I felt pretty good. In fact, I was sure I felt better than two weeks prior, before I started the Vitally Vitamins subscription. Even if it was a placebo effect, the results were real.

Or was it something else? Every instance of me being a vitamin taker is also an instance of me being a healthier person. And at first I feel sure it’s the vitamins that have improved my health. Never mind the coinciding change in diet, increase in exercise and sleep, and consciously tidy environment. I paid money for the vitamins. It had to be them. But then, invariably, as the diet falls away and the late nights come back – wow, what’s happening, did the vitamins stop working?

At the end of my virtual consult with BePure, I asked if anyone had the right energy levels to not need vitamin supplements. “To be honest, with the way that most of us are living our lives these days, no,” the consultant on the other end of the line told me. “I don’t even think it’s possible to always have heaps of energy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s had enough energy.”

What about with all the vitamin supplements? “Even then, compared to two years ago before I started taking the multivitamins, my energy levels are so much better but they still can be better.”

Is it even possible to have “optimal” energy levels and health? “Yes I’m sure it is. I reckon Ben [Warren]’s pretty much got as close as you can get to it.”

I cancelled my Vitally subscription after one month and returned to a pill-free existence. As I write this I’m incredibly tired and lacking in energy. But I’m writing this at 3am because instead of doing it yesterday, I decided to forgo sleep and write through the night. I’ve eaten terribly for a week and drank a giant energy drink at 1am. It’s pretty easy for me to pinpoint why I feel this way. So before I turn to supplements in search of a better me, I think I’ll first try to get there on my own.

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