Welcome To The Cult Of Supplementology

Health anxiety is at an all-time high, and the supplement industry is cashing in – we investigate how Covid caused the vitamin boom

By Hanna Woodside

3 March 2021

very month, Rachel, 33, knocks back roughly £300 worth of supplements. “I take them religiously,” she says. “I like to be proactive about my health and I’m happy to spend money on it.” Her day starts with a cup of liquid probiotic, two multivitamins, a zinc tablet, and an omega-3 capsule. At lunch she spritzes three sprays of vitamin D under her tongue. On top of that, she takes four capsules a day of Lyma, a luxury supplement combining nine health-boosting ingredients, including saffron extract and ashwagandha root.

Rachel, who works in customer services, says her supplement routine “brings balance” to her body. “It helps my mood, digestion, sleep, skin, hormones, energy, and I rarely get ill,” she says. “The reason I'm into all this is because I have a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. As a teenager I lost a lot of weight, I was malnourished for years and it took a long time to get my energy levels back with the right diet and supplements. On one level, the supplements could be a psychological comfort, but I do feel physically better.”

For women like Rachel, “supplementology” – the practise of combining multiple supplements every day in the quest for optimum health – is an empowering, DIY approach to taking control of their wellbeing. Predictably, Covid-19 has led to a huge surge in supplement use. Almost half the UK population (48 per cent) bought a supplement last year, and sales reached record levels in 2020, growing by 19 per cent, according to data from consumer analyst agency Kantar. Unsurprisingly, the biggest rise in sales has been for immunity-boosting supplements. Vitamin C sales are up 31 per cent, according to Kantar’s data, but vitamin D is the big winner – up 83 per cent over the course of last year.

In April 2020, Boston University’s school of medicine published research that suggested Covid patients with a vitamin D deficiency could be more likely to die from the disease. Other studies rapidly followed – including research from Spain that showed 80 per cent of Covid patients in one hospital had a vitamin D deficiency. Currently, the official position from Public Health England and Nice (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) is that there is insufficient evidence that vitamin D can reduce the risks of Covid, but adults should take a daily dose of ten micrograms “‘to support general health”’ if they're spending most of their time indoors because of the pandemic. (Our bodies create vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin.) In November, the UK government announced it was offering a free four-month supply to clinically vulnerable people, who were shielding and might be at risk of a vitamin D deficiency.

Despite conflicting opinions in the medical world, “the press, in terms of it potentially supporting your body if you contract Covid, clearly had an impact”, says Kantar’s Strategic Insight Director, Matt Maxwell. “It’s benefitted the market too; vitamin D is significantly more expensive than other supplements, so it’s ‘traded up’ consumers to more expensive supplements than they would normally buy.”

'There are a lot of things out of our control at the moment, but this is one of the things that can be under our control’

For Sam, a 27-year-old in marketing, supplements offer peace of mind; it’s not just about the evidence, it’s about feeling less helpless. She saw someone post the Covid protocol of natural health practitioner Charlotte Pulver (more from whom in a second) on Facebook, and started following it last month. “I want to know I’ve done everything I can to protect myself. And if I do get Covid, I know that I’ve given my body the best possible chance to fight it off.

“I am really anxious about it. I know someone who has long Covid, and he’s been suffering for months, he’s completely exhausted all the time and he has no idea when or if he’ll get back to normal. I can see how miserable he is, and I am scared of that happening to me.”

Dr Sohère Roked, an expert in integrative and functional medicine (essentially a more holistic approach to health) has published a seven-step approach to Covid, which includes a daily supplement list: vitamin D3 (50 micrograms), vitamin C (1,000-2,000mg) in liposomal form, a delivery method that is more easily absorbed by the body, zinc (20-30mg), omega-3 for its anti-inflammatory properties, and a superfood supplement for an antioxidant boost.

“There are a lot of things out of our control at the moment, but this is one of the things that can be under our control,” says Roked. She’s recommended the regime to many of her clients and follows it herself – but stresses that it’s not a magic bullet. “You can’t supplement your way out of a bad lifestyle. Sleep, diet, exercise and mindfulness are all important for the immune system. Supplements are a bridge between your diet and optimum nutrition.”

Other Covid protocols are being shared online. The natural health practitioner Charlotte Pulver launched the Frontline Immune Support Team, providing NHS workers with supplements, after successfully helping clients with early symptoms of Covid. She’s created a Covid protocol for prevention, and for those with symptoms.

Both include large doses of liposomal vitamin C, zinc, a mushroom complex combining reishi and cordyceps (“to inhibit viral replication and protect the lungs, heart and kidneys”) and, of course, vitamin D. Pulver is emphatic that we need at least 100 micrograms of vitamin D a day, ten times the government recommended dose. There is ongoing debate in the medical community about effective dosages; in January this year, more than 200 medical professionals from around the world wrote an open letter recommending that daily vitamin D intake for adults should be 100 micrograms in light of Covid.

“People are realising that as well as external prevention – social distancing, hand-washing, masks, all of which are really important – that you’ve got to take care of internal immunity, too,” adds Pulver.

Since the pandemic hit, multiple studies have tried to test the efficacy of supplements in fighting Covid, but the research is not yet conclusive. "More randomised controlled trials – the gold-standard method that can help to determine cause-and-effect relationships – are needed," says Dr Emma Derbyshire, who has published over 150 peer-reviewed publications in the field of nutrition and public health. "Over the last 12 months, these have been building, especially for nutrients such as vitamin D, but ideally data needs to be pooled and collated from multiple trials, and meta-analyses need to be published, before firm conclusions can be drawn." She adds that UK dietary reference values – the levels we currently use as nutritional benchmarks are in need of a refresh. "These were compiled in 1991 and based on science [from] before that. We have now moved on considerably with nutritional science, and this should be reflected in updated guidelines that now encompass evidence from the growing field of immunonutrition."

Alexa Mullane, founder of boutique supplement brand Potion London, thinks there has been a shift in attitudes to supplements. “There has been a lot of press about vitamin D and I think people are taking notice, and taking supplements in general more seriously as helping to prevent illness.” she says. “During lockdown, we’ve had record sales. The internet and social media means that we have access to information like never before, so we can find out the latest research in nutrition and supplements for ourselves.”

Mullane’s personal regime is full-on. Every morning she takes two capsules of multibiotic for a healthy gut, 1300mg of omega-3 fish oil for heart, brain and skin health, 75 micrograms of vitamin D and 300mg of turmeric for immune support, 100mg of hyaluronic acid for skin hydration, 10 micrograms of vitamin B12 for energy, a green veg supplement and a multivitamin. Just before bed she takes 1200mg of collagen for its anti-ageing properties.

“The pandemic has made me really appreciate my health and the power of looking after myself. I feel lucky to have a strong immune system,” she says. “I see supplements as an insurance policy; the reality is I don’t eat all the recommended portions of fruit and veg every day, and it’s difficult to rely on food to get all the nutrients I need. I absolutely see it as an investment, like spending money on good food. People think nothing of spending £30 a week on a takeaway, but the same amount can get you a couple of months’ worth of supplements.”

Writer Leanne, 31, currently takes five supplements a day (magnesium, vitamin D, omega 3, a multivitamin and a probiotic). She started taking supplements in 2017 after experiencing chronic pain during sex. “No doctors could solve it: I was passed from person to person and they were all at a loss. It went on for months and was a massive strain. It was both frustrating and upsetting. I felt very alone.”

Desperate for an answer, she started researching what might help on online forums. “I felt I had to do everything I could to fix myself, whether that was reading as many papers on sex pain as I could find or trying loads and loads of supplements. At one point I was taking iron, vitamin B, two types of probiotic to reduce inflammation, an expensive fatty acid designed for women with vaginal dryness, and five tablets a day of D-mannose, which supports a healthy urinary tract.

“Some people thought I was mad, but I was willing to try anything. All I was losing out on if they didn’t work was money. Plus, I kind of felt like every supplement that didn’t work was at least one ticked off the list in terms of me heading towards the right answer.”

Leanne eventually was eventually diagnosed with vaginismus, a psychosexual disorder where the muscles spasm involuntarily, and was treated with physical therapy. “I don't think the supplements actually worked, but at the time it was something to cling on to, a sense that I was heading towards getting better rather than sitting around waiting for the right doctor to come along with an answer.”

Alice, a 30-year-old interior designer, also felt let down by her doctor following a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which was causing her chronic skin problems and hormonal imbalances. “When I phoned the GP surgery to follow up and ask if I could speak to a doctor more about it, I was told by the receptionist to just Google PCOS and read up about it myself. I didn’t want to waste the GP’s time, but I did feel a bit frustrated and discouraged. I felt like I’d been left to figure things out myself.” Following the advice of a private nutritionist, Alice has started taking 300mg of diindolylmethane (DIM), 30mg of zinc, 500mg of Bacopa monnieri herb and 1,000mg of borage oil as part of her daily routine. “Taking the supplements feels like I can try and take control of my health. Of course it’s not a guarantee that I will get the exact results I’m hoping for, but it’s something I’m willing to try.”

Supplementology is rarely static. Refining your regime, introducing new and better products with more sophisticated formulations – is a liquid better than a capsule or spray, will a nutrient encapsulated in a fat molecule be better absorbed by your body? – is a big part of it. “I stick to my core regime but I will add new ones if I read about a product that seems interesting, like mushroom supplements,” says Mullane. Rachel will switch between brands if there is a lot of hype about a new launch. “I took VSL#3 probiotic for a long time but moved to Symprove because everyone was talking about it. I wanted to see if it was as good as they said.”

What can start as grabbing a three-for-two deal in Boots can quickly spiral. It’s a rabbit-hole that Anya, a 33-year-old solicitor, fell into after she joined a Facebook group where people discuss which supplements to take. “I’d spend whole evenings Googling if I should take chelated copper or copper gluconate, or which brand made the best coenzyme Q10. It was like I was on a mission to find the perfect, most effective, sophisticated products, so I could have ‘perfect’ health,” she says. “I went from taking a single multivitamin to having an entire drawer of expensive supplements.

“The more information I read, the more anxious I’d get and the more I bought. It got so ridiculous that I would actually panic if I saw a new product: was it better than the one I was taking, should I switch? Looking back, I was clearly really stressed at work, and obsessing over supplements was a way to feel in control of one aspect of my life.” She’s now scaled back to a single multivitamin and a probiotic.

As far back as the 1930s, when synthetic vitamin products came onto the market promising vim, vigour and pep, we’ve turned to supplements to boost our health. By 1942, the term “vitamania” was coined to describe the appeal of relying on supplements rather than getting vitamins from your diet.

Fast-forward almost 80 years, and in its latest iteration, the supplement industry is riding high on the coat-tails of the wellness revolution. A cultural shift towards prioritising personal health, combined with tech such as fitness-trackers and sleep apps, means that every element of our health can now be measured, monitored – and improved.

A global pandemic has only fuelled our obsession with “hacking” our health and optimising our bodies. Health anxiety more than doubled last year, according to research by the University of Bath; not surprising considering the daily reporting of death figures and hospital admissions, exacerbated by endless doomscrolling and what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic – an overabundance of information, both offline and online”.

As the supplement market continues to expand (market intelligence agency Mintel predicts it will grow £65 million in the next four years and be worth an estimated £559 million by 2025) there are always more brands and more ingredients, promising more effective results, for supplementologists to try.

The next frontier? Personalisation. “We’re starting to see services like Vitamin Buddy and Vitl that offer you a personalised vitamin linked to your priorities and needs,” says Kantar’s Maxwell. Mullane agrees that tailor-made is where the market is headed. “People will want to know that the supplements they take are specific to them,” she says. “This will go hand-in-hand with blood tests and DNA tests to find out how you metabolise different nutrients and what you need more of. The more knowledge you have about your body, the more you can make informed decisions about your supplements.” Get ready for supplemtology 2.0.

Lead image by: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

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