Vitamins and Supplements: Strengths, Weaknesses and Their Benefits for the Elderly and Arthritic


Vitamins and supplements get spruiked pretty heavily as an easy solution to virtually any problem your body might have. You’ve almost certainly seen the ads of healthy looking men and women, scantily clad, proclaiming the benefits of a variety of vitamins and supplements. The not so subtle message that you are simply a few vitamins and supplements away from that buff beach bod you so desire. Beyond even just the marketing, it is easy to see the attraction. Not a fan of veggies, just supplement their vitamins. Don’t enjoy meat, supplement its vitamins. One or so pills that can help to provide your body with anything you might be short of. Who doesn’t love a quick fix? Sadly, as is usually the case, if it sounds too good to be true, well, you know the rest. 

There are no vitamins and supplements that can replace a healthy diet. Sorry to disappoint you if you were thinking of trading out veggies for vitamin supplements. In many cases, research hasn’t really kept pace with the popularity of supplements. Perhaps this is just wilful ignorance on the part of the consumer in the quest for the easiest solution but the marketing is pretty convincing and it is hard to blame someone for looking for simple solutions to health problems. The name, vitamins and supplements, also screams ‘natural’, which certainly has to be an incentive. Whilst it’s true that vitamins are organic compounds, the body only uses them in very small amounts. The uses range across a variety of metabolic processes, meaning simply the exchange from food to energy for the body. As mentioned earlier, there is really no better way to access these vitamins then through eating a varied diet of unprocessed foods. Despite the vitamins in supplements being synthesised to achieve the exact chemical makeup of naturally-occurring vitamins, they still wont yield the same result as when gleaned from food. Food is complex and the different vitamins and minerals found in food are likely to be working together, hence the vitamins seem to be less effective when taken in isolation. 

Despite all this talk of their limitations, there are some very real instances where vitamins and supplements can be incredibly helpful to tackle deficiencies. These include for: 

  • Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding 

Folate is the only vitamin that is better absorbed through a supplement or fortified foods than through simple food sources. A lack of folate can place an unborn child at a high risk of developing a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida. A correct amount of folate before and during early pregnancy helps to prevent seven out of ten cases of neural tube defects so be sure to consult your doctor about folate supplements if pregnant or planning.

  • Smokers, excessive drinkers and users of illegal drugs 

Smoking, excessive drinking and the use of illegal drugs increases the generation of free radicals in the body, whilst at the same time depleting key vitamins that the body uses to fight tissue damage, such as antioxidants like vitamin C and E. Vitamins and supplements may be helpful but quitting is obviously the quickest solution to this problem.

  • Those with limited diets

Whether it is your choice to eat vegetarian or vegan, dieting or simply allergy related, a limited diet may mean that you need to supplement particular vitamins you may be missing out on. As with any vitamins and supplement use, always consult your doctor to ensure you are safe and achieving the most effective results. 

  • The elderly 

The elderly often begin to consume less food, largely due to a decrease in physical activity. However, their vitamin requirements remain significant. Later in this article we will discuss some specific vitamins and supplements which can be helpful in treating arthritis. 

  • Women with heavy periods 

Heavy periods may result in anemia, which means you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body’s tissues. This results in a depletion of iron stores, which can leave you feeling constantly tired, weak, dizzy and or short of breath. Iron supplements or multivitamins may be helpful here but as always, consult your doctor. 

  • People suffering from malabsorption issues (diarrhoea, coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis or pancreatitis)

Your body may struggle to absorb key vitamins for a number of reasons. Eating suitable foods will help with this but in some instances supplements will likely be recommended in order to establish a balance in your body to ensure you are not deficient in any specific vitamins or minerals. 

As mentioned earlier, the elderly are particularly at risk of being deficient in key vitamins and minerals. When it comes to arthritis there are some specific supplements that have been proven to be effective in treating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA) and other related conditions. These include:

  • Curcumin (from the turmeric root)

The turmeric root has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. However, as curcumin only makes up about 3% of turmeric, you would need to consume a lot to see any impact. This is why a supplement is a great alternative. Something to be aware of though is curcumin’s ability to possibly limit iron absorption. If low iron is an issue for you then raise this with your doctor. 

  • Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to the development of a wide range of arthritis conditions. A supplement may help to combat this.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Unless you are consuming fatty fish regularly, at least two servings a week, it is unlikely you will benefit from its anti-inflammatory properties. Plant based supplements may be preferable in this scenario to avoid the risk of mercury contamination, which can be a factor with poorly manufactured fish oil supplements. 

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate 

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate appear as ingredients in most supplements seeking to treat arthritis. The substances are found in human cartilage and it is believed they may help to rebuild worn out cartilage, thus providing some pain relief but the studies are not conclusive. 

So, the magic pill to solve all of your vitamin and mineral deficiency needs doesn’t necessarily exist. Keep coming back to a varied and balanced diet and if you are in the situation where you have gaps in your diet, for whatever reason, consult your doctor to see what vitamins and supplements might be best for you and how much is a safe and helpful dosage. This is really important as higher than recommended doses of vitamins and supplements can have serious health repercussions, often far worse than the deficiency you might be aiming to treat.  



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