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Expensive pills are not better

health-and-fitness Updated: Jan 10, 2009 22:16 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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I was surprised when a friend confessed that she spent over Rs 4,000 on dietary supplements each month. Her daily dose included a calcium tablet to make the bones stronger, a multivitamin for overall dietary deficiencies, an evening primrose oil capsule for pre-menopausal symptoms and an omega-3 capsule for a healthy heart. It put a strain on her wallet, she said, but it beat making a new year resolution that almost always involved some degree of self-flagellation.

My friend and people like her have helped the health and dietary supplement market grow by 10 per cent in India and cross Rs 23 billion in 2007. Thousands of supplements in as many permutation and combinations promise to cure illnesses — from flagging energy to stress and post-menopausal symptoms.

Since dietary supplements are not regulated as drugs by the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, manufacturers pretty much make any claim they want. Before hitting the bottle or a blister pack to perk up your health, check whether the claims are true. Most multivitamin supplements are a combination of the same small group of vitamins: A, E, D and K. What varies between brands is the amount of each nutrient and whether any extra frills have been added, such as evening primrose oil, ginseng, ginkgo or green tea. There is little scientific evidence that add-ons do anything for health. Go for a basic combination, which should cost between Rs 50 and Rs 100 for a month’s dose.

Some health and diet supplements, when taken on prescription, have benefits. Folic acid taken by pregnant women lowers the risk of birth defects in the unborn child, calcium supplementation strengthens brittle bones, and iron tablets treat iron-deficiency anaemia. Another foodsupplement is Omega-3, found in fish-oil supplements, which protects the heart. But instead of paying Rs 1,700 for a month’s dose of an expensive brand, buy any capsule that contains oil from a fish source, such as cod liver, halibut, mackerel, marine, salmon or shark liver.

Other supplements, such as evening primrose oil, have been been scientifically established to have no effect on your health at all. They do not lower menopausal symptoms, and though some small clinical studies have shown it lowers hot flashes and other premenstrual symptoms, but large trials found it had no effect.