Supplements can be life changing

I’ve been a busy girl this week so I didn’t catch up with BBC’s Doctor in the House until Friday evening. When I did I was surprised it hadn’t made major headline news. After all, whenever there’s a story about the dangers of supplements you’ll find it all over the front pages of the papers. What a surprise, then, that a story showing how magically effective supplements can be didn’t get the same treatment! What gives?

Here was a TV programme showing how the addition of three cheap B vitamins made a life changing difference to a young father – and there was barely a ripple of interest in the media. It’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t make the front page as we were all caught up, quite rightly, in the tragic events in Manchester. Nevertheless, I’ve scoured the mainstream media to find no mention of it anywhere.

The patient in question had suffered from twenty years of crippling tiredness and an array of mental health symptoms. Despite eating all the right things and getting regular exercise, he was barely managing to get through the day. Sleep was difficult and he frequently woke ‘unrefreshed’, despite going to bed at the same time as his kids. His GP was baffled.

After investigating sleeping disorders with no success, the wonderful Dr Rangan Chatterjee ran a few checks and discovered a genetic mutation (polymorphism) that meant his vitamin B12 levels were through the floor, leaving him at risk of vascular disease in later life on top of his current problems. Not to worry… a simple supplement containing vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12 sorted out the problem at source and he was soon feeling like a new man: sleeping better and feeling better. It made very good television.

The reason I’m retelling the story in my clumsy way is that the most newsworthy part of the story was left out of the programme – at least to my mind:

The underlying problem was detected by monitoring blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that builds up in your blood when something called methylation isn’t happening well. Methylation is arguably the most important biochemical pathway in your body, involved in processing neurotransmitters and hormones, programming and protecting delicate genetic material, and making protein and energy. Estimates vary but most agree that it happens billions of times per second. High homocysteine levels indicate a bottleneck in the methylation cycle, a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Since 1 in 10 adults in the UK are believed to be B12 deficient, many of us have problems with this pathway.

Here’s the thing: nutritional therapists were taught about this fifteen years ago! Patrick Holford wrote a book about it and was called a quack but it is now widely accepted that homocysteine levels are a good predictor of your future risk for cardiovascular events. Way back in 2002 a study was published showing that people with a specific polymorphisms had high homocysteine combined with low folate, significantly increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease, and a prospective cohort study published 2008, using data collected on 853 men and women between 1995 and 2007, found that people with the highest homocysteine levels had twice the risk of dying from all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.

Results of large scale trials aiming to show that high homocysteine can be lowered by addition of B vitamins and result in a concomitant reduction in cardiovascular events are mixed – although a very quick trawl reveals a hotch-potch of poor trial design with, for example, B6 supplemented without B9 and B12, or folic acid being used when folate would be better. (It makes you wonder whether the researchers designing the trial were trying to add to the confusion.) Most fail to take into account individual polymorphisms which was clearly an important factor here.

Bottom line: this week’s programme showed quite clearly how ‘vital’ your nutrient status can be to the way you live your life. Not only can it protect you from future disease but it can change the way you experience every day. Moreover, individual biochemical glitches that your GP will not be looking for can mean that you can do all the right things and still not get the right results. Until the health service catches up, the only way you can access this sort of personalised health care is to work with a functional medicine practitioner like me. Unfortunately current advertising standards guidelines place strict limits on what we are allowed to say about the way we work, or about the amazing results we get with clients, but programmes like this are a credible way to show you what’s possible with just a small change in nutrient intake.

The fact that the power of B vitamins can be openly discussed on TV by a medical doctor is more of a breakthrough than it may seem. It may just be that we are arriving at the third stage of the Schopenhauer observation – which would be good news for us all.


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Dawn Waldron

Highly experienced nutritional and nutrigenomic therapist helping people optimise diet, lifestyle and gene expression for health and happiness after breast cancer.

2 thoughts on “Supplements can be life changing”

  1. I kept hoping as I read this post that some positive recommendations. How much B12? How much folate? What foods? What diet changes? Finding expert guidance is my challenge.

  2. Good question. The government sets recommended daily allowances, and there are also guidelines for ‘tolerable upper limits’, and suggested optimum levels. The RDAs are designed to cover 95% of the population but individual needs can vary greatly which is exactly what this programme highlights. Optimising nutrition is a personalised pursuit which is why you won’t find blanket recommendations on my blog. If you suspect your B12 levels are sub-optimal you could request a blood test from your GP and take it from there. Good luck!