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Winter isn’t the only time that customers will need to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients, there are reasons why their diets may need a helping hand all year round.
As we head into our second winter living with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, people have become increasingly aware of the self care measures they can take to protect their immunity and overall general health.
However, despite the latest UK Vitamins and Supplements Market Report from Mintel showing that the pandemic has boosted the use of vitamin and mineral supplements (VMS) for energy, digestive health and immunity, a new study from VMS brand Alive! also found that 29 per cent of people have no idea which essential nutrients and supplements they need.
When it comes to VMS there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and as the seasons change, so do the body’s requirements. Thankfully, surviving the seasons doesn’t need to be left to chance – there are a whole host of supplements that can help to maintain health and wellbeing throughout the year.
As the days get shorter and darker, and the inevitable cold and flu season kicks in, it’s important for people to know how to protect their health and immunity – whether they have been vaccinated against flu and Covid-19 or not.
"Winter is likely to be the most challenging season for our health because we spend more time indoors, we may have less exercise, viral infections abound, cold, wet, and windy weather can play havoc with our skin and joints and we may eat more comfort food and drink more alcohol," says Dr Nisa Aslam, GP for the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS).
Indeed, a recent report commissioned by HSIS entitled Back to Basics: The Nutrients You Need Served on a Plate found that our diets have not improved during the last few decades. There have actually been declines in intakes of riboflavin (vitamin B2), folate (vitamin B9), vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, calcium, magnesium, iodine, selenium, and potassium.
While any micronutrient imbalance should be addressed, one of the most important vitamins to ensure we have a good supply of – particularly in the darker months – is vitamin D.
"Vitamin D is needed for the maintenance of normal bones because it helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, and supports the proper functioning of muscles," explains Pietro Mastrangelo, pharmacist at London pharmacy John Bell & Croyden. "It also aids in the process of cell division, which helps our bodies grow and repair themselves, and contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system, which is the body’s natural defence against germs and harmful bacteria."
In humans, most of our vitamin D is made under the skin in reaction to summer sunlight, but in the UK, the sun is not strong enough in the winter for us to make enough vitamin D. It is also hard to get sufficient levels from food, which is why the Government recommends that everyone takes a supplement containing 10 micrograms (400 IU) of vitamin D every day to support general health and, in particular, bone and muscle health. "10 micrograms of vitamin D is a safe level of intake," says the NHS. "Taking more is not currently recommended."
In a few people, taking too many vitamin D supplements over a long period of time can cause too much calcium to build up in the body. This can weaken the bones and damage the kidneys and the heart. For more information about safe doses, see the NHS website.
Other nutrients that are useful during the winter include those with immune health benefits – such as anthocyanins, the compounds that give blue and black fruits their colour. "Fruits like blackcurrants are important sources of anthocyanins – compounds which have been shown to bolster the immune system’s first line of defence, enhancing the expression of immune factors, improving immunity and boosting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory factors," says Mike Wakeman, clinical pharmacist for supplement manufacturer CurraNZ. "New Zealand grown blackcurrants have the highest concentration of these, due to the increased levels of exposure to UV light in the southern hemisphere in colder winters."
Lack of energy can be another hurdle people face in winter. "According to experts, 'end-of-year fatigue' is a real phenomenon, causing people to feel tired, irritable, and overwhelmed as the year draws to a close," says Pro Plus product manager Samantha Ross. If left unchecked, fatigue can lead to all manner of health problems, including anxiety and burnout. Samantha recommends products containing "the powerful adaptogen ashwagandha to reduce stress levels and aid mental clarity".
When it comes to spring, the effects of a less-than-healthy diet over the winter months will have taken their toll on many of us.
"As comfort food starts to release its grip, people may turn to healthier meals and snacks and decide to start a new way of eating," says Dr Aslam. "But pharmacy customers need guidance if they plan to change their diets as research shows that people often either don’t research a new diet or don’t think about its nutritional impact."
For anyone following a more plant-based diet, for example, Dr Aslam says: "It’s important to bridge any nutrient gap: a multivitamin and multimineral supplement should be recommended, and as vitamin D levels are often at their lowest in springtime, it’s important to keep taking a vitamin D supplement."
After months of heavier winter foods, Paul Marsh – head of empowerment, sales, training and marketing at vitamin company Hello Day – suggests "a light detox or cleanse can help with a sluggish digestion". He recommends products containing "taurine, broccoli extract, black radish and sweet fennel seeds" as useful aids.
As we head into spring, pharmacy customers may also find that the colder days of winter have taken their toll on their joints and skin, meaning they may benefit from collagen supplementation.
"As spring arrives," says Dr Emma Derbyshire, nutritionist for collagen supplement Colnatur, "we tend to start exercising more and our joints may feel stiff and painful after winter’s lack of activity, and our skin may not be at its best following months of spending time in dry, centrally heated environments. But skin and joints can also suffer due to lack of collagen. Collagen is a major building block for our muscles, tendons, skin, bones, hair and ligaments, and clinical studies show that taking hydrolysed collage helps to reduce and prevent joint pain, bone density loss as well as skin ageing."
Maintaining health in summer may feel like less of a trial, but there are still specific seasonal challenges to be aware of.
Perhaps most obvious is over-exposure to the sun, but even here, there are nutrients that can play a role in supporting skin health. "Two of the main benefits of vitamin E are reducing skin inflammation and supporting organ function," says Pietro. "On top of that, vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, and if someone has a chronic inflammatory condition or thyroid disorder, vitamin E is especially important because it supports hormone production."
Pietro also recommends vitamin C and collagen: "Collagen repairs damaged skin, so the chances are that sunburn will heal faster if you take collagen. The body has a hard time using collagen without enough vitamin C present, so for this reason, people should always take vitamin C while taking collagen."
Another summer health challenge can be interrupted sleep patterns. "Our circadian rhythm is affected by the longer days and shorter nights," says Paul. "Plus, we generally find it harder to sleep in warmer weather."
As well as advising customers on good sleep hygiene measures, such as not overdoing alcohol consumption and sticking to regular sleep/wake times, Regan Saveall, CEO at Dragonfly Biosciences, says CBD oil has been shown to be helpful for a number of health concerns, from stress and anxiety to pain and lack of sleep. "In a 2019 clinical trial involving 103 adults, sleep scores improved in two-thirds of people taking CBD in the first month," says Regan. "And a six-week randomised clinical trial in healthy adults taking a CBD-rich extract also found significant improvements." Pietro also suggests valerian root: "Compounds in the root interact with important components of the nervous system, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in the brain, to have a sedative effect and reduce anxiety, making it a popular natural remedy to help with sleep and promote calmness."
As the wheel of the year turns once again towards autumn, Dr Aslam says it’s important that people are able to start the run into winter in the best possible health. "This is the season when colds and flu become more common and mental health may worsen due to shorter hours of daylight," he says, "so it’s vital to ensure that our micronutrient intakes remain topped up."
Pietro once again recommends vitamin C as a "critical micronutrient". Echinacea is his other choice for fortifying the body’s immune response, alongside which Paul also recommends: "Elderflower fruit extract and Siberian ginseng, as well as vitamin D3 with a minimum daily dose of 10 micrograms."
"We shouldn’t forget omega-3s," adds Dr Aslam, "which are virtually impossible to get in recommended quantities unless we eat oily fish.
"Omega 3 fatty acids are important for the brain and the cardiovascular system, and for those not managing to eat at least one portion (140g) of oily fish a week, it’s important to ensure that the body’s omega-3 needs are being met with an omega-3 supplement containing the fatty acids EPA and DHA appropriate to the age group – via fish-based omega-3 supplements and algae ones for vegans."
As the days draw shorter, people’s moods can also suffer, leading to symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). To combat this, Paul says: "Consider magnesium, Siberian ginseng, passionflower and rhodiola to help maintain energy yields and support mood."
For customers with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), anxiety and depression, Pietro says vitamin B complex supplementation may help. "Research shows that the B vitamins can significantly benefit mood and reduce the physiological response to stress," he explains.
Prevention is always better than cure, and pharmacy teams are the perfect source of trusted advice – and products – that can help customers bridge nutrient gaps, whatever the season.
What’s fuelling the market?
Vitamins and supplements (VMS) with organic ingredients are seen as better for health than non-organic ones by 61 per cent of consumers, according to the latest Mintel research.
However, despite this interest, organic claims only featured on nine per cent of new VMS products in 2020, notes the analyst in its UK Vitamins and Supplements Market Report 2021.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has caused increased focus on consumer health and the environment, with 45 per cent of category buyers reducing the amount of processed meat products they eat, indicating potential for further innovation," says Mintel.
While the pandemic boosted VMS sales in 2020, Mintel says sales started to decline over spring/summer 2021 as fears about the virus subsided. However, its research found that 18 per cent of adults expect to take more VMS once the outbreak eases, and that value sales of VMS products among the over-50s grew by 1.7 per cent over 2018-19. "The ageing UK population and falling birth rates are supporting sales among older consumers, particularly those supporting joint and bone health," it says.