Every morning is like Groundhog Day when I get to the kitchen. Like clockwork I line up my supplements and work my way through them like an eight-course tasting menu while I wait for the kettle to boil. Pills, powders, liquid sachets, it’s a smorgasbord of magnesium, vitamin C, Floradix, Inositol, Female Fertility Formula, probiotics and every now and then I’ll thrown in a digestive enzyme for good measure. My arsenal of add-ons even has its own carry case should I embark on an overnight sojourn.
The daily rigmarole gives my husband a good ten minutes extra in bed/the shower/eating breakfast while I knock back my extra dose of nutrients like they’re Smarties. From talking to my peers, I’m not alone in my solo self-care. Which brought me to the question – just why aren’t men taking supplements? So very many are well-versed in the performance wins brought about from protein powders and BCAAs but besides exercise enhancers, I know very few men who reach for a multivit.
“Women are more likely to speak more openly to other women or a doctor about their health concerns which in turn leads to a ‘let’s fix this’ attitude. There is also a biological argument that women have a greater need to be vigilant of their health primarily due to menstruation and other events that men don’t face – all of this culminates in a different attitude between the sexes,” says neuroscientist, Dr Edward Jones.
So, what are men missing?
Research shows that men often eat a less balanced diet than women meaning that they’re generally more likely to be deficient in a range of nutrients. Even those that do meet the five-a-day fruit and veg quota won’t be hitting those daily targets. “Men should be mindful that important nutrients necessary to their wellbeing are often absent from the soil today and are not available through diet like they used to be years ago so there may well be a need to consider supplementation,” says Ross J Barr, acupuncturist, fertility consultant and founder of his eponymous supplement range.
He also cites some interesting stats: 71% of men in western countries obtain less RDA for vitamin B6, and 56% of middle-aged men are deficient in vitamin B12. Other studies show that men are also at a higher risk of selenium, magnesium and vitamin A deficiency, while both sexes are likely to lack vitamin C, D and zinc. The latter is especially important if you’re planning a family. “Zinc is essential for the production of healthy sperm and there is much research to suggest that supplementation can improve outcomes particularly in cases of sub-fertility,” says Suzie Sawyer, clinical nutritionist and Alive! supplement expert. “About half of men over 50 will also develop benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) which can be modulated by supplementation, specifically including zinc.”
It’s one of the reasons why Ross didn’t just design his fertility supplements for women, he included a men’s version too. “One in 3.5 cases of fertility issues experienced by couples are down to the man but as ever, 90% of the pressure and focus in on the women. Most of the men I see in clinic think that they ‘fire blanks’ or think the only way to improve things is to wear looser pants – they don’t know how much sperm quality and quantity can be improved each sperm cycle (every 90 days) with the right changes,” he says.
Containing that all important trace mineral, zinc to help hormone metabolism, sperm formation and sperm motility the supplements are also rich in vitamin E to keep cells healthy and protected from free radicals, L-Carnitine which is linked to the successful maturation of the sperm and L-Arginine – the amino acid needed to replicate cells and therefore produce sperm.
Do we really need gender-specific supplements?
The fertility arena is one of the areas where ‘situational’ supplements will come into play – a bit like if you were taking specifically formulated supplements for the menopause, PCOS or breastfeeding. For everyone else, there shouldn’t really be a need to differentiate between ‘men’s and women’s’ versions. “What research there is doesn’t suggest men need a specific supplementation regime that’s different from women – our biological needs are incredibly similar so to target such products to genders are mainly done so for marketing reasons,” explains Dr Ed. That said, if a men’s only version encourages guys to get on board and educate themselves, it’s no bad thing.
The real difficulty when choosing a supplement is how to know if it’s decent. With Dr Ed admitting that only around 10% of supplements are actually legitimate, there are plenty of duds on the market. “It can be very challenging for consumers when trying to choose a suitable supplement as the cheaper products will generally have lower levels of active ingredients and higher amounts of excipients,” says Suzie.
For Ross, the best place to start is with food state supplements: “They won’t be the cheapest but there’s good reason for that. Synthetic compounds can be ‘rebranded’ as natural and come with undesirable side effects, but food state formulas contain the highest quality ingredients that can actually be absorbed properly by the body. Synthetic compounds might have high numbers but they pass through unrecognised by the body.”
As well as hunting out food state ingredients, another way to get around the fancy packaging and fluffy marketing claims is to do your homework and visit a site like PubMed, an impartial site where you can search for the supplement name along with information on human and clinical trials. Also look for manufacturers which have ISO accreditation or are GMP certified says Dr Ed.
How do you know if you actually need one?
It’s all a bit chicken and egg. “The body may adapt even though it’s lacking in certain nutrients, but problems may not manifest themselves for a few years,” admits Suzie. It’s equally as tough to know if they’re working although if you’re deficient in a nutrient, vitamin or mineral, you’ll realise pretty sharpish – that head fuzziness might disappear, breakouts might become fewer and far between, your energy levels could rise, and your sleep could improve. In this instance, adding in a supplement could be life changing.
For others, it’s a slow and steady top up to your existing health routine and should be viewed as a daily habit in your long-term plan because once your body has been privy to the good stuff, why would you want to take it away? “Based on what we know I’d start supplementing as early as possible to strengthen the whole immune system and ensure organs and glands have sufficient nutrients to function properly,” advises Ross.
The only contra-indications are for people who are already taking medication, those having surgery or who are being treated for cancer – in these situations, always follow your doctor’s advice first. Otherwise, go ahead and invest. “It’s important that everyone, including men, start to take better care of themselves,” says Suzie. “Men are more susceptible to heart disease at an early age, much of which can be prevented by a change of diet, moderating lifestyles and plugging nutrient deficiencies. And let’s not forget that the average age of death for men is 79 years old outpaced by women at nearly 83 years!” On that note, I’m off to force feed by husband a multi-vitamin!