Which nutritional supplements are most effective?

Many of us are looking to supplements to improve and enhance our health.

And when illness does strike we’re also increasingly looking for more natural ways to treat conditions.

What are nutraceuticals?

The term nutraceutical is made up of the word nutrient (a nourishing food component) and pharmaceutical (a medical drug).

The term is used to describe any product derived from food sources with additional health benefits as well as the basic nutritional value found in foods. 

A new breed of supplements – nutraceuticals – are on the market and they promise to deliver an array of benefits to the consumer. 

The nutraceuticals market includes vitamins and supplements, as well as functional foods and beverages – that includes vitamin drinks or spreads that promise to lower cholesterol

According to a new report from PMMI Business Intelligence, 2019 Nutraceuticals Market Assessment, online vitamin and supplement purchases have been increasing so quickly—the category is moving 12% faster than overall e-commerce sales.

Researchers are taking the link between nutrition and health seriously – for example, Liverpool John Moores University for example now has a designated Nutrition and Health Research Group. 

The link between nutrition and health

One big reason is that science has evolved enough to make it possible. ‘We’ve known for a long time that diet and health are linked, but it’s been hard to prove exactly how,’ says Professor Ian Rowland editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Nutrition. ‘You can’t feed people one food for the rest of their life and measure when they die and what of to prove a causal relationship between an ingredient and a disease. However the more we can extract ingredients and the more markers for diseases we identify  – well-known ones being things like cholesterol or blood glucose – the more easily it is to spot changes in the body.’ 

This has increased the potential for scientists to trial extracts and ingredients – and, once scientists start to find something interesting so do food companies. 

Governments have realised that if they have a unique plant growing in their country that may aid a common disease it’s worth investing money in proving that. This is exactly what’s happening with a product called BergaMet. Made from a type of bergamot – a citrus fruit – that grows only in southern Calabria in Italy, it’s showing a lot of promise as cholesterol lowering treatment. The Italian government have provided millions of euros to fund 17 published clinical studies.

EU food labelling laws mean it’s harder for companies to claim things about their product just because a generic study has indicated a health benefit.

Research needs to prove it specifically applies to that individual product – not just the ingredient, and it has to work in people not just on cells in a laboratory explains Dr Roberta Re from Leatherhead Food Research. ‘The science on ingredients has always been there – and it’s been good, but it’s no longer enough to satisfy legislation so companies are asking for trials involving their specific products in human populations,’ she adds.

It does make natural health suddenly all sound a bit corporate, but money does make the world go round. ‘But, whatever the motives it means we’re getting more evidence based products to choose from and that can only be a good thing.’

Nutraceutical products on the market


Garlic itself isn’t a nutraceutical but its extract allicin is. Its benefits come in the field of heart health as it has the ability to both lower both cholesterol and blood pressure. In one German trial patients with high blood pressure taking garlic supplements found their blood pressure lowered by 11.5 per cent, their cholesterol fell by 14 per cent and harmful fats in the blood called triglycerides fell by 18% in 12 weeks. To get results a garlic supplement must contain a high level of allicin. Eating garlic daily (10g or more) is associated with a significantly reduced risk of prostate, colon, and stomach cancer. It can also induce fat loss and adrenaline secretion, though in a minor way. Garlic appears to mildly and unreliably reduce triglyceride levels.


The antioxidant lycopene that’s found in tomatoes is well known for health benefits – including improving cardiovascular health . It’s a carotenoid found in high concentrations in a small set of plant foods and may play a role in preventing prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease in humans.

It is produced in a supplement, Ateronon though the lycopene has been modified so it’s absorbed more easily by the body. The result is a pill that manufacturers claim offers the same benefits as eating 6lb of ripe tomatoes. Past research has linked it to lowered cholesterol, but it’s truly earned its nutraceutical stripes via a recent trial from Cambridge University, which found that in patients with a heart condition taking the Aternon, doctors observed improved both blood flow and the health of the artery lining. It also increased flexibility of the arteries by 50 per cent. ‘We think these results are very significant,’ says Professor Ian Wilkinson who carried out the trial. ‘But we need more trials to see if they actually translate into fewer heart attacks and strokes.’ 


Olive Leaf Extract

We all know that olive oil is good for us but its nutraceutical equivalent is an extract of the olive leaf rather than the fruit. The leaf contains ingredients called polyphenols which are micronutrients that can improve or help treat digestion issues, weight management difficulties, diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular disease. These are at levels 30-40 times higher than those in olive oil. In terms of its impact on health, olive leaf extract has already been shown to reduce high blood pressure, stiff arteries and mild hypertension. A trial at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, gave 47 overweight men who were at risk of developing diabetes a tablespoon of olive leaf extract daily for 12 week, After 12 weeks, people in the olive leaf extract group had significant improvements in insulin sensitivity and pancreatic responsiveness compared with those who took a placebo, which may protect against type 2 diabetes.


This antioxidant is extracted from turmeric. Its most most notable health benefit is its potential impact on the development of Alzheimer’s. It’s long been known that India has the lowest levels of Alzheimer’s in the world, which scientists now believe is partly down to the high levels of curcumin in the diet. In laboratory tests, Curcumin reduces inflammation and the development of damaging protein plaques associated with the disease. 


Extracted from the skin of red grapes resveratrol seems to have a strong anti-aging effect and may actually lengthen the telomeres – the genetic markers that control how fast we age. Telemores are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces.

Resveratrol may also play a role in weight control as it stimulates the expression of a hormone called adiponectin which reduces insulin resistance – this is when bodies don’t use insulin properly. To receive energy, the body’s cells, fat, and muscles must be able to absorb the glucose in the bloodstream. If your body doesn’t respond well to insulin, glucose can build up in your blood and raise your blood sugar level. To help you maintain a normal blood sugar level, your pancreas compensates for this resistance by releasing more insulin. 

Resveratrol can also benefit brain health. Work at Northumbria University has also found that 250mg trans-resveratrol increases blood flow to the brain and could therefore boost brain function If you want to take it, make sure the supplement you choose includes trans-resveratrol, the most active form.

Beta glucans

Extracted from oats, mushrooms or yeasts beat glucans may aid in keeping our cholesterol levels healthy. Dr Paul Clayton who researches the effect of beta-glucans believes one reason our forefathers were healthier than us is that they naturally had high levels of beta glucans in their diet – often delivered via levels of yeast in foods like bread (now removed from the process) or the mould that grew on it. Now this doesn’t mean you should go round nibbling mouldy bread, instead look for a beta glucan supplement containing the strands 1-3 and 1-6 which are those most strongly linked to immunity. 


For medical advice on nutrition and diet, click here. 


A hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which stimulates increases in the heart rate, breathing and metabolic rate. Full medical glossary
A chemical that can neutralise damaging substances called oxygen free radicals. Full medical glossary
A blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart. Apart from the pulmonary artery and umbilical artery, all arteries carry oxygenated blood. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
The pressure of blood within the arteries. Full medical glossary
Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
Disease of the heart and blood vessels, usually due to atherosclerosis. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A substance present in many tissues and an important constituent of cell membranes although high concentrations of a certain type of cholesterol in the blood are unhealthy. Full medical glossary
Structures in the cell nucleus that carry genetic information. Full medical glossary
The large intestine. Full medical glossary
A disorder caused by insufficient or absent production of the hormone insulin by the pancreas, or because the tissues are resistant to the effects. Full medical glossary
The building blocks of the genes in almost all living organisms - spelt out in full as deoxyribonucleic acid. Full medical glossary
One of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of genetic material carried on chromosomes. Full medical glossary
Relating to the genes, the basic units of genetic material. Full medical glossary
A simple sugar that is an important source of energy in the body. Full medical glossary
The death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. Full medical glossary
A substance produced by a gland in one part of the body and carried by the blood to the organs or tissues where it has an effect. Full medical glossary
High blood pressure. Full medical glossary
The body’s response to injury. Full medical glossary
A hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreas that acts to lower blood glucose levels. Full medical glossary
A reduced response of the body to the hormone insulin, resulting in raised blood glucose levels. Full medical glossary
A large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Full medical glossary
Myocardial infarction. Death of a segment of heart muscle, which follows interruption of its blood supply. Full medical glossary
The size of a micrometre, which is a one-thousandth of a millimetre Full medical glossary
Tissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. Full medical glossary
A gland behind the stomach that produces digestive enzymes and the hormones insulin and glucagon, which together regulate glucose levels in the blood. Full medical glossary
A glandular organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
Relating to the pancreas. Full medical glossary
Any flat, raised patch; for example, a raised patch on the skin, fatty deposit in the inner wall of an artery, or layer over the surface of a tooth. Full medical glossary
A growth on the surface of a mucous membrane (a surface that secretes mucus, lining any body cavity that opens to the outside of the body). Full medical glossary
A gland that surrounds the urethra near the bladder. It produces a fluid that forms part of the semen. Full medical glossary
Compounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
Relating to the kidney. Full medical glossary
The ability of a microbe, such as a type of bacteria, to resist the effects of antibiotics or other drugs. Full medical glossary
the organ or the body where food is stored and broken down Full medical glossary
Any sudden neurological problem caused by a bleed or a clot in a blood vessel. Full medical glossary
A type of fat in the bloodstream, formed from the digestion of fat in the diet. Full medical glossary
Relating to blood vessels. Full medical glossary
Essential substances that cannot be produced by the body and so must be acquired from the diet. Full medical glossary