Abu Dhabi: Pharmacies across the UAE have been witnessing a marked increase — sometimes as much as 100 per cent — in the annual demand for multivitamins and supplements that claim to boost immunity amid the global pandemic.
And because many people opt for over-the-counter purchases, physicians have cautioned residents against allergies and unwanted side effects, urging them to first consult with a doctor.
“The human body needs to consume at least 13 vitamins and 16 minerals regularly to function properly, and a well-balanced diet is the best way to obtain these nutrients. But because the modern-day diet is heavy in nutrient-poor processed foods, refined grains and added sugars, many people don’t get enough nutrients from the foods they consume,” said Dr Rakesh Kumar Khandelwal, internal medicine specialist at Aster Clinic, Barsha Heights.
“Dietary supplements seem to be the obvious way to plug gaps in diet. But taking too much can actually harm you. Moreover, some supplements can also interfere with your medications and medical assessments,” the doctor said.
Dr Rajesh Kumar Gupta, internal medicine specialist at Burjeel Specialty Hospital, Sharjah, added that immunity develops as a result of years of nurture and care. “The hysteria generated by the pandemic sees many people opting for multivitamin supplements and pills that claim to boost immunity. But avoid self-medicating yourself, [and first consult a physician],” he said.
A representative for Aster Group, which operates 201 pharmacies across the UAE, said demand has spiked for supplements and immunity boosting pills as a result of the heightened focus on immunity. “Even though these wellness products have always been available, we have seen a marked increase in their sales since March 2020. In particular, there has been a 14 per cent growth in sales of vitamin and mineral supplements, and 60 per cent increase in average daily sales of products promoting immunity,” the representative said.
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* Essential vitamins: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K and B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate.
* Essential minerals: Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sulphur, chloride, iron, iodine, fluoride, zinc, copper, selenium, chromium and cobalt.
Meanwhile, pharmacies run by VPS Healthcare, one of the UAE’s largest health care providers, have witnessed a significant increase in demand for multivitamins and wellness supplements, particularly supplements providing Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin B complex, and minerals like zinc, selenium, Omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics. Dr Gupta said the increase in some outlets is as high as 100 per cent.
This rise in demand is despite multiple studies failing to provide conclusive evidence of the immunity-boosting effect of these elements. In fact, a bulletin by Harvard Medical School warned against falling prey to immunity boosting claims, and was republished in February 2021.
* ageing, which decreases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients
“Many products on store shelves claim to boost or support immunity. But the concept of boosting immunity actually makes little sense scientifically. In fact, boosting the number of cells in your body — immune cells or others — is not necessarily a good thing. For example, athletes who engage in “blood doping” — pumping blood into their systems to boost their number of blood cells and enhance their performance — run the risk of strokes,” the bulletin said.
Another major cautionary note against taking supplements without prior medical advice is the fact that certain supplements can interfere with the results of assessments, or with medications residents are currently taking. According to Dr Khandelwal, too much iron can interfere with the absorption of calcium, or provide a false positive result on a stool test used to determine gastrointestinal bleeding. Vitamin C and zinc can block the absorption of copper, whereas excess manganese can worsen iron deficiency.
* Iron can interfere with the absorption of calcium, and can also give a false positive result for stool occult blood test that is used to determine gastrointestinal bleeding.
* Zinc, when taken in excessive quantities, can actually inhibit the body’s absorption of other essential minerals like copper.
* Vitamin C can block the absorption of copper in some patients.
* Manganese, even with a minor overdose, can worsen iron deficiency.
* Vitamin A may enhance the adverse/toxic effect of Bexarotene, an anticancer drug.
* Orlistat, a drug used to treat fat absorption for obese patients, could decrease the serum concentration of fat-soluble vitamins.
* Vitamin A may enhance the adverse/toxic effect of Retinoic Acid Derivatives
With that being said, the added focus on overall health may still be a good thing. “We are seeing a positive trend, because in essence, it means people are keen to build their immunity and maintain their health. This shift indicates that people are moving away from reacting to illness towards proactively managing their health and preventing illness,” said Alisha Moopen, deputy managing director at Aster DM Healthcare.
There is also a role for dietary supplements to provide additional support for people with deficiencies. “While immunity-boosting pills do not protect against COVID-19 infection in healthy people with good immunity, they can help in fighting severe COVID-19 in those who are severely malnourished, suffering from chronic diseases or are aged,” Dr Gupta said.
In such cases, both physicians recommended taking supplements, but only under a physician’s guidance and in proper therapeutic doses.
Tips to maintain a healthy immune system
* Eat a well* balanced diet that incorporates a lot of leafy greens, vegetables and fruits.
* Get adequate sleep.
* Stay hydrated.
* Try to minimise stress.
* Do not smoke.
* Try to maintain a healthy weight.
* Do not consume too much alcohol.
* Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
* Keep current with all recommended vaccines. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.
* Avoid self-medicating.