Millions of us take supplements to boost our general wellbeing, fend off ageing and to support us through illnesses. But knowing what to take, when to take it and how to take it can be very confusing. There are so many supplements on the market from the familiar: such as garlic capsules, to the well-known such as echinacea, through to lesser known exotic-sounding remedies such as Saw Palmetto or horny goat weed. Need to know your probiotics from your prebiotics and your bilberry from your goji berry? Then read on....

Why do people take supplements?

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) - an American organisation - recently carried out a survey to answer this question. Over 2,000 adults took part and the results revealed the top three answers. Most people take dietary supplements for overall health and wellness, a good many people take them to fill nutrient gaps in their diet and the next popular reason was for heart health. Interestingly, us Brits may not use supplements in quite the same way as Americans as a recent British survey found that in the UK supplements were most popular for joint health. Heart health took second place, followed by supplements to boost the immune system. Both here and across the pond men are more likely to take supplements than women. In the US survey 72% of men and 64% of women took supplements. Reassuringly, in the same survey, 85% of adults reported feeling confident about the safety, quality and effectiveness of their supplements.

Can supplements cure illnesses?

The evidence on supplements is often mixed but while supplements can't cure illnesses they may prevent or alleviate problems caused by deficiencies. This has been seen throughout history - with conditions such as scurvy, beriberi and rickets being easier to treat once experts worked out they were occurring due to people not getting all their nutritional needs met. Recently psychiatrists in India have even linked some mental health problems including depression to deficiencies in our diet. ?Studies indicated that daily supplements of vital nutrients are often effective in reducing patients' symptoms' - they noted. Certainly many supplements help because they fill nutritional gaps in our diets or makeup a shortfall of substances that get depleted through natural ageing - collagen and MSM being good examples. Other supplements work by boosting our immune system. Many are rich in potent antioxidants that support our bodies in fighting free radicals - the damaging particles that breakdown cells and cause us to become ill. So while supplements are not the same as medicines - they can, as the name suggests, be helpful in complementing us to feel well in combination with other healthy choices.