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Kenya: A nation hooked on supplements

Vitamin supplements in a capsule. [File, Standard]

For the longest, Mercy Orengo, a journalist, had struggled with acne, none of the many remedies she tried out seemed to work.

“I was having acne that would leave me with a lot of hyper-pigmentation. For almost five years,” she says.

Her breakthrough in treating acne came when she started taking biotin supplements. Biotin is a supplement made of vitamin B7; it is an important part of enzymes in the body that break down substances like fats, carbohydrates and lack of it causes hair thinning and rashes on the face.

After using the biotin supplements for a while, the acne healed and the spots also disappeared. Her skin is now flawless.

“I used biotin and zinc. The requirement was that I drink a lot of water with the supplements, so this may have helped also.

I am still using biotin but not as consistent as I was when I was having active breakouts,” she adds.

During the earlier stages, she also tried using collagen but she didn’t like the after taste so she stopped after some time.

However, for Mercy, one of the downsides of using supplements is the cost.

“Supplements are very expensive. I was getting a bottle that could take me a month for an average of Sh 3,000. There were times when I had to import because the brand I loved would sometimes go out of the stock in local stores,” she adds.

Sarah Owino, a Public Relations practitioner has been struggling with weight and belly fat.

“I started working out a while back but the more I went to the gym, the more I added weight,” she says.

Dieting didn’t work either. Everything she tried seemed to work against her.

“I started researching on why I was not losing weight. I thought maybe my thyroid had a problem or my metabolism was too slow, it was a mystery that drove me to the edge,” adds Sarah.

During a visit to a nutritionist, she discovered she had a low water mass. The nutritionist prescribed supplements as thyroid tests were beyond her budget.

“The nutritionist prescribed Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and green tea extract which he said had helped his other patients in losing weight. So I was told I can take CLA up to three times a day while the green tea extract which was to help with metabolism is to be taken once a day of course accompanied by exercise for effectiveness,” she says.

The cost of the supplements was prohibitive for her, but since she badly needed to lose weight she had to dig deep into her pockets. 

“CLA goes for approximately Sh5,000 while the green tea extract was about Sh1,800. This wasn’t cheap but I had to make the sacrifice,” says Sarah.

According to Betty Okere, a Clinical Nutritionist at Kilimani Diabetes and Endocrine Centre in Nairobi, supplements are given to patients when they have a deficiency in certain things in the body. 

“If you have anaemia, and depending on the cause, we give you iron supplementation; if you have less calcium, we supplement you with calcium. Depending on what deficiency you have, that’s what you will be supplemented on,” says Okere.

She adds that supplements are also given to patients who are not able to feed while in hospital. They are put on supplementation which is predigested to give them the required energy.

Supplements are said to be effective in their roles when used correctly and when there is a need.

“If you are not adding on to what you need, then you will be having excess, and having excess supplementation may inhibit the functions of other vital vitamins,” she adds.

There has been a lot of misuse of supplements in the recent past, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic period according to Okere.

“Most people have been consuming vitamin C supplements thinking it helps in preventing Covid-19 infection. Most of them end up having gastrointestinal disorders like excess nausea, and loose stool. Sometimes taking supplements is an exercise in futility especially if you do not need it,” she notes.

Using bodybuilding supplements to gain muscles, medical reports show end up overworking their kidneys which may lead to health complications.

Okere further explains that using fat burners which are supposed to prevent the body from absorbing excess fats when eating could cause loose fatty stool. Those using appetite suppressants end up experiencing insomnia and may be unable to eat leading to more complications.

Okere advice would be to keep off supplements and focus on a balanced diet. She also notes that there has been an increase in the uptake of supplements in the country as more people become health conscious.

“We are blessed with fresh and organic food that has all the nutrients our bodies need. Previously you would tell a patient they need a supplement and they would say you just want to waste their money, but now when you tell them they need supplementation, they don’t argue much with you,” she says.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated and do not need a prescription. These factors, together with their broad distribution, create a positive environment for growth in their market. 

Risper, a nutritionist, and a manager at a wellness store in Nairobi says the uptake of supplements has been on the rise and especially among women. 

There are supplements for everything - there are those that stimulate hair and nails growth. There are others that promote better sleeping habits. 

However, the primary reason why supplements are given is to promote overall health and wellness or to fill nutrient gaps.

“Supplements are supposed to assist but they should not replace your food. A supplement like Biotin promotes hair growth and flawless skin but it can also be gotten from foods like eggs, milk, and bananas, but our diet in this era has a lot of deficiencies,” explains Risper.

Risper says Omega-based supplements are also among the fast-moving.

“Omega supplements are usually in high demand. Multivitamins are also highly used by Nairobians which could be because most people aren’t able to eat vegetables on a daily basis,” she adds.

One of the notable signs that one may be in need of supplements is when they start complaining of unending fatigue.

“There is no specific age group, our clientele varies. The young consume more weight loss and cosmetic supplements, while the elderly buy diabetic, blood pressure and other diseases supplements for women. For men, the young ones are more into bodybuilding supplements while the older ones buy supplements to boost their libido like Maca supplements and for prostate,” she notes.

Wellness is peaking with Millennials, while Gen Z likes animal-free products but not supplements.

Close to 23 per cent of Nairobians are using some form of supplements with the highest usage being alcohol alternatives that help one to relax without a hangover at 10 per cent, followed by supplements for hormonal acne and beauty supplements which mostly include vitamins at six per cent.

The other supplement on demand is Magnesium Threonate which is used to increase magnesium levels in the brain, and promote cognitive health. 

The blueberry extract which is said to lower blood pressure, reduce blood cholesterol levels and prevent inflammatory changes in the blood vessel is also on-demand at four per cent.

Black maca powder and pills are also on-demand at four per cent. Maca root is added to food to boost libido and energy. It has also been studied as a remedy for sexual dysfunction, depression, hair loss, hot flashes, and fertility.

Branched-chain amino acids supplements are commonly taken to boost muscle growth and enhance exercise performance.

They may also help with weight loss and reducing fatigue after exercise; its demand stands at three per cent. 

Other supplements on demand are Alpha Lipoic Acid, collagen, electroencephalogram (EEG) Nicotinamide riboside which is an alternative to vitamin B3 and Omega 3.

In a consumer survey done by the Council for Responsible Nutrition in the USA in 2019, the 10 most popular dietary supplements among adults were multivitamins, vitamin D, vitamin C, protein, calcium, vitamin B or vitamin B complex, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, magnesium, probiotics, iron, vitamin E, and turmeric.