Published 23rd February 2022

Are supplements the best way to support healthy aging?

Aging is a fact of life. But you can take steps to make your journey healthier and more comfortable with the nutrients you put into your body. 

You may be wondering whether there is a supplement that can reduce the signs of aging. The idea of this is hugely appealing, but it’s important to know that while some supplements have scientific evidence behind them, most have only been tested in lab animals rather than in humans.

At ZOE, we run the largest nutritional study in the world, with data from 15,000 people so far. Our research shows that eating the right foods for you is one of the best ways to support your metabolic health at any age.

With the ZOE at-home test, you can find the best foods for your body at your current life stage, to make you glow from the inside out. You can take a free quiz to find out more.

Eating the right food is crucial for supporting you through aging, but below, we’ll also look at the evidence to see whether “anti-aging” supplements really can have an impact on signs like skin appearance, brain function, heart health, and chronic illnesses.

We’ll also consider how vitamin supplements compare with food and how the health of your gut is linked to aging.

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Vitamin supplements vs. food

Vitamins are an important part of nutrition. You can take them as supplements as well as getting them naturally from foods. But which is the healthiest approach?

You should be able to get most of the vitamins you need — plus lots of other important nutrients like fiber — from eating a varied diet that includes a wide range of plants and whole grains.

However, there are some instances where supplementing the vitamins you get from food may be a good idea, especially as you get older.

When to consider vitamin supplements

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, supplements are useful if you have a deficiency in one particular nutrient. 

For example, older adults commonly don’t get enough vitamin B12 and folate, and a shortage of these can increase their risk of heart disease. Vitamin D deficiency is also common in older people and may have links to a decline in brain function.

Testing for these specific deficiencies — and supplementing vitamins where necessary — might help reduce some of these aging-related effects.

Why food can be better than supplements

Vitamin supplements tend to contain a small number of active ingredients — often just one. But whole foods can offer a wide range of potentially complementary vitamins and minerals, not to mention other nutrients that can help to support healthy aging. 

For example, vitamin C is important for reducing your risk of age-related vision problems like macular degeneration and cataracts. And a vitamin C supplement may help with that. 

But a single large orange provides 108% of your recommended daily vitamin C, as well as more than 5% of:

  • vitamin A

  • thiamin

  • folate

  • fiber

  • calcium

  • potassium

When vitamin supplements are high-dose, they may even provide more than is healthy for some people.

High doses of vitamin K can interfere with blood-thinning medications like warfarin, increasing your risk of blood clots.

Other supplements can also interact with medications, so if you’re on a prescription, it’s best to speak to your doctor before taking any supplements.

Anti-aging supplements

There’s a huge industry around supplements that aim to address health issues, especially when it comes to aging and related concerns. After all, who wouldn’t want to blend a miracle powder into a smoothie and get on with their day?

Of course, it’s not that simple. We looked at research on some of the most popular supplements to see what the evidence says.

1. Collagen

Collagen supplements come as capsules or powders that can be mixed into a drink.

Collagen is the main protein in human skin, making up around 90% of its total weight. Taking collagen supplements might help reduce some signs of aging in your skin.

A 2020 review of studies involving people who used collagen supplements found they may reduce the appearance of wrinkles, hydrate the skin, and preserve elasticity. 

2. Green blends

Green blends are powders that can be added to juices or smoothies. They’re generally high in antioxidants, which are substances that may help protect your cells against damage and disease as you age.

Green blends vary but usually include green plants and vegetables, as well as types of algae called spirulina and chlorella.

Some scientists have suggested that spirulina has the potential to protect against the effects of skin aging and sun damage, and that chlorella could help to reduce muscle degeneration and cell deterioration

However, these results are based on either lab or rodent studies. So, although they show promise, there’s currently no concrete evidence that they’d have the same effects in people.

3. Circumin

This compound is found in the spice turmeric and gives it antioxidant properties. 

As with green blends, there are animal and lab studies pointing to reductions in cell aging. One study showed that circumin supplements increased the lifespan of flies.

More significantly, a review of studies with human participants found that circumin may slow cognitive decline in older adults. 

Even in human studies, though, there’s currently no reason to believe that circumin supplements would have any more benefit than using turmeric in your cooking or adding it to a smoothie.

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4. Amino acids

Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins and support many functions in your body. 

The research into amino acids and aging is in its early stages and, again, restricted to lab and animal studies. And the results are not conclusive.

Giving rodents supplements containing the amino acid glycine, for example, meant they lived longer. Restricting another, tryptophan, triggered anti-aging mechanisms but also seemed to have a negative impact on how their brains worked. 

Studies into other amino acids have looked at links to blood sugar and type 2 diabetes, reduced cell aging, and erectile dysfunction. But that’s a long way from showing they’ll have benefits for people.

5. Green tea

As well as being a popular brew, green tea is available as a concentrated supplement. 

It's a powerful antioxidant and can also help with inflammation, which contributes to age-related health problems like arthritis, hardening of the arteries, and blindness.

According to a 2021 review of studies, substances in green tea can interact with nerve cells and may reduce the risk of dementia. Another review suggests the same properties may help protect against diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 

Interestingly, neither of these reviews involved the use of supplements, so it might be cheaper to just put the kettle on.

6. Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant compound normally found in cholesterol molecules and the outer walls of cells. It’s sold as a supplement in the form of tablets and capsules.

A 2021 review found that CoQ10 reduced some of the effects of heart problems, lowered people’s risk of high blood pressure, and improved results for those who had coronary bypass surgery. 

In a 2019 trial, 443 older adults took either a placebo or a supplement containing CoQ10 and selenium for 48 months. The group who took the supplement spent fewer days in the hospital and maintained their quality of life for longer.

However, as the mineral selenium was also in the supplement, it’s hard to be sure which of the two had more of an impact.

Gut health and aging

Before you buy supplements for help with the aging process, it’s worth being aware that the health of your gut can have a significant impact on your overall health as you get older.

Much of this is down to the makeup of your gut microbiome, the community of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut.

Your microbiome plays an important role in how well your immune system works. And as you age, both the makeup of your microbiome and the functioning of your immune system change.

In later life, having an unbalanced microbiome, with not enough of certain types of bacteria or too many of others, is linked to worse health and an increased risk of dying sooner. 

It’s also associated with chronic inflammation, a continuing unwanted response by your immune system. 

This kind of inflammation is itself linked to many illnesses that become more common as you age, like diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. 

What to eat for your gut microbiome

The foods you eat can have a huge impact on the health and diversity of your gut microbiome.

For example, adding “good” bacteria called probiotics to your diet may help to shift the balance of your microbiome in favor of beneficial microbes. And it could have a positive effect on your immune system and levels of inflammation. 

You can buy probiotics as supplements, but it’s not clear that the products available today are actually the best for you. 

You can also consume probiotics naturally by eating fermented foods like live yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and aged cheeses. 

It’s also important to consume plenty of prebiotics, which are types of fiber that your gut bugs use as fuel. Prebiotics are found in vegetables including onions, mushrooms, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and whole grains.

One scientific review looked at studies where people aged 60 or over took either probiotics or a combination of probiotics and prebiotics. Researchers found that around two-thirds of participants saw improvements to their health, including reduced levels of infection. 

At ZOE, we’ve identified 15 “good” and 15 “bad” types of gut bacteria that are associated with more or less risk of aging-related conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased belly fat.

Our research also shows that everyone responds to food differently, and that the best way to eat for your gut health — and overall health at any age — is by choosing the right foods for you.

With the ZOE at-home test, you find out which “good” and “bad” bugs live in your gut. The test also analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses. 

Based on your individual result, the ZOE program gives you personalized nutrition advice so you can eat the best foods for your gut and your overall health.

Other ways to support healthy aging

Aside from nutrition and supplements, these lifestyle factors can all support better health as you get older:

  • Stay active. Exercise doesn’t have to mean spin class or boot camp — walking the dog, dancing, or raking leaves in your garden all count. It’s fundamental to healthy aging, helping to prevent falls, reduce muscle loss, and lower the risk of chronic diseases.

  • Drink water regularly. As you get older, you might not feel as thirsty, which means you may not remember to drink. So be sure to consume liquids throughout the day — not only by drinking, but also in soups, juicy fruits, or milk.

  • Go easy on alcohol. It’s fine to enjoy a glass of wine from time to time. But drinking too much alcohol can contribute to your risk of liver disease and cancer, and can make existing conditions like osteoporosis worse. Your tolerance may reduce as you age, too, so it’s best to drink only in moderation. 

  • Avoid smoking. Smoking tobacco isn’t good at any age, and your risk of serious health problems only increases as you get older. If you don’t smoke yet, avoid it. And if you do but are finding it hard to stop, talk to your doctor for help quitting.

  • Wear sunscreen. Many of these other tips will also help protect your skin from signs of aging. However, it’s important to take extra care when you’re outside, including using a broad-spectrum sunscreen and staying covered up when you can.

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. To help with memory, balance, and mood, try to sleep at the same time each night for about 7–9 hours. Avoid napping during the day if you can, and dedicate time to winding down before bed.

Summary

The idea of a supplement that can reduce the signs of aging is hugely appealing. But while some, like collagen, have a reasonable amount of evidence behind them, most have only been tested in labs rather than in studies with human volunteers. 

In some cases, it’s also unclear whether taking a supplement is better than simply consuming the food or drink it comes from. 

In the case of vitamins, some people may need to boost their intake with supplements. But in many cases, you can get what you need — along with lots of other nutrients — by eating the right foods.

The health of your gut microbiome plays a significant part in your overall health as you get older, and when it comes to your gut health, food really is important.

Fermented foods containing probiotics, and vegetables with the prebiotics that feed them, can help boost your microbiome. 

But it’s also crucial to understand how your individual body — and your unique range of gut bugs — respond to food. 

Take a free quiz to learn how the ZOE at-home test can help you discover the best foods for you.

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