An interview with Andrew Thomas, Managing Director, BetterYou, conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Cantab)
How has the natural health supplements market changed since you founded BetterYou 10 years ago?
The market has changed quite a lot. When I first investigated the industry, and launched BetterYou the natural heath industry was the domain of the educated few. People did a lot of research before they walked into a health store; they knew the questions they wanted to ask and expected quite a good deal of information in return.
Nowadays, with open access to online publications, information is much more accessible, but a little shallower I think the natural health industry has opened to a larger audience. The industry must bring credible research support to its audience, as opposed to expecting, as it used to, its audience to do all the work.
What role has innovation played in BetterYou’s success?
It's been fundamental. The absorption work that we've done with Cardiff University has transformed the company and has been the cornerstone of everything we've done since.
We don't launch a product without it being absorption tested by Dr Charles Heard and Dr David Houston at the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Cardiff University. If they say it doesn't go through the dermal layer, or the mucosal membrane, then that product or formulation does not make the market.
However, we don't stop there. Innovation continues to play a role. I heard about the increase in research around vitamin D, about seven years ago. It was a few health industry experts, one being the late Jan de Vries, who recommended that I look at the research and consider launching a vitamin D product.
This was at a time when no one was talking about vitamin D supplementation or its increasing health benefits. It just wasn't in the public or the industry domain and the more I looked at it, the more I thought "actually this is an emerging wave here”.
Quite clearly, vitamin D needs to be supplemented in an oil base, so we developed an oil-based capsule at the time. It was during a conversation with Charles and that the oral spray was suggested, which was completely new to me.
Charles explained that they'd done a fair bit of work on an intraoral antimalarial spray a few years previously for infants under the age of one, who were unable to take a tablet or capsule. A very simple, innovative, but common sense process. I just thought this was genius.
I asked Charles and David if they could do the absorption research. They took my formulation and turned it into an oral spray. They applied it and found it was very well absorbed through the buccal membrane (the inner cheek).
Up until then, it had been assumed that sublingual or under the tongue guaranteed absorption, but it’s the buccal membrane that has the larger surface area, the more absorbable tissue and the richer vein structure just under the surface.
So, yes, innovation plays a fundamental role in absolutely everything we do!
Can you please outline some of the research initiatives you have supported within the field of transdermal magnesium therapy?
The proof-of-concept research that we do with every new line of work with Cardiff University has been fundamental.
In addition, we've been more and more involved with third party trials. Ulster University produced a very interesting trial which showed that a high dose oral spray of vitamin D can dramatically increase vitamin D levels and resolve deficiency in a population of healthy athletes. 1
Most recently, we've undertaken the world's first clinical study in conjunction with St. Marks Hospital (part of Northwick Park Hospital) 2. Dr Jeremy Nightingale and his team are looking at using transdermal magnesium as an alternative to IV magnesium infusions and subcutaneous injections for patients with short bowel stomas.
These patients had severe stomach trauma, and are unable to absorb magnesium in the usual way through the gut. They are on weekly or fortnightly infusions or subcutaneous injections for the rest of their lives.
The idea behind the trial is to see if transdermal magnesium can offer them an alternative to that. We've only had seven participants so far, but of those seven, five have not only seen a stability of cellular magnesium, but an increase, so we're very, very excited about this.
How transdermal magnesium works
In what ways does the new MagnesiumGel differ from BetterYou’s very first magnesium product?
The first magnesium product we developed was MagnesiumOil. It's a magnesium brine solution mined in Northern Holland, which means water is pumped underground.
The seam of magnesium chloride is a mile underground. When the water is pumped underground, it turns the crystalline seam into a solution. That is then sucked back to the surface, and that is what we bottle and use as a spray.
The natural process of producing magnesium chloride is a three-stage process. When you evaporate sea water, the first stage that you get is a salt called sodium chloride or table salt, which is quite stable; there's still quite a lot of water in there.
If you evaporate the water again, you get what's called Epsom salts or magnesium sulfate, which is again stable, with a fair bit of water still in there. If you then superheat that, you continue to evaporate the water and you get the third salt, which is called bischofite or magnesium chloride hexahydrate - that is what we mine and that is what's in the MagnesiumOil.
All our magnesium products are based on that, which is an incredibly unstable solution. There is a very weak link between the magnesium ions and the chloride, so it's easily separated, very soluble and very well absorbed by the body.
What we try and do with all products is not to change our base ingredient. So, for the MagnesiumGel, we take the MagnesiumOil and add a gelling agent. We add nothing else. The idea behind it is that it applies the magnesium to the skin in a more targeted way and over a sustained period.
This is to do with Fick’s law of permeability, where the absorption is based upon the concentration of the liquid or solution applied, the surface area on which it's applied and the length of time it's exposed.
Can you please outline BetterYou’s new research partnership with the University of Sheffield? What do you hope this will achieve?
Sheffield is one of our local universities. We've had several ad hoc associations over our ten-year history, purely because of our geographical location.
For example, Dr Bernard Corfe and his team recently used one of our products, our DLux3000 vitamin D oral spray as a product to look at IBS sufferers and improved quality of life because of increased vitamin D levels.
This was a perfect opportunity for us to have a more meaningful relationship with the university and we have recently signed a three-year research agreement primarily looking at an expansion of that initial pilot study. We are looking at a randomized control trial, investigating how supplementing vitamin D affects the quality of life for IBS sufferers. 3
This relationship also means that we have an unprecedented access to their research facilities, while they have an unprecedented access to our manufacturing facility and developmental laboratory. This means we can look at other areas such as the speed and superiority of absorption of spray application compared to traditional tablets and capsules.
How vitamin oral sprays work
What changes have you seen in the speed and reliability of delivery mechanisms over the past 10 years?
I think the reliability and speed of delivery started off, with choosing ingredients that were quality ingredients, rather than just taking the essential ingredients through the base and applying them in a capsule form.
Companies in the natural health industry have started to look more at the provenance of those ingredients, the quality of the extract, how it’s sourced and the bio-availability of that extract.
Up until 10 years ago, magnesium was supplemented predominately in the oxide form. Magnesium oxide has the highest level of elemental magnesium in its compound, but it has the lowest solubility, so, although it's delivering the most magnesium, it's delivering it in a way that's completely insoluble and therefore not bio-available.
I think our industry has developed a better understanding of the form of the ingredient that's being supplemented, but we're also taking more and more notice of the pharmaceutical industry. Just recently, the classic flu jab was administered as an intranasal spray, benefiting from the rich vascular system and the soft tissue in the nose. Therefore, we've started to look at transdermal and intraoral application in our field, to elevate the speed of absorption and therefore the quality of retention of the active ingredient.
Why have BetterYou developed a Turmeric Oral Spray?
Turmeric has been something that we've been looking at for a few years, primarily because there has been increasing interest in research in this area. It's not a classic nutrient that fits the BetterYou business model. However, it is a bit like what we saw with vitamin D five or six years ago, where vitamin D trials overtook the combination of all vitamin trials put together!
We are now seeing more trials and studies looking at the related health benefits of increasing turmeric and supplementing with turmeric. This is happening predominately in two areas: one is the antioxidant benefit, but more ostensibly, there are the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric.
What’s so exciting for us, concerns the bio-availability or the absorption of turmeric, or, ostensibly, its core elements - the curcuminoids. These were very poorly absorbed in the gut; less than one percent, in fact. Therefore, you must ingest such a large amount to have any physiological benefit, which is why I think the industry was focusing so much on the bio-availability of the core form. Therefore, you get marketing claims about products being 40, 70 or 180 times more bio-available.
I think it gets confusing for customers. What we believe is, if we could bypass the gut and those unreliable elements of digestive absorption, then we would have a very strong opportunity to increase the benefit of absorption of turmeric and, therefore, its anti-inflammatory qualities.
The problem with turmeric is that it’s virtually insoluble - it's hydrophobic, it hates water and if you add it to a solution, it just clumps together. We employed a technique called cyclodextrin encapsulation, where we coat the individual curcuminoid molecules with a ring of starch molecules, effectively pushing them apart, stopping them from clumping together and allowing them to remain in solution and therefore soluble.
This way, we could deliver a turmeric-based solution into the mouth, through the buccal membrane and get it absorbed into the bloodstream. For us, it was a classic opportunity to use the BetterYou science and skill base to counteract what is a problem for the absorption of ingredients.
What is BetterYou’s vision for the next ten years?
We're very much a believer of sticking to our knitting. We are pioneering experts in both transdermal application of magnesium and the development of intraoral sprays. We want to concentrate on those areas and there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in both.
When I first launched BetterYou ten years ago, magnesium was only one of a few products that I launched and I did that primarily because I just didn't think anybody would understand the need for magnesium and the application through the skin.
Nowadays, even though magnesium is not top of mind and you don't read about it in the newspapers every day, there is a body of understanding of the importance of magnesium and the health benefits of improving and optimizing our magnesium intake.
We understand the modern diet only too well and how the increase in transport and processing and the lack of rotation within our farming industry just means that the soil is so depleted in essential minerals that they are simply not being reintroduced in the food production process.
Certain key nutrients, particularly minerals, are underrepresented within our modern diet. Magnesium is one and we know that if we can make it easy for people to supplement this mineral and be more effective in that process, then we will be helping people.
That's why you see so many variations within a transdermal magnesium product range. We have five transdermal sprays, a body lotion, a body butter, a magnesium gel and a range of flakes that you add to the bath.
We're trying to get elemental magnesium into people's bodies, but what we're trying to do is to increase convenience and customer compliance. We're trying to do it in the most effective way possible. Some people prefer gels, whereas others prefer body lotions, body sprays or bath flakes and we'll keep on developing and innovating products to help people elevate magnesium. It is the fastest way of elevating magnesium and much faster than any other sort of traditional supplementation. This is therefore something that we're very passionate about.
Is it possible for people to overdose on magnesium?
Not through the skin. Magnesium is a fundamental element within our physical make up. When you're born, you're born with a far greater element of magnesium than you are calcium, which allows the infant to be flexible; it means that it doesn't break every bone in its body when it comes out of the birth canal. We then rapidly increase calcium through our intake of the mother's milk and through our normal diet, to a balanced level.
The interesting thing is, that if you look at the Western diet, we don't just stop there. Our love for dairy, for example, means our calcium intake far exceeds what our species was designed to receive. If you look at traditional African or Asian diets which dairy doesn't feature in, they will probably provide a quarter of the calcium intake that ours do, but at least twice the amount of magnesium.
The natural result of an increased oral intake of magnesium that you ingest, would be a laxative effect; that's when you would know that you probably had had enough in that one go.
You simply don't have that as an experience when you apply it through the skin. You're effectively bypassing primary processing by the digestive system and going through the skin, through the dermal layer, into the interstitial fluid, into the bloodstream and you're accessing it that way. Therefore, there is, in effect, no upper limit to what you can apply through the skin.
How can people know what levels they should take of vitamin D for example?
Vitamin D is a very interesting one. Obviously, our internal lifestyle draws quite a lot of media attention now, but thereafter, the knowledge level starts to decline quite dramatically.
People understand that they use sunscreen to protect the skin, they’re indoors most of the day and they cover up and only expose 5% of the body when they’re out, so they understand that they probably do need vitamin D. “But what level am I? What should I be and how do I get there?" Those questions are very poorly answered. I think the knowledge given to medical professionals is relatively sketchy.
We have spent a great deal of time working with several educational bodies. In fact, we distribute and supply the NHS home test kit for vitamin D, which is available online. It’s a very simple finger prick and dried blood spot analysis, which is done by Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals.
We’ve worked with Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital on what an optimal dose is, because we know that the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is, which is currently 5 micrograms or 200 international units is simply not fit for purpose
The trouble with our RDA is that it was developed after the war, in the 40s, and a lot of what we know about vitamin D has come from research conducted over the past 15 to 20 years.
Vitamin D is one of those new vitamins that we are only just learning about and it's not a vitamin that we receive at all; it's a prohormone that we manufacture in the body. What we strive to do at BetterYou is not only provide the fastest or most effective delivery mechanism for vitamin D, but also educate regarding what is the optimum level that you're aiming for and how quickly it is you can get there.
With the NHS home test kit4, we give people an evaluation of their level and anything under 50 nanomoles, is deemed insufficient. Anything under 25 would be deficient.
We are seeing more people under both those levels and we advise them on what daily dosage they should take to elevate their levels to an optimum and what that optimum should be. If you're under 50 you need to act, but that doesn't necessarily mean that 51 is a healthy level.
To try to get people to between 100 and 150 nanomoles. At that point, the evidence says that your body is far more robust and better able to resist autoimmune diseases. We're talking more than just coughs and colds here; we're talking about multiple sclerosis, diabetes and a whole host of internal cancers such as breast cancer have all been linked with low levels of vitamin D.
Now, we're not saying that vitamin D is a silver bullet. It's not a panacea of all ills, but it is the cornerstone in starting your body to get more resistant to disease and that's what we're trying to do.
Can you overdose on vitamin D?
Yes, theoretically you can. Vitamin D is one of the fat-soluble vitamins, so it is stored in the body, meaning that you can overdose on it. Now, the upper limit has been a point of contention for some time. The daily upper supplement limit would be around 4,000 international units, but that would also consider sun exposure and dietary intake.
However, here in the United Kingdom, we have two weather fronts battling against us constantly. We're in one of the cloudiest environments in the Northern Hemisphere. If you combine that with our internal existence and our lack of vitamin D rich food such as oily fish, it's quite clear that we're at a low level, so supplementation is the only way.
I believe an upper limit for treatment of deficiency on a daily level would be around up to 9,000 international units. We do it in multiple sprays for a short period, dependent upon the base serum level for one or two months, which would elevate your level to an optimal. Then, you can maintain the level from there.
Vitamin D is stored in the body, but it's stored in various forms for various lengths of time. So, cholecalciferol, for example, which is what you receive when you supplement with vitamin D, has a 48-hour lifespan within the body. From then, it's converted to 25-hydroxy vitamin D, which is what we investigate and what we search for when we test people's vitamin D levels.
It's created in the liver, but it's only stored for 40 to 60 days, not two years or three years, so it has a relatively short window of activity. From there, it is translated into the hormone 1 alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D and that does all the good. We're therefore talking a relatively short period when it's active in the body.
So yes, theoretically, you can overdose. Hypocalcaemia would be the effect of overdosing on vitamin D, but you would have to have an incredibly sustained level of high supplementation for that to happen. I've never seen it and I've seen very little evidence of it. We have a responsibility to educate people about what levels are suitable for them and that's what we try and do.
There was a SACN report, which was launched last year, and a resulting Public Health England announcement of a doubling of the recommended intake from 200 to 400, as well as recommendations about who should supplement with vitamin D: from those at risk (the under-fives, the elderly, the housebound and pregnant people) to everyone living in the UK. I must say I thought that was incredibly brave of them and right.
Where can readers find more information?
- Todd, Joshua J. et al. Vitamin D3 supplementation using an oral spray solution resolves deficiency but has no effect of VO2 max in Gaelic footballers: results from a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur J Nutr. 25 March 2016
- Northwick Park Clinical Study Protocol
- Tazzyman S, Richards N, Trueman AR, et al. Vitamin D associates with improved quality of life in participants with irritable bowel syndrome: outcomes from a pilot trial. BMJOpen Gastro 2015; 2:e000052. doi:10.1136/bmjgast-2015-000052
About Andrew Thomas and BetterYou
BetterYou has grown from a one-man start-up (founded by Andrew Thomas in 2007) to a multi-million-pound international brand and is at the forefront of transdermal magnesium and oral vitamin sprays.
Celebrating its 10th year, BetterYou provides supplementation, using pioneering delivery mechanisms (both through the mouth and skin) of those vitamins and minerals increasingly under represented or omitted due to modern diets and lifestyles. Their products offer ultimate convenience and are proven to provide superior absorption to traditional tablets or capsules.
Andrew’s accolades include the ‘Microentrepreneur of the Year’ award at The Community Development Finance Awards and ‘Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, both in 2014.