Walk into the health and beauty section of any drugstore or supermarket and you'll undoubtedly see a vast array of vitamins and supplements lining the shelves. Everything from all-in-one formulas to individual vitamins such as C, D and E, from enzymes to probiotics, from minerals to fish oil. Most of us have a vague notion that we should be taking something, but expert opinions vary widely and it can be overwhelming and confusing to try and sort out exactly what should be taken and in what quantities. Also, many people recognize that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the formulation or sale of vitamins and minerals and we are left wondering if the products are even safe to take, or effective.
What are vitamins, and why should we take them? Vitamins are vital nutrients that the body cannot supply in sufficient quantities and therefore must be obtained through the foods we eat or through supplements. There are thirteen known vitamins: four are fat soluble meaning they are absorbed with the help of fat and are stored in the liver until they are needed. These include Vitamins A, D, E and K. The remaining nine are water soluble which means they are easily dissolved in water, are not stored in the body, and must be replaced each day. These include B-1 (Thiamin), B-2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), Folic Acid, B-6 (Pyridoxine), B-12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin and Vitamin C. Vitamins are not optional; they are necessary for many biological processes including growth, digestion, mental alertness, and fighting off infections.
Minerals are elements that originate in the soil and cannot be created by living things, such as plants or animals. Like vitamins, they are necessary for good health and are required for essential body functions such as nerve transmission, bone growth, metabolism, energy production, protein formation, and building a strong immune system. There are seven macrominerals -- calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulphur, along with eleven trace minerals -- boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc. Trace minerals are needed in much smaller quantities (less than 100 milligrams per day) than macrominerals. Cellular function is dependent on adequate levels of all of these minerals. For example, magnesium is essential for the functioning of more than 300 different enzymes in the body, particularly those that produce, transport, store, and utilize energy. And calcium is essential for the development of strong bones and teeth. Deficiencies in any of these important minerals can lead to serious medical problems including diabetes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. (1)
In theory, eating a well-balanced diet should provide all of the necessary nutrients one needs. In practice, most Americans' diets are far from balanced and are shown to be lacking in many vitamins and nutrients. There are many reasons for these deficiencies including poor food choices and consuming overly processed foods whose nutrients are stripped in the manufacturing process. Also, modern-day agricultural practices contribute to overworked, mineral-depleted soil so fruits and vegetables absorb far less of these important life-giving nutrients. No longer are crops rotated and fields allowed to rest; today, modern practice allows growers to pump the earth full of insecticides and fertilizers and keep the fields producing. The crops grown in this manner are nutritionally inferior to organically grown plants. Conventionally grown broccoli today contains one-sixth the amount of calcium that it contained in the 1950s due to depleted soil. If an element is missing in the soil, it will also be missing in the food we eat. Many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are fully ripe in order to prevent spoilage during shipping. This early harvesting results in a lower nutrient density.
Eating a variety of foods from each of the basic food groups is the best way to ensure an adequate supply of all of the vitamins and minerals. The U.S. government has established a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) which is the minimum amount necessary to prevent deficiency and disease. Taking a daily multivitamin (a preparation that includes most of the necessary vitamins and minerals all in one tablet) is the best way to "fill in the gaps" for any nutrients that may be low or missing from your diet altogether. While most researchers, nutritionists and doctors agree that a daily multivitamin is a good idea, they tend to part company beyond this recommendation. There is no real consensus on exactly which vitamins, in which strengths, to take! If they don't know, how is the average consumer supposed to know?
Many experts agree that the RDA for many nutrients is simply too low -- it often is the bare minimum needed to prevent disease, but not necessarily the amount needed for optimum health. In addition to a good multivitamin, many health experts recommend the addition of calcium, magnesium, a B-complex supplement, and fish oil capsules which contain important omega-3 fatty acids. In the northern hemisphere where sunlight is diminished, experts recommend the addition of vitamin D (sunlight helps the body manufacture its own vitamin D), and of course many people take vitamin C which is well known to aid in immune function and help prevent colds. Taking vitamin supplements is not without some risk, however. Fat soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can reach dangerous and even toxic levels when taken in large quantities. All vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in excess.
It is important to note that the quality and potency of multivitamins vary widely. Vitamins that carry the certifications of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are signs of higher quality and consistency. Most stores carry national brands as well as their own store brands and these can run the gamut in price and quality. Cheaper isn't always better, and this is one instance where it pays to do a little bit of research on the brands you are considering buying.
Click here for an excellent resource of basic daily vitamin and mineral requirements. This is a helpful place to begin educating yourself on how the body uses each vitamin and mineral. You can see where there may be gaps in your own diet and plan your supplementation accordingly. Another excellent resource is The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book by Shari Lieberman, PhD. Of course, you should always check with your doctor before taking any supplements, but don't be too surprised if he or she doesn't have all the answers! Unfortunately, this is one area of health with no clear-cut answers.
This week, your task is to spend some time in the vitamin aisle, select a quality, name-brand multivitamin, and purchase it. Many people give up before the purchase is even made because they are so overwhelmed by all the choices. Experts agree that almost any multivitamin is better than none at all, so don't come away from your shopping trip empty handed. If you are a woman, you might consider learning about daily calcium recommendations and picking up a good calcium supplement too. A word of caution -- don't make the mistake of coming home with a basket load of supplements. As with all of our previous Healthy Tips, we're going to start small and get the multivitamin habit formed before we start adding in other supplements.
Your second task is to come up with a plan to actually take the vitamin every day. Some people find it helpful to leave their vitamins sitting out on the counter in the kitchen or bathroom. Others like to purchase a pill box and fill it up with their weekly supply. The advantage of this method is the pill box is portable and can easily be slipped into a purse or briefcase. But remember, out of sight, out of mind so don't tuck them away in a drawer where you will forget about them. Personally, I find it easiest to leave the vitamins sitting right next to the coffee pot where I am reminded to take them in the morning. And good for you if you are already taking a multivitamin or other supplements. Take this week to make sure you are really taking them everyday. If there are days when you forget, examine your habits carefully and establish a routine for getting them in. Vitamins are only helpful if they are in our bodies, not sitting out on the counter!
1. http://www.sott.net/articles/show/ 205871-The-Magic-of-Magnesium-A-Mighty-Mineral-Essential-to-Health