To function well, your body and mind need the right balance of vitamins, minerals and macronutrients every day. Normally, you should be able to obtain all these necessary nutrients by eating a balanced diet, but that doesn’t always happen. Deficiencies in iron, iodine and vitamin A affect more than two billion people worldwide, and not just in developing countries. People either don’t get enough vitamins and minerals from their food, or their body has a (temporarily) increased need for certain nutrients.
In these cases, taking a supplement can significantly improve your health. But, as John Hopkins researchers warn us, “pills are no shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases.” It’s tempting to think you’ve got your nutritional bases covered by taking a multivitamin each day, while ignoring the underlying issue like an unhealthy lifestyle.
What’s more, many people see vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies as pretty harmless. But mindlessly taking supplements could actually hurt your health. Taking high levels of vitamin A, B6 and E for a longer period of time can cause severe side effects, from changes in vision to nerve damage. If you’re on medication, you should also check with your doctor or pharmacist for potential drug interactions. Vitamin K, for example, can interact with the anti-clotting effect of blood thinners.
So what should you consider before taking supplements?
- Choose safe dosages. How much of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) are you getting through the supplement? Remember that you’ll always obtain (small) amounts of those vitamins and minerals through your daily diet. More isn’t necessarily better.
- Vitamins and minerals work in synergy. Some nutrients enhance each other’s absorption or produce stronger effects when taken together. For example, vitamin C helps to absorb iron, while you need the right balance of calcium, potassium and magnesium for a healthy blood pressure.
- Check for additional herbal extracts. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for you. St John’s Worth, used to boost your mood, can cause harmful interactions with prescribed meds.
Make sure you get good, non-commercial advice about which supplements you should take and what’s the right dosage for you. Check with your health care provider before starting a supplement regimen, especially if you’re on medication.
5 Groups of People Who Could Benefit from Taking Supplements
Although there’s still scientific debate about the usage of supplements, experts agree that some groups of people can definitely benefit from taking extra vitamins and minerals. Take a look to see which advice is applicable to your situation.
1. Pregnant women: Folic Acid
Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9, also called folate. This nutrient plays a vital role in developing a baby’s brain and spinal cord. That’s why health guidelines recommend that before and during pregnancy, women take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to decrease the risk of birth defects. Because your body requires extra folic acid during the first weeks of pregnancy, you should ideally start taking prenatal folic acid 1 to 3 months before trying to conceive.
During pregnancy, there’s also an increased need for iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Consult with your midwife or ob/gyn whether you should take a prenatal multivitamin to prevent deficiencies.
2. Smokers: Vitamin C
Smoking cigarettes increases the production of free radicals, a category of unstable molecules that cause damage to your body cells. Vitamin C and E protect your body against these free radicals. But unfortunately, smoking also depletes your supply of vitamin C.
Of course, quitting cigarettes is your best option. But when you are exposed to (secondhand) smoke, you need to get enough vitamin C. If you struggle to eat more fruit and vegetables, taking a vitamin C supplement could reduce your risk of heart disease and lung cancer. Studies suggest that smokers require 35mg more vitamin C per day than non-smokers.
3. Vegans and vegetarians: Vitamin B12 and/or iron
It’s perfectly possible to obtain all the vitamins you need on a vegetarian diet. However, you should be mindful of your iron intake. There are two forms of dietary iron: heme iron from animal products and non-heme iron found in legumes, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Your body can’t absorb non-heme iron from plant-based sources as easily as heme iron. That’s why you should boost your iron absorption by combining iron-rich foods like beans, quinoa and leafy greens with ingredients high in vitamin C.
When you follow a vegan or entirely plant-based diet, it’s also important to take a vitamin B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in the formation of red blood cells and the functioning of your nerve cells. Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is only found in significant amounts in animal products, so it’s wise to look into high-quality supplements.
4. People in the Northern hemisphere: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a vital nutrient to keep your bones and mental health strong, but it isn’t found in most of the food you eat. Instead, your skin produces vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunshine. Unfortunately, when you live above 37 degrees north or below 37 degrees south of the equator, during the winter months the UVB rays aren’t strong enough to reach our skin. Especially if you spend a lot of time indoors, don’t eat a lot of fatty fish and/or have a darker skin tone, you could be at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
What’s more, studies suggest that long-term supplementation of vitamin D could lower the overall mortality risk. To maintain healthy blood levels of vitamin D all year round, experts suggest you should get 800 to 1,000 IU per day.
5. Malnutrition due to chronic illness: Specific supplements
When you’re chronically ill and have trouble eating adequate amounts from all food groups, your diet might be lacking in vital vitamins and minerals. You may also have problems absorbing enough nutrients when you suffer from Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis. What’s more, things like prolonged use of antibiotics or lactose intolerance can also contribute to malabsorption.
If you suffer from any of these conditions, please consult your doctor for tailored advice on which vitamins and minerals you might need.
Are you someone who could benefit from taking supplements? Check with your health care provider about which supplement and dosage is right for you.
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