Walking down the supplement aisle of any chain drugstore can be an overwhelming experience — so many options, and so many claims of health benefits. But each bottle raises questions: Do I need this? Is it effective? Is it safe? And does it do what the label says it does?
There are many good reasons a healthcare provider may recommend that you add a vitamin or another supplement to your diet, including:
• To support or improve general health — for instance by adding a nutrient that may be lacking from your diet
• To help with a chronic condition, such as arthritis
• To enhance mood or sleep
• To aid in recovery or healing after an illness or injury
Common supplements include multivitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, minerals, and herbal supplements. But not everyone needs them. If you have a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and varied protein sources, you may get all the nutrients you need from the foods you eat.
Each vitamin, mineral, or nutrient does different things to keep your body functioning at its best. For instance, Vitamin A, which is found in foods like eggs, orange and yellow vegetables and fruits, and most dark green leafy vegetables, helps with healthy skin, hair, and eyes. B vitamins, which are found mainly in foods derived from animals, help give you energy and keep nerve cells and blood cells healthy. Vitamin D can help your body use calcium more effectively. Vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidants, which can help your body heal wounds, and have been found to benefit the immune system. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables (citrus fruits, for instance). Vitamin E is found in oils and nuts.
For many of us, it’s hard to maintain a perfectly healthy diet every day. For that reason, or to fill in nutrition gaps, a healthcare provider may recommend a multivitamin or another supplement (for instance, they might recommend that a vegan take a B vitamin supplement, since vegans don’t eat meat or eggs). But keep in mind that the vitamins you get directly from food are more effective than those in supplements — your doctor may recommend supplements to address nutrition deficiencies, but without a doctor’s recommendation, a multivitamin is not a good substitute for a healthy, balanced diet.
Multivitamins — Often containing vitamins A, C, D, B, calcium, and other minerals, multivitamins meet the daily requirements for many nutrients.
Folic acid and prenatal vitamins — Folic acid in early pregnancy can help prevent certain birth defects, so these supplements are recommended by many physicians. Folic acid, among other nutrients, is often found in prenatal vitamins. These supplements may also contain iron, calcium, and vitamin D.
Specific vitamin supplements — Large doses of vitamins D or B can be helpful if a physician recommends them. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, which means your body will store them if you consume more than you need in a day. Water soluble vitamins, like vitamin C, will be excreted with bodily waste if you consume more than you need. This is something to keep in mind when choosing supplements.
Calcium — An important mineral, calcium helps maintain bone health as we age.
Fish or flaxseed oil — A doctor may recommend a fish or flaxseed oil supplement if a person’s diet doesn’t include enough omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty acids are found in foods like walnuts, salmon, and tuna.
Probiotics — Used by some people to help restore gut flora after antibiotic use or to maintain healthy bacteria colonies in the gut, probiotics can be taken in pill or liquid form and are found in many fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Turmeric and ginger — This pair has gained popularity recently for their antioxidant effects, as well as their anti-inflammatory effects. You can find these nutrients in supplements and in the foods that bear their names.
Remember that even natural supplements can interact with medicines you may be taking or may affect people with certain conditions differently than other people. This is why it is so important to speak frankly with your healthcare provider about your diet and your health goals before taking a supplement. For example, people using blood thinners, such as coumadin or warfarin, should avoid vitamin K supplements. (Vitamin K helps with blood clotting, among other things.) Supplements with ginkgo may cause additional thinning of blood. And some supplements, such as Saint John’s Wort, can interact with many prescription medications, such as some types of birth control.
It’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Though rare, vitamin or mineral toxicity is a possibility. Always look for the “% DV” (percent daily value) on the label. This will tell you how much of a nutrient your body will receive when you take the supplement as directed. Checking the % DV can also prevent you from wasting money. Let’s say you drink a glass of orange juice every morning and your favorite afternoon snack is strawberries or maybe some bell pepper pieces: you’re probably already consuming enough vitamin C, so adding a megadose vitamin C supplement would be unnecessary.
It’s important to note that the FDA does not regulate vitamin or supplement effectiveness the way it regulates medications. Vitamins and supplements are regulated like food products, so their quality and effectiveness is not measured. Manufacturers are responsible for the purity of their products and the transparency of their labels. Choosing a supplement company with a third-party verification seal is one way you can feel better about the product you’re choosing. Some third parties, like Consumer Reports, run frequent independent purity and effectiveness tests. You can explore those tests by supplement type. You can also visit the National Institute of Health’s Dietary and Herbal Supplements page to learn more about supplement labels and cautions.
Before making big changes to your diet or adding supplements, you should talk to a doctor. Having a good relationship with a primary care provider is key — they can review your overall health and your personal health goals to be sure you are choosing a supplement that is right, and safe, for you. Are you due for a routine checkup? Carbon Health can connect you with primary care to keep you feeling your best.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.