People often ask me this question. And it is a fair question to ask. We all are familiar with the myriad of reports, research, news and commentary that comes out about vitamins. “Take this!” “Don’t take that!” Unfortunately for most of my unsuspecting question-askers, there isn’t one simple answer.
In the ideal world, for a healthy person, the goal would be to get most nutrients from the foods they eat. Vitamins and nutrients are much more absorbable and bioavailable in their natural food-based form. This is a great goal, but for many, myself included, it is just a bit out of reach. Sometimes, the nutritional content of my diet may have some gaps. Vitamin supplements do a great job to fill these gaps.
Additionally, often a person isn’t fully healthy in one way or another, so the vitamin need is different. And the intention becomes, not simply to take vitamins to prevent deficiencies, but also to use the nutrients to actually support the body to address the disease process. And many of the vitamins which could be helpful, require a dose that would necessitate unreasonable (and potentially unhealthy) quantities of food sources to meet.
Take for example, Vitamin E: The RDA is 22.4 IU. Peanut butter is a good source of dietary vitamin E. But it would still take 13.3 TABLEspoons of peanut butter to get to the RDA. That is nearly half of a standard peanut butter jar required each day. And often, therapeutically, I will prescribe a dose of Vitamin E 10x times that or more. That would be a tremendous amount of peanut butter. So clearly the supplement becomes the better choice.
Another caveat I always stumble on is individualization. Different people need different things. There are great groups out there (like vitame.com) that try to take into account diet, lifestyle and health habits in order to customize a formula for you. This works great, especially for a reasonably healthy adult. But using vitamins and nutrients to directly treat diseases usually requires more information than the questionnaires can collect, and also requires a doctor’s oversight and management in order to ensure there are no adverse effects and to change recommendations as needed.
All that being said, there a usually a few general recommendations that are good for most people most of the time:
B Complex: This a balanced mixture of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12 and folate. These nutrients are vital to countless biochemical reactions in the body. Most notably, for the cell’s ability to turn food into energy and for neurotransmitter synthesis. This all plays into our ability to manage stress. Because our general environment usually has some daily stressors in it, B Vitamins are quite helpful for support the body’s energy, brain function and stress management. These vitamins are water-soluble, so there is no major concerns about overdoses, so often a B-complex will contains a thousand percent (or more) of the RDA. As these vitamins all work together, it is important (and easier) to take a full B-complex rather than the individual vitamins.
Vitamin D3: This one has been in the news a lot recently. Many studies have shown that most people are deficient in Vitamin D3. And Vitamin D3 is crucial for many body functions, including bone density, immune system, cancer prevention and cell to cell communication. Thus it makes sense that most people should supplement. But we have to be a bit more careful here, because it is possible to over dose on Vitamin D3 and cause undesirable side effects. The RDA is 400 IU. This is the amount needed to prevent symptoms of deficiency (like rickets) but it many not be enough to raise your levels if you are too low. Doses up to ~1000 IU daily are likely safe with out supervision and doses even higher than that may be necessary. However, the only way to know if you are deficient and how much Vitamin D3 you really need is to be tested by your doctor.
Essential Fatty Acids: This is not exactly a “vitamin” but is certainly an important nutrient. These can be found in fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, etc… Because these are important for their general anti-inflammatory properties, skin support and nervous system function over-the-counter manufacturers have created many different formulations to the point that most people I talk to are quite confused. For a generally healthy adult with no particular concerns, I would recommend a fish oil (or “Omega-3” supplement) that contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). These will be listed on the label. Aiming for a sum total of 3000mg of EPA + DHA daily would be a good target. However, when you actually get down to reading the labels, this often requires one to take 6 or more soft gels per day. Some people then prefer to buy a liquid so they can take just one spoonful instead. The choice is yours.
If you don’t fit into the category of “generally healthy most of the time” or you a have particular concern, the best way to know what to take is to consult a trained naturopath. Most medical doctors (but certainly not all) use drugs to treat and are not as familiar with using vitamins to treat diseases. Also, I have found that most of the customer service people at the vitamin counter at natural foods stores can tell you all the possible reasons why each vitamin is so good and helpful, you will likely leave with an arm-load of things that you now can’t quite remember why. A naturopath is trained to specifically look at your needs and concerns and provide targeted recommendations.