There is little dispute among the medical and scientific professional communities that the very best way to meet our bodies’ daily nutritional needs is through a healthy diet. Unfortunately, the typical North American diet does not provide all of the vitamins and minerals, in sufficient amounts, for optimal body performance. Even in people who would be considered healthy by most accounts, the incorporation of vitamin and mineral supplements as part of a healthy lifestyle can provide benefits. Doing so can ensure we don’t suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can lead to certain diseases.
The trouble is, once we make the decision to incorporate vitamins and minerals into our daily routines, it can be confusing to determine what to take and how much. The following guidelines are meant to help healthy people determine the optimum amounts of each that should be consumed daily. The first category to be discussed are vitamins. From there, we will discuss the optimal.
Although the Food and Drug Administration mandated that certain grain products be fortified with folic acid, a measure that has helped to reduce the deficiency of this B vitamin in the United States, the amounts consumed this way are not sufficient. Folic acid is instrumental in the prevention of conditions such as heart disease. It is recommended that women of childbearing age should take folic acid before conception and throughout their pregnancies to reduce the chances of their children being born with neural tube defections such as hydrocephalus and spina bifida.
Iodine deficiency is a concern more in developing countries and less so in the Western world. Typical use of iodized salt and moderate consumption of seafood and sea vegetation such as nori usually provides sufficient levels of iodine. People who stay away from these foods should supplement their iodine intake and those with thyroid conditions should consult their physicians before taking iodine supplements and doing so can be counter-indicated.
Vitamin A (or beta-carotene) is present in most multivitamins. Caution should be taken by smokers, as synthetic beta-carotene has been shown to put smokers at increased risk for lung cancer. Natural beta-carotene, however, has been shown to aid in the prevention of some cancers.
The typical Western contains adequate levels of thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. These B vitamins are added to some flour products from which the naturally occurring B vitamins have been removed during processing.
Biotin is produced in the intestines in sufficient amounts when in conjunction with a healthy diet.
Many elderly people suffer from a deficiency in this vitamin, as do people who follow a vegan diet (a diet that does not include any animal-based products, including dairy and eggs). People who habitually take antacids may also experience a deficiency in this vitamin. Vitamin B12 has been shown to control levels of homocysteine in the blood, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood of some diseases, including hardening of the arteries. In addition, supplementation of B12 may bolster the bones against possible fracture.
Vitamin C is probably one of the most commonly known vitamins. Associated with the prevention and treatment of a cold, vitamin C is common in the Western diet. Although sever deficiency is rare in Western countries, about 6 percent of healthy adults are lacking in this vitamin to some degree. College students and smokers also typically exhibit a mild level of vitamin C deficiency, which may have to do with the less-than-optimal diet followed by college students and the ability of a smoker’s body to absorb the vitamin.
Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” Vitamin D is obtained both through diet and from exposure to sunlight. Because sunlight is a primary source of this vitamin, people who live in climates that have long winters (and therefore short sunlight hours during much of the year) often suffer from a deficiency and would benefit from supplementation. Vegans and elderly people are also prone to deficiency in vitamin D. The risks of vitamin D include bone loss and the risk of fracture. Note that very high levels of vitamin D can be very dangerous. Never take more than 2,000 IU per day unless advised by your medical professional.
Vitamin E has long been valued by the cosmetic industry for its restorative properties, but there are other benefits, too. Diabetics are advised to take vitamin E because it boosts the action of insulin to improve the metabolism of blood glucose. This vitamin has also been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer in smokers, although it has not been shown to have the same impact on other kinds of cancers.
Severe deficiency is rare in healthy adults, but moderately low levels has been associated with an increased risk of getting osteoporosis
Although calcium is readily available from many common foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt, many American (women especially) do not consume enough of these foods to get adequate levels of calcium. For optimal bone health, it is recommended that adequate amounts of calcium are consumed throughout one’s life. This will help to reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known minerals, chromium deficiency is less understood in Western society. Lack of chromium in the system can lead to anomalies with blood sugar and cholesterol levels. These problems are particularly acute in the elderly. Symptoms of chromium deficiency include glucose intolerance, weight loss and mental confusion. Severe deficiency can lead to neuropathy, or damage of the nerves.
Although there is evidence that many Americans suffer from a deficit in this vitamin, those who do suffer from insufficient levels of copper do not present any obvious symptoms. It has been shown, however, that those who take copper supplements generally experience bone loss less frequently than others. Note: Those who take zinc supplements should also take copper supplements. Zinc can negatively affect the body’s ability to absorb copper.
Recommended daily dose: Varies by individual. Should be determined by a physician
Iron deficiency can result in a condition known as anemia, which can cause extreme fatigue, among other symptoms. It is very important, however, that one does not take iron supplements unless he has been diagnosed with already having a deficiency. Unlike other supplements that can be taken as a preventative measure, iron should only be taken to address an existing deficiency. This is because high iron levels in the blood can cause some serious diseases. Girls and women of menstruating age, as well as pregnant women, female athletes and vegetarians (particularly vegans) are those most at risk for iron deficiency.
Up to one-quarter of American adult women may have a dietary deficiency of magnesium. The incidence of this may be even higher in elderly Americans (both men and women). The risks of magnesium deficiency include compromised bone health.
Zinc encourages proper growth in children and has been shown to boost the functioning of the immune system. Higher-than-normal levels of zinc can be dangerous, causing immune system failure.
Other notable nutrients
Potassium deficiencies are rare among healthy Americans. However, some studies have shown that bolstering the amount of potassium in the system can assist the body in preventing high blood pressure and stroke. In addition to supplementation, potassium can be obtained by ensuring that one’s daily diet includes several servings of fruits and vegetables
Classified as non-essential nutrients, flavonoids are valuable to our bodies for their antioxidant properties. Like all antioxidants, flavonoids work to repair cell damage that can lead to some cancers.
A note about supplements
Many people think that because they are derived from natural substances, supplements are safer than prescription drugs. This is not necessarily true. Like drugs, herbal and nutritional supplements can have negative interactions with one another and with any prescription or over-the-counter drugs you are taking. In addition, supplements can cause side effects if taken in the wrong amounts. For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that one consults a doctor before taking any supplements. Always disclose all medications you are taking – including prescription, over-the-counter and supplements – to any doctor, pharmacist or other health care professional to prevent any negative interactions.
Nutritional and herbal supplements are a good way to fill in the holes where our diets may be lacking. They should not be used as a substitute for healthy eating, however. Optimal healthy relies on a healthy diet, proper sleep, adequate amounts of water and daily exercise. Supplements should be used as just that: supplementation.