Top 7 Supplements and Vitamins You Should Be Taking
Whole foods, which are foods that are generally unprocessed or minimally processed, are the best source of essential nutrients. However, sometimes, that is not enough. Even though we get a great variety of nutrients from foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, healthy fats, meat, eggs, fish, and whole grains, vitamins and supplements still play a major role in our overall nutrition especially in some medical conditions. It is sometimes difficult to meet the recommended amount of nutrients and vitamins through diet and nutrition, especially while pregnant, lactating, or eating a vegetarian diet. Deficiency of certain nutrients and vitamins can lead to health problems and illnesses. To make sure that your body gets an adequate amount of all the essential nutrients and vitamins it needs, here are the top 7 vitamins and dietary supplements you should be taking in your 20s, 30s, and beyond.
Calcium is a vital component of our bones. Adequate calcium is necessary for overall good health and proper functioning of the organs and skeletal muscle. It is critical for growing and maintaining strong bones. Calcium is also important for muscle contraction, blood clotting, nerve transmission, and blood pressure regulation. Calcium has also been found to reduce the risk of kidney stones.
Although there are many calcium supplements available, we should get at least 50% of our calcium intake from calcium-rich foods such as kale, collard greens, broccoli, soybeans, canned salmon, figs, canned baked beans, sardines, yogurt, cheese, as well as fortified foods like orange juice and cereal.
The body has an abundance of calcium stored mostly in the bones and teeth. When our body needs calcium, it releases the calcium stored in our bones into the blood. This means that the bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. After the age of 30, the bone is broken down faster than it can be built, leading to reduced bone density and brittle bones prone to breaking.
Supplementation with calcium helps to maintain a healthy level of calcium in the blood, reduces excessive loss of calcium in the bones, and lowers the risk of developing osteoporosis. The daily recommended dose of calcium supplements varies from 200mg for infants to 1200 mg for adults. Pregnant and lactating women can take up to 1300 mg of calcium daily.
Vitamin D is another vitamin that is important for healthy bones. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. It is found in foods such as cheese, egg yolk, mushrooms, fish, and fortified foods. It is made naturally in the skin through exposure to sunlight. People with darker skin produce less vitamin D compared to lighter-skinned individuals. Unfortunately, though, the skin’s ability to convert sunlight to vitamin D diminishes with age, thus necessitating the need for vitamin D supplementation as we get older. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to loss of bone density, which can cause fractures and osteoporosis. It can also cause the bones to become brittle and thin. Lack of vitamin D can also lead to other health problems, including cardiovascular issues, osteomalacia (which causes the bones to soften and become painful and weak), and muscle weakness. Vitamin D plays a role in immune function and insulin production in the body. It also helps to prevent chronic diseases and certain forms of cancer.
Recommended doses of Vitamin D supplement vary from 400IU for infants to 600IU for adults, pregnant women, and lactating women. People at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency may be prescribed a higher dose; however, too much vitamin D can cause vitamin D toxicity, which is characterized by nausea, vomiting, constipation, weight loss, fatigue, and damage to the kidney.
Iron is a mineral necessary for the proper functioning of the red blood cells. It is an important part of hemoglobin, which transfers oxygen from the lungs to tissues. Iron is also a component of myoglobin, which supports healthy connective tissues and facilitates muscle metabolism. Iron is essential for synthesis of some hormones, neurological development, growth, and overall functioning of the cells.
Most people typically get all the iron they need from a balanced diet of foods containing iron or foods with added iron. Some foods rich in iron include liver, lean meat, seafood, nuts, dried fruits, beans, soybean flour, and fortified grain products like breakfast cereals. Although most people may not need extra iron supplementation, women who have heavy periods may be anemic and may benefit from taking iron supplements. Also, people who are frequent blood donors have an increased risk of iron deficiency.
Iron supplements are available in many different salt formulations, including ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferric citrate, and ferric sulfate. Each salt formulation contains varying amounts of elemental iron and are absorbed differently by the body.
The recommended amount of elemental iron supplementation varies based on age and gender. For women, the recommended doses are:
9-13 years – 8 mg/day
14-18 years – 15 mg/day (11 mg/day for men)
19-50 years – 18 mg/day (8 mg/day for men)
51 years and over – 8 mg/day (same dose for men)
Pregnant – 27 mg/day
Breastfeeding – if under 19 years, then 11 mg/day; 19 years and older, take 8mg/day
Vegetarians should take 1.8 times these amounts since plant-based sources of iron are harder for the body to digest compared to meat sources.
Taking too much iron can have some unpleasant side effects including constipation, malaise, and stomach pain. In very high doses, iron can be deadly, especially in children.
Folate (Folic Acid)
Folate, also known as vitamin B-9, plays an important role in cell formation as well as proper cell growth and functioning. In early pregnancy, folate reduces the risk of birth defects in the brain and spine. Folate is easily available in many foods, including oranges, lemons, bananas, beans, nuts, and dark leafy vegetables. Folate is also seen in fortified foods like cereals and is typically present in prenatal vitamins. It is typically best to get folate from foods, as a balanced meal should provide all the folate you need. However, folic acid supplementation is important in women who are planning to get pregnant, women who are pregnant, women who may become pregnant, and women who are breastfeeding. Research shows that folic acid supplementation can prevent neural tube birth defects and should ideally be started a few months prior to conception.
The recommended daily amount of folate in adults is 400 micrograms (mcg); however, women likely to get pregnant or planning on pregnancy should get 400 mcg to 1000 mcg of folate daily.
Folic acid can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers. It can also be used to treat depression and has shown some benefit in dementia. Although folic acid is safe at the right dose, it can sometimes leave a bad taste in your mouth, as well as cause loss of appetite and sleep disturbances.
Vitamin A (retinol) helps the body’s natural defenses (immune system) protect against infections and illnesses. Vitamin A is important for vision in dim lighting and also helps to maintain the skin and other parts of the body like the heart and lungs. It is also involved with immune function, growth, development, male reproduction, female reproduction, and cellular communication.
Vitamin A can be found in two forms – preformed vitamin A, also known as retinol and retinyl esters. These are found in foods like dairy products, eggs, fish, and meat. The second type of vitamin A, provitamin A carotenoids, are plant pigments from vegetables like spinach, carrots, red peppers, mango, and papaya that can be converted into vitamin A in the intestines. Vitamin A is also found in foods fortified with vitamin A.
Pregnant women should avoid vitamin A supplementation (unless recommended by a physician) as large amounts of vitamin A can hurt an unborn baby. Since liver has a high level of vitamin A, pregnant women should also avoid eating liver. People who eat liver frequently should also avoid taking vitamin A supplements.
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States; however, some populations like people with cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis are more at risk of developing vitamin A deficiency. The first symptom of vitamin A deficiency is typically night blindness or inability to see in darkness or low-light. Vitamin A deficiency can also lead to permanent blindness. Other symptoms of chronic vitamin A deficiency include abnormal lung development, anemia, and increased respiratory infections.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin A supplementation for adults 19-64 is 700 micrograms for men and 600 micrograms for women. Taking too much vitamin A increases the risk for bone fractures as you get older. It can also cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, and liver damage.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is important for many reasons. It helps with wound healing and keeps our cells healthy. It also protects the skin, bones, cartilage, and blood vessels. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron and produce collagen. It also helps the body produce energy and boosts our immune system. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals which damage our cells.
Deficiency of vitamin C can lead to scurvy, a disease that is often characterized by bleeding gums, bruised and/or swollen gums, weakness, anemia, bruising, rash, and fatigue. Scurvy also leads to loss and damage of teeth. Scurvy is rare as vitamin C is abundant in foods and vegetables like citrus, white potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and strawberries.
Lack of vitamin C can also affect absorption of iron as well as the metabolism of cholesterol in the body. Early symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include weight loss, tiredness, loss of appetite, and irritability. Other symptoms include delayed wound healing, hair loss, and spots under the skin caused by bruising/bleeding from broken blood vessels. Vitamin C deficiency in pregnant women can cause deficiencies in fetal brain development.
The recommended daily allowance of vitamin C is 65 to 90 mg per day with an upper limit of up to 2,000 mg per day. Pregnant women can take up to 85 mg while lactating women can increase up to 120 mg daily. Smoking can deplete the body of vitamin C, so smokers are advised to take an additional 35 mcg.
Excessive doses of vitamin C supplements can cause headache, insomnia, and stomach upset (abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and heartburn).
Omega-3 fatty acids (Omega-3s)
Omega-3 (omega-3 fatty acids) is one of the most studied supplements and for a good reason – it is beneficial in reducing the risk of many diseases as well as improving symptoms in existing illnesses. Omega-3 is found in the human body as well as in foods such as fish and shellfish. Adults should eat 8 or more ounces of a variety of seafood weekly.
It can be found in dietary supplements such as fish oil, fish liver oil, and flaxseed oil. Although both food source and dietary supplements of omega-3 are beneficial to us, the health benefits derived from seafood has been shown to be stronger than those gotten from omega-3 supplements. There are three main types of omega-3s including:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
EPA and DHA, the most common omega-3s, are found in seafood while ALA is found in some plant foods like flaxseed and canola oil. Although there is no set recommendation of how much fish oil you can take per day, the referenced daily intake (RDI) of combined EPA and DHA is about 250-500 mg per day. Be sure to read the label of the fish oil supplement to avoid exceeding your recommended combined daily allowance.
Omega-3s have been shown to be beneficial in multiple conditions, including heart disease, stroke, eye diseases, triglycerides, depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, Attention Deficit Disorder, mental illness, rheumatoid arthritis, infant development, and others.