Have you noticed that your grocer’s vitamin aisle has expanded in recent years? If this is evidence of anything, it’s that the public is listening to what experts like Dr. Balz Frei, micronutrient researcher and executive director of Linus Pauling Institute, have been saying: “Eating healthy, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco … and [taking] some dietary supplements are critical for optimum health.” But which supplements are the most important? The answer, of course, is different for everyone. Supplements aren’t meant to take the place of a balanced, well-rounded diet but rather to fill in the gaps. You should consult a nutritionist to determine which combination of products will best complement your diet and lifestyle. Many, if not all, of the supplements described in this article are likely to be on the nutritionist’s list.
1. Omega-3s (eyes, brain, heart)
Also called essential fatty acids, these have been shown to improve cardiovascular health and have been linked to joint health. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the long-chain acids in omega-3s, is crucial for visual and neurological function, so it’s especially recommended for pregnant women, young children and elderly adults. Although omega-3s are present in many vegetable foods, they are most readily available from fish and seafood. If you’re not a big seafood eater, supplements made from fish and krill oil ensure you get your recommended daily allowance of DHA. Alternate forms such as coconut oil, flax and chia are also popular (see page 11).
2. Calcium (bones, muscles)
The most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium serves many functions. Most notably, it strengthens bones and teeth. Plentiful in dairy and leafy green vegetables, calcium is easy to get from a balanced diet, but anyone with a lactose intolerance or allergy or an aversion to green vegetables is at risk for developing a deficiency and should consider taking a daily calcium supplement.
3. Multivitamins (general health & wellness)
As the name suggests, multis pack a number of essential nutrients into a single pill. “I take a multivitamin primarily as ‘health insurance,’ to make sure I get at least the recommended amount of most vitamins and minerals in case I don’t get each and every one of them from my daily diet,” says Frei. Technically, there are 13 compounds classified as vitamins,” including vitamins A, B (see below), C, D, E and K, but most multis also contain other compounds, such as folic acid, zinc, calcium and iron.
4. Probiotics (digestion, intestinal health, immunity, urinary health)
Your intestines are a little like a petri dish, full of microorganisms and healthy bacteria that keep your digestive system running smoothly. But with today’s less-than-balanced diets and sporadic eating schedules, we can easily throw our systems out of whack. Bad bacteria can sneak in and out-number the good bacteria, leaving you with an upset stomach or discontented bowels. An imbalance can also cause more serious symptoms, such as urinary tract infections. Yogurt and other cultured dairy products contain probiotics—healthy bacteria. But if you don’t get enough from your daily food intake, consider taking a probiotic supplement. Most experts will also agree that immune health begins in the digestive tract, so consider use of a probiotic to prevent colds and flu as well. Probiotics are differentiated by bacterial strain as well as concentration to accommodate all age groups—children, adults, seniors—and genders.
5. Immunity Boosters (cough & cold)
The trifecta of a healthy diet, regular exercise and proper hygiene best protects you from coughs and colds. But research has also proven certain supplements to be effective combatants. Fortify your immune system with the herb echinacea, thought to fight flu by reducing inflammation. Also try zinc, which many experts agree can shorten a cold or flu if taken at the onset of symptoms, and astragalus, derived from a plant root, that stimulates white blood cells that help fight infection.
6. CoQ10 (cells, heart)
Also sold as coenzyme Q10, it is a naturally occurring element and antioxidant in the human body that provides energy to cells that keep your organs—especially your heart—running smoothly. CoQ10 can decrease with age and from some chronic diseases including heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes and muscular dystrophy. Although the jury is still out, some studies suggest a CoQ10 deficiency might cause some cases of obesity. Consult a doctor or nutritionist before taking CoQ10. The advanced form of CoQ10, ubiquinol, is also available in supplement form and is easier for your body to metabolize.
7. Vitamin B Complex (energy, red blood cell production, metabolism)
Supplements called B Complex include all eight B vitamins, which are water-soluble—meaning your body cannot store them and must therefore get a constant supply from food or supplements. B1 or thiamine—found in beans, meat, seeds and whole grains—may prevent irregular heartbeat, impaired sensory perception, edema and, in severe cases, heart failure. Vitamin B9, or folic acid—found in leafy vegetables, fruit, beans and peas—is crucial in brain development, especially for babies in utero.
8. Vitamin B 12 (nerves, energy, red blood cell production)
Vegans, listen up: B12, also called cobalamin, is only available from animal products, not plants. B12 aids red blood cell formation and is crucial for nerve development. People over 50 are at a higher risk for B12 deficiencies, which can cause weakness, fatigue and memory loss. Many energy drinks and supplements contain B12, but you can also find it as a standalone supplement.
9. Vitamin C (bones and muscles, antioxidant activity, immunity)
The long-held assumption that vitamin C can reduce your risk of getting a common cold is coming under some scrutiny, according to the National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine, and the jury is out on its effectiveness in immune health. But it is still crucial for good health; it helps form collagen, which is important for bone, muscle and blood vessel development. Although supporting scientific evidence is thin, vitamin C is often used to prevent various infections including gum disease, stomach ulcers and skin infections. An antioxidant that hunts and destroys cancer-causing free-radicals, vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is abundant in many plant foods, including broccoli and kale, not just citrus foods such as oranges.
10. Vitamin D (bones, immunity)
Like B vitamins, there are several forms of vitamin D: D2 and D3 are the most critical for humans. D3, which comes from the sun, is absorbed through your skin, and vitamin D2 comes from plants. Both help your body absorb calcium, crucial for bone development and density. An article published by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests as many as 1 billion people—especially those living at latitudes that get relatively little sun exposure and some ethnic groups—have vitamin D deficiencies. According to the Mayo Clinic, new research suggests vitamin D might also protect against osteoporosis, high blood pressure, cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Before starting any supplement regimen, consult a doctor or nutritionist who can advise you about possible benefits and side-effects.