Supplements to take everyday

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According to Nutritionists, These Are the 7 Ingredients Your Multivitamin Should Have

“I try to get all of my nutrients from my kitchen instead of my medicine cabinet, but as a realist, I know that meeting my nutrition needs all of the time is not possible,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of Better Than Dieting. On top of that, there may be other life factors that make supplementation necessary — pregnancy, menopause, or even chronic conditions.

One 2002 review found that vitamin deficiencies are commonly linked to chronic diseases, and supplementation may help. Even a complete diet may not be giving you the nutrients you need, when you need them. That’s where multivitamins come in.

For starters, a daily multivitamin can help provide a good foundation for your health. It can also protect you when you’re experiencing stress, sleeping poorly, or not getting regular exercise. Even with a “perfect” diet, these issues can make it tough for your body to properly absorb the nutrients, explains nutritionist Dawn Lerman, MA, CHHC, LCAT, AADP.

But with so many vitamin and mineral combos, how do we know exactly what to look for when shopping for a multivitamin? Luckily, you don’t need an advanced degree in nutrition to figure out which multi is worth taking with your morning OJ. We asked four experts to tell us which seven ingredients your multivitamin should have, no matter what brand you choose.

1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium, which is important for bone health. Not getting enough of this vitamin can increase:

  • your likelihood of getting sick
  • your chances of bone and back pain
  • bone and hair loss

While you technically should be able to get your daily vitamin D by being in the sunlight for 15 minutes, the reality is that over 40 percent of people in the United States don’t. Living in wintery locations with little sunlight, working an office 9 to 5 life, and applying sunscreen (which blocks vitamin D synthesis) makes getting vitamin D hard. This vitamin is also hard to come by in food, which is why Taub-Dix says to look for this ingredient in your multi.

Foods with vitamin D

  • fatty fish
  • egg yolks
  • fortified foods like milk, juice, and cereal

Pro-tip: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that children 1-13 years of age and adults 19-70, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, get 600 IU of vitamin D per day. Older adults should get 800 IU.

2. Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential nutrient, which means that we must get it from food or supplements. Lerman notes that magnesium is best known for being important to our bone health and energy production. However, magnesium may have more benefits than that. She adds that this mineral can also:

  • calm our nervous system and reduce stress after 90 days
  • ease sleep problems, as suggested by an older study on mice
  • regulate muscle and nerve function
  • balance blood sugar levels
  • make protein, bone, and even DNA

But a lot of people are magnesium deficient because they aren’t eating the right foods, not because they need supplements. Try eating more pumpkin, spinach, artichoke, soybeans, beans, tofu, brown rice, or nuts (especially Brazil nuts) before jumping to supplements for solutions.

Pro-tip: Lerman suggests looking for a supplement with 300-320 mg of magnesium. The NIH agrees, recommending no more than a 350-mg supplement for adults. The best forms are aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride which the body absorbs more completely.

3. Calcium

Over 40 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t get enough calcium from their diet. This means those people aren’t getting the mineral they need for strong bones and teeth. Women in particular start losing bone density earlier, and getting enough calcium from the start is the best nutritional defense against this loss.

Foods with calcium

  • fortified cereals
  • milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • salty fish
  • broccoli and kale
  • nuts and nut butters
  • beans and lentils

If your diet is rich in these foods, you’re likely getting enough calcium already.

Pro-tip: Therecommended amount of calcium per day is 1,000 mg for most adults, and while you probably don’t need to get all of your calcium needs from a multivitamin, you do want there to be some, Lerman explains. Jonathan Valdez, RDN, spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner ofGenki Nutrition recommends that you get calcium in the form of calcium citrate. This form optimizes bioavailability, causing less symptoms in people who have absorption issues.

4. Zinc

“Zinc tends to be low in older people and anyone under a lot of stress,” says Lerman. Which, (hello!) is basically everyone. And it makes sense. Zinc supports our immune system and helps our body use carbohydrates, protein, and fat for energy. It also aids in wound healing.

Foods with zinc

  • oysters
  • grass-fed beef
  • pumpkin seeds
  • spinach
  • organ meats
  • tahini
  • sardines
  • brown rice
  • wheat germ
  • tempeh

The average American diet isn’t rich in foods that offer zinc, and the body can’t store zinc, which is why Lerman recommends your daily supplements highlight this ingredient.

Pro-tip: Lerman suggests finding a multivitamin that has 5-10 mg of zinc. The NIH suggests you get approximately 8-11 mg of zinc daily, so the amount you want your multivitamin to have depends on your diet.

5. Iron

“Iron should be in your multivitamin, but not everyone needs the same amount of iron,” Lerman advises. Some of the benefits of iron include:

  • increased energy
  • better brain function
  • healthy red blood cells

Those who eat red meats typically get enough iron, but certain circumstances like having your menstrual cycle, going through puberty, and being pregnant may increase the amount of iron you need. This is because iron is essential during times of rapid growth and development. Vegetarians and vegans may also want to make sure their multivitamin has iron, especially if they’re not supplementing meat with other iron-rich foods.

Pro-tip: “Look for a multi with around 18 mg of iron in the form of ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferric citrate, or ferric sulfate,” suggests Valdez. Any more than that and Valdez says you may feel nauseous.

6. Folate

Folate (or folic acid) is best known for aiding in fetus development and preventing birth defects. But if you’re growing out your nails, fighting depression, or looking to combat inflammation, this ingredient is important, too.

Foods with folate

  • dark leafy greens
  • avocado
  • beans
  • citrus

Pro-tip: You should aim to get around 400 mcg of folate, or 600 mcg if you’re pregnant. “When choosing a multi, look for methyl folate on the label. It’s a more active form which generally indicates a more wholeful product,” suggestsIsabel K Smith, MS, RD, CDN. Valdez adds that when you take folate with food, 85 percent of it is absorbed, but when taken on an empty stomach, you’ll absorb 100 percent of it.

7. Vitamin B-12

The B-vitamin complex is like a factory made up of eight diligent workers who band together to create and sustain our body’s energy supply by breaking down the micronutrients we consume (fats, proteins, carbs).

But each has a specialized role, too. Lerman says that specifically, vitamin B-12 works to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Vegan or vegetarians are prone to vitamin B-12 deficiency because most food sources are animal-based like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.

Pro-tip: Therecommended amount of B-12 is less than 3 mcg, so Lerman recommends looking for a vitamin with 1 to 2 mcg per serving because your body gets rid of any extra B-12 when you pee. B-12 also has many forms, so Smith recommends that you look for a multi that carries B-12 as methylcobalamin (or methyl-B12), which is easiest for our bodies to absorb.

Multivitamins that fit the brief:

Don’t rely on your multivitamin

“This may be obvious, but it’s worth repeating: When it comes to vitamins and minerals, get it from food first,” Taub-Dix reminds us. Our bodies are designed to reap nutrients from the food we eat, and we will get all the nutrients we need, as long we’re eating a varied and balanced diet.

Because at the end of the day, supplements should be considered bonus boosters, not replacements for food. And all the experts we spoke to agree: A double-decker with a morning multi just won’t cut it.

Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal, all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.

Do you need a daily supplement?

Most older adults take some kind of over-the-counter dietary supplement. But are these products right for everyone?

Published: September, 2018


Image: © phototake/Getty Images

Over-the-counter dietary supplements are big business — more than 90,000 products generate about $30 billion every year in the United States. Older adults make up a big part of these sales, too. A survey of almost 3,500 adults ages 60 and older published Oct. 1, 2017, in The Journal of Nutrition found that 70% use a daily supplement (either a multivitamin or individual vitamin or mineral), 54% take one or two supplements, and 29% take four or more.

But are these pills good medicine, or a waste of money?

“Supplements are never a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And they can be a distraction from healthy lifestyle practices that confer much greater benefits.”

What the science shows

Dietary supplement is an umbrella term that includes everything from vitamins and minerals to botanicals and biosimilar products (such as so-called “natural male hormone”). For the most part, though, people use “supplement” to mean an individual vitamin or mineral preparation or a multivitamin (that is, a product that contains 10 or more vitamins, minerals, or both).

Even though supplements are popular, there is limited evidence that they offer any significant health benefits. In fact, a study published online May 28, 2018, by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that the four most commonly used supplements — multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C — did not protect against cardiovascular disease.

So why do so many people take supplements if the health benefits are negligible or nonexistent for the average, healthy person? “People often think of them as something extra they can do to be sure their basic nutritional needs are covered,” says Dr. Manson. There’s also a possible placebo effect to taking supplements, she adds. “People feel healthier if they do something they believe makes them healthy.”

The greatest issue with supplements is that they are not regulated by the FDA. “Supplements can appear on the shelf without having to prove they offer any benefits,” says Dr. Manson. “With limited regulation and oversight, it’s also difficult to know for certain that the supplement contains the ingredients on the label and is free of contaminants.”

It’s not all bad news, though. For instance, some research has shown that folic acid and B-complex vitamins may reduce the risk of stroke. Also, the Physicians’ Health Study II, published in 2012 by Harvard researchers, found that men who took a daily multivitamin for 11 years had an 8% lower risk of cancer and a 9% lower risk of cataracts compared with a placebo group.

Possible health risks

Most supplements are safe to take, but there are exceptions. For example:

  • High doses of beta carotene have been linked to a greater risk of lung cancer in smokers.

  • Extra calcium and vitamin D may increase the risk of kidney stones.

  • High doses of vitamin E may lead to stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.

  • Vitamin K can interfere with the anti-clotting effects of blood thinners.

  • Taking high amounts of vitamin B6 for a year or longer has been associated with nerve damage that can impair body movements (the symptoms often go away after the supplements are stopped).

A role for high-risk groups

Supplements can play an important role for some high-risk groups. For instance, adults diagnosed with osteoporosis may require extra vitamin D and calcium beyond what they get from their regular diet. Supplements also can help people with Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, conditions that make it difficult to absorb certain nutrients. People with vitamin B12 deficiency almost always need a supplement.

Some research also has found that a formula of vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, zinc, and copper can reduce the progression of age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss among older adults. “Moreover, people who are lactose intolerant and do not get enough vitamin D and calcium because they don’t eat dairy products also could benefit from supplements,” says Dr. Manson.

The message here is that supplements prescribed by a doctor are helpful for people with certain medical issues. Otherwise, it’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from food and not a pill.

Disclaimer:
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The definition of a supplement is “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” Surveys show that more than half of all Americans take some form of vitamin supplement almost daily, but what are the best supplements to take for health? (1)

Supplements remain a controversial topic — some health experts tell us that they’re mostly unnecessary because we can get the essential nutrients we need from our diets alone, while others tell us that conventionally grown foods today don’t contain enough nutrients due to issues like poor soil quality. So who should we believe? And if we’re going to take supplements, what are the best supplements for overall health?

The best supplements for you will depend on factors like your gender, age, medical history, genetics, level of physical activity and diet. For example, adult men and women may benefit from taking different supplements, vegetarians/vegans can use more of certain nutrients like vitamin B12, and people living in cooler climates may need more vitamin D.

We also have to remember that even the best supplements can’t take the place of eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. While supplements like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and protein powders can help to support specific functions, the real goal of using supplements should be to enhance an already-balanced diet.

What Is Considered a Supplement?

According to the National Institute of Health, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products. (2) Today, more supplements than ever before in history are available in health food stores, drug stores, pharmacies and online in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, tinctures, powders, gummies, drinks and more.

Some of the most widely consumed supplements include multivitamins; vitamins D and E; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs, such as turmeric, echinacea and garlic; glucosamine; probiotics; omega-3 fish oils; and protein powders.

Top 6 Best Supplements for Health + Their Benefits

1. Vitamins C, E and A for Skin Health

As we get older, our skin becomes more susceptible to damage caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, too much sun exposure, a poor diet, overactive immune system and other factors. Which vitamins really work when it comes to improving skin health? Obtaining plenty vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A/beta-carotene and zinc can all help to keep your skin looking healthy and youthful. (3)

For example, the antioxidant vitamin C does more than just fight illnesses — it also helps protect your skin by fighting free radicals and helping you absorb more trace minerals and nutrients in general. Consuming plenty vitamin E and vitamin A together has been shown to improve healing. Collagen is another supplement that can benefit your skin by helping repair wounds and keeping skin elastic, strong and moisturized.

2. B Vitamins for Energy and Help Handling Stress

B vitamins, including vitamin B12 and folate, are important for your metabolism, supporting cellular processes, growth and energy expenditure, preventing fatigue, and boosting cognitive functions. (4)

Plant-based eaters who avoid meat (vegetarians/vegans) are more likely to be low in B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, which is only found in animal foods, therefore supplementing is recommended. Even if you consume the daily B vitamins you need (from eating things like beef, poultry and eggs), you might still have trouble with proper absorption (such as of vitamin B12) due to medication use or health conditions that impair gut health.

3. Vitamin D and Calcium for Bone Health and More

It remains a controversial whether two of the best supplements for keeping bones strong and reducing your risk for bone loss and fractures are calcium and vitamin D. (5) Calcium, when consumed when other key nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium, has been shown to offer protection against some of the biggest threats to adult men and women: heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer, for example. Experts believe that most adults in the U.S. don’t get enough calcium on a daily basis, but calcium is not absorbed properly when someone has low levels of vitamin D and magnesium. Supplementing with calcium has pros and cons, so speak with your doctor about your risk factors, and first try to get enough from foods if you can.

Not only is vitamin D3 important for bone/skeletal health, but it’s also needed for brain functions, preventing mood disorders, immune support and hormonal balance. We get the majority of our vitamin D from exposing our skin to sunlight. Since more people spend a large majority of their time indoors these days or wear sunscreen diligently when outdoors, both men and women are at high risks for vitamin D deficiencies. Estimates range, but some research shows that about 75 percent of adults in the U.S. might be deficient!

How much vitamin D should you take daily? The best way to get enough vitamin D is to spend 15–20 minutes outside most days of the week without sunscreen on. If this isn’t possible for you, it’s recommended you take 400–800 IU/day, or 10–20 micrograms. Studies research suggests that higher daily intakes of 1000–4000 IU (25–100 micrograms) may be even more beneficial for some deficient adults, so it’s best to talk to your doctor.

4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Fighting Inflammation

What is the best supplement to take if you want to keep your immune system strong, joints in good condition, brain working sharply and heart healthy? Omega-3 fatty acids/fish oil supplements may be able to help fight inflammation, which is associated with common conditions, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. (6) Eating wild-caught fish several times per week or taking a supplement equal to about 1,000 milligrams daily is the best way to beat inflammation and get enough omega-3s.

Other vitamins may be able to effectively manage blood sugar levels and hormonal responses, which can contribute to inflammation when they become abnormal. Vitamin E, vitamin A and vitamin C all work together to keep cells and tissue strong and protect against inflammation. Zinc is one of the most important nutrients for helping with nutrient absorption (it’s involved in over 100 metabolic processes) and allowing for proper waste elimination, which fights inflammation and cellular damage.

5. Antioxidants for Eye Health

Eye vitamins and antioxidants can help protect the eye’s macula, lens and cornea while also lowering free radical damage and inflammation, which destroy tissue in the eyes. A number of antioxidants, including vitamin A, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin, can help to protect your vision and eyes as you age. (7)

Lutein and zeaxanthin are cartotenoids that are found in the macular region of the retina of the eyes, and studies suggest they can help reduce the risk of light-induced oxidative damage that can lead to macular degeneration (AMD). Zinc and copper in combination with other vitamins can also help protect the retina and lower risk for macular degeneration and vision loss. Vitamin A and vitamin C help fight free radical damage in the eyes caused over time by things like a poor diet, blue light emissions from computer screens and sun/UV light exposure.

6. Probiotics for Gut/Digestive Support

Probiotics are bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. Certain strains of probiotics enhance immune function, whereas others promote health or hormone balance. (8) Your “good gut bugs” help produce vitamin B12, butyrate and vitamin K; crowd out bad microbes; create enzymes that destroy harmful bacteria; and stimulate secretion of IgA and regulatory T-cells, which support immune function.

When buying probiotic supplements, look out for the genus, species and strain. The label should also indicate the type of CFUs (colony forming units) that are present at the time of manufacturing. It’s best to take a probiotic that has at least 50 billion CFUs and has strain diversity, including multiple bacterial strains, such as Bacillus clausii, Bacillus subtilis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

If you suspect you might have leaky gut syndrome (aka intestinal permeability) — perhaps because you have symptoms of food sensitivities, inflammatory bowel disease or skin issues like eczema — then other leaky gut supplements are also worth trying (in addition to following a leaky gut diet and treatment plan). These include collagen and licorice root to help maintain the mucosal lining of the stomach and duodenum, digestive enzymes (such as one that includes protease, amylase, lipase and lactase) L-glutamine, which can help repairing the gut and intestinal lining, and N-acetyl glucosamine, which can help protect the lining of your stomach and intestines.

Related: What Is Silicon Dioxide and Is It Safe?

Who Needs Supplements? Signs and Symptoms You Can Benefit from Supplementing

It’s technically possible to get all of the essential nutrients you need from a carefully planned, balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods. Still, many people wind up getting less of one or more nutrients than they need, such as vitamins or minerals.

There are 13 vitamins that all humans require from their diets, including vitamins C, A, D, E, K and the B vitamins. (9) There are also a number of important trace minerals and fatty acids too that we must get from our diets because our bodies can’t produce them.

Research shows many adults (and children too) experience at least one type of nutrient deficiency, if not more, even if they consume enough calories on most days. You’re most likely to suffer from a nutrient deficiency if you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods, in which case some supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. People who are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients include:

  • The elderly, who often have a reduced appetite and a hard time absorbing some nutrients.
  • Those who consume a large amount of processed foods, sugar, refined grains and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • People eating calorie-restrictive diets.
  • Those with malabsorption/gut issues.
  • People who consume high amounts of alcohol or smoke.
  • Those under a lot of mental/physical stress.
  • Endurance athletes or people who are very active.
  • Pregnant women who have higher calorie and nutrient needs.
  • People exposed to various environmental pollutants.
  • Those on a vegan diet or vegetarian diet that doesn’t include any animal or much animal products.

If you have any of the following symptoms or conditions, then certain supplements can likely be helpful:

  • Muscle aches, pains and spasms
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Trouble recovering from workouts
  • Brain fog
  • Digestive issues like bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Blurry or diminishing vision
  • Acne, skin breakouts and signs of skin irritation
  • Poor quality sleep
  • Thinning hair
  • Irregular or heavy periods
  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding

The Best Supplements for Men

What are the most important vitamins for your body if you’re a man? The following are considered some of the best supplements for men:

  • Magnesium is one of the most important minerals for both men and women, but unfortunately it’s also one of the most common deficiencies. As an electrolyte, magnesium helps regulate calcium, potassium and sodium and is essential for over 300 different biochemical functions in the body. Studies have shown that many older people don’t eat enough magnesium-rich foods to begin with, plus they’re prone to experiencing reduced magnesium due to trouble with intestinal absorption, reduced magnesium bone stores, and excess urinary loss due to factors like stress and exercise.
  • Many men are also low in potassium. Potassium deficiency is most common in men who take medications or diuretics in order to treat high blood pressure, diabetes or coronary heart disease; those with a history of kidney or adrenal disorders; alcoholics; and men who exercise for more than one to two hours a day.
  • Men need vitamin D3 to produce enough testosterone, maintain strong bones, protect brain health, prevent mood disorders like depression, and help control cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
  • What supplements can you take to build muscle and “get ripped”? Of course women can have the goal of gaining muscle and losing fat just like men can, but bodybuilding supplements tend to be more popular among men. Some of the safest and best bodybuilding supplements include collagen, creatine, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), glutamine, caffeine and protein powders. These are generally safe for most adults to use and offer benefits like increasing lean muscle mass, improving muscular strength, decreasing muscle soreness, improving blood flow during training and helping repair injured connective issue.
  • What are the best protein powders for men? Whey protein powder is one of the most popular and has been used for many years. It is fast-digesting, can help increase muscle mass post-workout, can improve appetite control, supports muscle recovery, stabilizes your blood sugar and more. To use whey protein, simply add one scoop (or about 28 grams) of a high-quality powder to any low-sugar shake or smoothie. Keep in mind that whey protein should not be consumed by people with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. If this applies to you, try collagen protein powder, hemp protein, pea protein or sprouted brown rice protein powder instead.

The Best Supplements for Women

Some of the best supplements for women listed below may help prevent common health problems like anemia, bone loss and joint pains.

  • Post-menopausal women are more susceptible to bone-related disorders like osteoporosis and bone fractures. Women can benefit from consuming adequate vitamin K, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium for bone health. If you’ve been taking antibiotics for an extended period of time or suffer from intestinal problems, such as IBS or inflammatory bowel disease, then you might need additional vitamin K beyond what your diet provides.
  • Iron deficiency and anemia are the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies in the world, especially among women. Older women, those with anemia, vegans and vegetarians should work with a doctor to make sure they get enough B vitamins and iron since they’re at the greatest risk for these deficiencies. Adolescent girls are at the highest risk for iron deficiencies, and women in general need to be careful to get enough since demand for iron increases during menstruation due to blood loss.
  • A lack of calcium, amino acids (protein), omega-3s, zinc, iodine and iron are more common in women (and men) who don’t eat any animal products, which is why supplements are recommended in this case.
  • Women between the ages of 20–39 are most likely to have low iodine levels. (10) Iodine intake is especially important for young women looking to become pregnant or who are pregnant, plus it helps support production of thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland requires iodine to produce the hormones T3 and T4, which help control your metabolism and prevent problems like hypo or hyperthyroidism.
  • Weight loss supplements and workout supplements can be beneficial when used carefully in appropriate doses, although they aren’t a magic bullet. Some of the best weight loss supplements to add to an already-healthy diet include green tea extract, caffeine (watch out for very high doses), ginseng, vitamin B12, chromium, citrus polyphenols and grapefruit essential oil. Try these in addition to exercise, stress management and eating filling, fat-burning foods.
  • Requirements for many micronutrients increase during pregnancy — especially nutrients like folate, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and iodine. (11) For pregnant women, supplementing with folic acid helps decrease the risk of certain birth defects, including spina bifida. Folate (which is called folic acid when it’s created synthetically) is critical for a healthy pregnancy and developing fetuses because it helps build the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Stick to fermented folic acid/folate, which is metabolized by the body similarly to naturally occurring folate. The American Thyroid Association also recommends all prenatal vitamins contain 150 micrograms of iodine, which should be taken during pregnancy and afterward while breast-feeding.

What to Look for in the Best Supplements

Unlike prescription medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed and sold to the public. The FDA has established “good manufacturing practices” (GMPs) for dietary supplements to help ensure that they are safe and pure, however it’s still your responsibility as a consumer to do your research, buy from products from a reputable brand and follow dosage directions. (12)

Organizations, including the U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com and NSF International, offer seals of approval for supplements, so these are good resources to check before buying a new product.

I recommend purchasing foods-based supplements, such as multivitamins, whenever possible, which can mean that the nutrients are easier to digest. Synthetic supplements are made from an unnatural source while whole food-based supplements are created through the process of fermentation, probiotics and enzymes.

You can also look for multivitamins that are made with additional superfoods, herbs, enzymes and botanical ingredients like spirulina, camu camu, chia seeds, saw palmetto, ginseng, apple cider vinegar and ashwagandha. I also highly recommend choosing a fermented multivitamin, since fermentation is a form of pre-digestion that makes nutrients easier to absorb. Ideally you’ll take a fermented multivitamin rich in superfoods that also contains herbs that can help with digestion, such as ginger and peppermint.

Best Supplements vs. Worst Supplements to Avoid

I recommend avoiding all synthetic supplements and seeking out the higher-quality, whole food-based supplements. Check the ingredient label and skip supplements that contain ingredients like artificial coloring, titanium dioxide, soy lecithin, BHT, maltodextrin, talc, hydrogenated oils, high doses of caffeine or aconite. (13)

Precautions When Taking Supplements:

Some supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong and/or negative effects on the body. Supplements are most likely to cause side effects when when they are taken in high doses, in combinations or with prescribed medicines. Remember that supplements are not drugs, and they shouldn’t be used to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent or cure diseases.

Some supplements can interact with prescription drugs in ways that might cause problems or make the drugs less effective. This means that you shouldn’t take supplements in place of, or in combination with, prescribed medications without talking to your doctor first.

Be especially careful about taking new supplements if you’re taking medications like blood thinners, antidepressants, birth control pills or chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer. Many supplements (especially herbal products) have not been well-tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, so if this applies to you be extra cautious.

How to Eat to Support Supplementation

Supplements are intended to do what their name implies: supplement your diet. Supplements shouldn’t take the place of eating healthy foods, so taking them is not an excuse to avoid eating things like veggies, fruit and fish — even the best supplements!

Even if you do regularly take high-quality supplements, you should still make an effort to eat nutrient-dense foods every day. Some of the best foods for providing essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more include:

  • Anti-inflammatory foods, which are high in antioxidants and have positive, preventative effects against many age-related disorders. Foods that fall into this category include veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, seaweeds, herbs and spices.
  • Veggies like carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and leafy greens, which are considered some of the best foods for overall health because they provide antioxidants and vitamins, including vitamins C, E, A and zinc, along with carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Other great options include cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemon and limes), sweet potatoes, green beans, eggs (including the yolk), berries, papaya, mango, kiwi, melon, guava, red bell peppers, peas, nuts and seeds (sunflower, sesame, hazelnut, almond, Brazil nuts, etc.).
  • A diet that includes high-fiber foods like sprouted chia seeds, sprouted flaxseeds and sprouted hemp seeds is important for supporting probiotic growth.
  • Several times per week, try to have wild-caught seafood, especially salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, halibut, tuna, etc. Other nutrient-dense protein options include organ meats like liver, grass-fed meat, cage-free eggs, raw dairy products and pasture-raised poultry.
  • Aim to have some raw foods like veggies that are uncooked or lightly cooked. Preserve antioxidants in your food by cutting and cooking them as close to the time you’ll be eating them as possible. Cook your foods at low temperatures as much as possible to avoid destroying delicate phytonutrients.
  • Try to also buy organic, fresh, grass-fed and wild-caught foods as much as possible to get the highest nutrient concentrations.
  • Consume foods high in vitamins and antioxidants along with healthy fats, since many of these vitamins are “fat-soluble nutrients” that are absorbed best when eaten with a source of lipids (fats). Pair nutrient-dense foods with something like omega-3 foods (like salmon), coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds for proper absorption.

Dosage Recommendations for the Best Supplements + Guide to How to Take the Best Supplements

Every nutrient needs to be taken in different amounts, so when buying supplements, always prefer to the supplement facts panel found on the bottle/package that lists the contents, amount of active ingredients per serving, other added ingredients (like fillers, binders and flavorings) and recommended dosage.

Supplement manufacturers will suggest the serving size that is recommended for most adults. Because needs vary, you can speak with your care provider if you think a different amount is more appropriate for you. Keep in mind that moderation is key with supplements, even the best supplements, and just because a nutrient is considered essential doesn’t necessarily mean that taking more is always better — in fact, this can be dangerous and have negative effects.

Because some medications might interact with supplements, it can be beneficial to take them at separate times (you can ask your doctor or pharmacist). By sticking to a regular schedule for when you take drugs and supplements, you’re more likely to remember them each day.

Below are general recommendations for common supplements (again, do your research or ask your doctor if you have special needs):

What’s the best time of day to take supplements? It really depends on the type of supplement, although consistency is probably most important. Take supplements with food (unless otherwise recommended) to boost absorption and reduce the risk of side effects like nausea. Check the instructions to see if you need to split doses throughout the day, since the body absorbs smaller doses of many nutrients better than large ones. Iron is one supplement that is best absorbed on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning, and taking probiotics about 30 minutes before a meal seems to work well for most people.

Final Thoughts on the Best Supplements to Take

  • What are the best vitamins and best supplements to take daily? There isn’t a clear-cut answer to “what’s the best supplements” because it depends on factors including your gender, age, medical history, genetics, level of physical activity and diet.
  • Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies among adult men and women include vitamin D, magnesium, iron, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. Examples of other supplements that also offer many benefits include probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, collagen, vitamins C and A, and zinc.
  • Adults may benefit from taking supplements if they’re experiencing signs of a nutrient deficiency, such as fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches, poor recovery from workouts, acne, trouble sleeping and digestive issues.
  • You can likely benefit from supplementing with certain nutrients if you’re a vegetarian/vegan, pregnant or nursing, over the age of 55, have a gut-related issue that interferes with absorption, you’re taking certain medications, have a history of alcoholism, you’re dieting, you’re very stressed or you work out intensely.
  • Today, some of the best supplements available are fermented, food-based vitamins that only include herbs, botanicals and enzymes that help with absorption.

Read Next: Top 10 Leaky Gut Supplements

When it comes to making sure you are getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs, food is the best option. Many women can get the nutrients they need by choosing a healthy eating style, which includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat free dairy and lean protein foods. Although in some cases, a dietary supplement may be needed. For example, during pregnancy, some mineral and vitamin needs increase and women may need to take a prenatal vitamin. Dietary supplements may also be recommended if foods that provide important nutrients are lacking, or when a vitamin or mineral deficiency has been diagnosed by a health care provider.

So, what about all those ads for vitamins and minerals specially designed for the needs of women? Here’s the scoop:

Calcium

Calcium helps keep bones strong and may reduce the risk of diseases such as osteoporosis. Focus on getting the calcium you need from food sources, such as low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt. Fortified foods and beverages, including some cereals, soy products and 100% juices can also contribute this important nutrient. If you’re concerned about your calcium intake, talk with your health care provider to see if a calcium supplement is right for you.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin, due to our body’s ability to produce some vitamin D after being out in the sun. However, geographical location, time of year and use of sunscreen can all influence this natural source of vitamin D. You can also get vitamin D from foods, such as eggs, fatty fish and fortified milk products. Vitamin D plays a role in bone health and helps with the absorption of calcium. Before taking a vitamin D supplement, speak with your healthcare provider to find out if your vitamin D levels are low and ask if you need to get extra vitamin D.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found in animal products. Lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs and low-fat dairy foods are good sources of this vitamin. Vegetarians, vegans and others who avoid these foods can get vitamin B12 from fortified foods including some breakfast cereals and meat substitutes, but a supplement may also be needed. Thinking about taking vitamin B12 for an energy boost to fight fatigue? Think again. The evidence is lacking. In addition, research does not support taking vitamin B12 supplements to treat heart disease or reduce your risk for breast cancer. Talk to your health care provider to see if you need a vitamin B12 supplement before taking one.

Folate and Folic Acid

Your body needs folate to keep red blood cells working normally. It also has been found to help prevent birth defects caused by neural tube defects. Thus, folic acid, the supplemental form of folate, is included in prenatal vitamins recommended for women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. What about other women? Most women can get the folate they need by including a variety of sources, such as dark green leafy vegetables, oranges, nuts, beans seafood and dairy products in their eating patterns. Plus, many breakfast cereals are fortified with folate and one serving may provide 100 percent of your daily needs.

Magnesium

Many Americans do not get the daily recommended amount of magnesium in their diet, yet a variety of foods provide it. Sources of magnesium include: beans, nuts, whole grains and green leafy vegetables. Although some studies have found that magnesium supplements may help reduce symptoms of certain health conditions, more research is still needed. Plus, magnesium supplements may not be recommended if you are taking certain medicines. Thus, focusing on food sources of magnesium is preferable.

Are You Getting the Vitamins and Minerals Your Body Needs?

To find out if you are getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs, meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist. An RDN can evaluate your eating style and make recommendations to help you make better choices. In addition, an RDN can help you determine if a dietary supplement is needed.

En Español

  • Tips for Women
  • Questions to Ask about Your Supplements
  • How FDA Helps You
  • How to Be a Smart Shopper

Dietary supplements are products that people add to their diets. They include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids. They can be pills, liquids, powders, or energy bars.

Although dietary supplements can help support good health, they may also cause side effects and health problems. It is important to think about the health benefits and risks before taking any product.

Tips for Women

Anyone can have problems with dietary supplements. Some women need to take special steps to stay safe.

Pregnant Women

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about what kind of prenatal vitamins you should take.
  • Ask how much folic acid you should take before you get pregnant and during the first part of your pregnancy. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain and spine.

Women with Children

  • Talk to your healthcare provider before you give supplements like vitamins to a child.
  • Keep all supplements out of your child’s reach and sight.

Women with Health Problems

  • Supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.
  • Do not take supplements instead of your prescription medicines.
  • Tell your healthcare provider about any herbs, vitamins, or other products you take. Some can affect how your prescriptions work.
  • Some dietary supplements can be harmful if you take them before you have surgery.

Questions to Ask About Your Supplements

Talk to your healthcare provider before you use a dietary supplement.

Ask:

  • How much should I take? Too much of some supplements can make you sick.
  • Will they affect the prescription or over-the-counter medicines I take?
  • When should I take them? For how long?

How FDA Helps You

FDA takes action against unsafe products after they are for sale.

However, FDA does not review or approve the safety of dietary supplements before they are sold. FDA reviews and takes action against false claims in product labels and other product information.

  • Contact FDA if you have a serious problem after taking a dietary supplement. 1-800-FDA-1088 or www.fda.gov/medwatch
  • Visit the FDA website to get other tips and safety alerts. www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements

Be a Smart Shopper

Beware of scams and false claims. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Get the Facts Before You Buy.

  • Check the source of the information on the product website or TV ad.
  • Call or write the company that makes the product for more information.
  • Check the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website to learn more about research on dietary supplements. http://ods.od.nih.gov
  • Report false advertising to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). www.ftc.gov or 1-877-382-4357.

To Learn More about Dietary Supplements

  • Weight Loss Fraud
  • NIH Office of Dietary Supplements

Resources For You

  • Health Scams! Don’t take the risk.
  • Beware of Illegally Sold Diabetes Treatments
  • Get Other FDA Publications for Women
  • For Women Homepage

What Are The Best Weight Loss Supplements For Women Over 40?

Reaching your goal weight involves more than simply eating well and working out regularly. You should also consider using weight loss supplements for women.

Making sure your body gets the proper nutrients it needs to stay strong and energized is the key to successfully shedding pounds and keeping lost weight off long term.

Taking supplements is a way for women to achieve the goal weight of their dreams, stay healthy, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, lengthen life expectancy, and improve quality of life.

While getting your nutrients from foods is generally best, supplements are important because many women don’t meet essential nutrient needs from foods alone.

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Weight Loss Supplement Recommendations for Women

Taking dietary weight loss supplements for women isn’t a sure fire way to shed pounds, but may enhance weight loss success when used in conjunction with a healthy eating and exercise plan.

Always check in with your doctor before taking any type of supplement, especially if you’re taking medications.

Green Coffee Bean Extract

Research shows that green coffee bean extract is a weight loss supplement for women that appears to make shedding pounds easier, according to a 2015 study published in the ‘Journal of Nutritional Disorders & Therapy’.

Researchers found that the combination of chlorogenic acid and caffeine in green coffee extract work synergistically to suppress weight gain.

Studies in mice also found benefits from green coffee bean extract on weight and body fat loss.

One such study published in 2016 in the ‘Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine’ found that this extract helps protect against obesity by lowering body fat accumulation.

Drinking green coffee appears to aid in weight loss as well, as coffee (without cream or added sugar) is a very low-calorie beverage (containing about 5 calories per serving).

One 2014 study in ‘BioMed Research International’ found that drinking 4 cups of coffee throughout the day helps decrease waist circumference and abdominal body fat.

Green Tea Extract

Tea and coffee have similar properties when it comes to weight and fat loss. As with plain coffee, unsweetened green tea contains just 5 calories per serving.

Extracts found in green tea appear to slightly enhance weight loss in overweight study subjects, according to a 2014 study published in the ‘Canadian Pharmacists Journal’.

Fiber Supplements

Because fiber increases satiation (feelings of fullness) and your body doesn’t fully digest or absorb it, fiber-rich foods are a part of just about every weight loss meal plan.

You might not think about fiber as being a weight loss supplement for women, but it appears to be effective when used for this purpose.

It’s often best to meet daily fiber needs by eating fiber-rich foods (such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, or seeds), but taking fiber supplements helps fill in the gaps of what your diet lacks.

These supplements aid in weight loss when you’re unable to meet fiber requirements from foods alone.

A 2017 review published in the ‘Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ found that taking gel-forming fiber supplements, such as guar gum and psyllium supplements, enhances weight loss and appears to improve blood sugar and cholesterol.

The University of California San Francisco recommends getting in at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber (preferably from foods) each day but reports that most U.S. adults average just 15 grams of fiber daily from foods.

If you fall into this category, ask your doctor if fiber supplements are a good match for you.

Protein Meal Replacements

Protein has numerous beneficial effects on weight loss and healthy weight management.

A 2015 study published in the ‘American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’ says higher protein intakes increase satiety, aid in weight and fat loss, and help maintain lean body mass during periods of calorie restriction.

Authors of the review suggest that eating 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal is a good rule of thumb when healthy weight management is your goal.

While you don’t have to drink protein-rich meal replacement shakes to effectively drop weight, doing so is an easy way to boost protein intake when you’re on the go, at work, or don’t have time to cook a meal.

If you choose protein-rich meal replacement shakes to help you shed pounds, try blending together low-fat milk, plant-based milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese with protein powder, nut butter (this is optional), and a small amount of fruit — such as bananas, strawberries, mangoes, or pears.

There are many protein powders on the market, but my suggestions would be Whey, Casein, pea, or brown rice protein powders.

Additional Supplements Recommendations for Women

Women have different nutritional needs than men, and U.S. women tend to be deficient in certain nutrients.

That’s why taking the right nutritional supplements designed for women is important to maximize overall health and wellness.

You might be surprised to learn that your diet could be lacking in more ways than one.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Capsules

Unless you’re eating fish on a regular basis or consuming omega-3 fortified foods or supplements, you might not be getting recommended amounts of omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

A 2014 study published in the Nutrition Journal found that omega-3 intakes are higher in men than women and that few adults consume recommended levels of omega-3s regularly.

Getting too little of this essential nutrient may put you at risk of developing certain health problems.

Omega-3s help to reduce cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure — and lower your risk for stroke, diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, certain cancers, and mental decline associated with age, says ‘MedlinePlus’.

You might be wondering how many omega-3 fatty acids women should consume on a day-to-day basis?

While there’s no official guideline for omega-3s, getting in at least 500 milligrams of DHA plus EPA (up to 900 milligrams) daily is a good rule of thumb, says the ‘DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute’.

Probiotics Supplements

You can get probiotics (which are the helpful bacteria naturally found in the gut) from eating numerous foods, but taking probiotics supplements regularly helps ensure you’re meeting recommended dosages on a daily basis.

Foods that can provide probiotics include yogurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha (a type of probiotics-rich tea).

The health benefits of taking in probiotics are endless, especially for women. A review published in 2016 in ‘Tropical Life Sciences Research’ found that probiotics may be beneficial for:

  • Boosting your immune system
  • Helping lower cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • Alleviating postmenopausal disorders
  • Reducing diarrhea
  • Preventing bowel diseases
  • Reducing oral health diseases
  • Improving skin health
  • Decreasing anxiety and depression

Research is ongoing to help determine all of the health and wellness benefits probiotics may be responsible for.

As with omega-3 fatty acids, there’s no official guideline regarding which dosage of probiotics supplements you should take.

‘The American Family Physician’ suggests that ingesting 5 to 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs) for kids and 10 to 20 billion CFUs daily for adults may be appropriate and that there are few (if any) negative side effects from these supplements.

‘Consumerlab.com’ says taking probiotics in dosages ranging from 1 to 10 billion CFUs per day is a good rule of thumb.

Calcium/Vitamin D Supplements

Many U.S. women aren’t getting enough calcium or vitamin D from foods (or sunlight in the case of vitamin D).

‘MedlinePlus’ reports that obese and older adults are at risk of vitamin D deficiency because their bodies don’t utilize vitamin D as efficiently as it should, and ‘Harvard Health Publishing’ says vitamin D supplementation is a good idea for middle-aged women who lack sufficient dietary vitamin D.

Calcium deficiency is also a common concern for women, especially women over 40.

‘The National Institutes of Health’ says U.S. women over 50 have average calcium intakes falling below recommended levels, and women are less likely than men to meet daily calcium requirements from foods.

Your multivitamin supplement probably contains at least some calcium and vitamin D, but may not provide 100 percent of your recommended daily value.

If you’re not eating much calcium- and vitamin D-rich dairy food, or calcium-fortified alternatives (such as soy milk or almond milk), ask your doctor about taking an additional supplement containing calcium and vitamin D.

These bone health supplements often provide the mineral phosphorous as well.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is:

  • 15 micrograms daily for most adult women
  • 20 micrograms daily for women over 70

The calcium RDA for women is:

  • 1,000 milligrams for women aged 50 and younger
  • 1,200 milligrams per day for women over 50

To find out how much vitamin D and calcium are in some of your favorite foods, use the ‘National Institute of Health’ or the ‘U.S. Department of Agriculture’ Food Composition Database as a reference.

For example, you’ll be getting:

  • About 300 milligrams of calcium in 1 cup of regular or plant-based milk
  • Just over 400 milligrams of calcium in 1 cup of yogurt

Multivitamin Supplements

Taking a multivitamin supplement is generally a good idea regardless of your age, as many women lack certain essential nutrients in their diets.

Make sure to choose a multivitamin supplement specifically designed for women containing all essential vitamins and minerals in dosages that meet (or are close to meeting) RDA values.

Powdered Greens

Believe it or not, the ‘Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’ (CDC) reports that just 1 in 10 Americans eat recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Yet fruits and veggies are loaded with fiber, essential vitamins, and minerals — and lower your risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Getting nutrients from foods is generally best, but if you absolutely cannot get in 4 to 5 servings of fruits and veggies daily, ask your doctor about adding powdered greens (or other powdered veggies) to protein shakes, smoothies, and some of your other favorite beverages.

Additional Tips for Weight Loss Success

Taking dietary supplements can enhance weight loss, but adding supplements to your regular day-to-day routine isn’t a guarantee you’ll shed pounds.

Joining a structured weight loss program specifically designed for women, such as our very own FM30X, means you’ll have all the help you need along the way (including moral coaching support) to achieve long-lasting weight loss success.

Decide on a weight loss plan and stick with it, as determination and permanent lifestyle changes are the keys to keeping lost weight off long term.

A few other weight loss tips and tricks to try on your own are:

  • Take weight loss supplements for women if your doctor gives you the okay
  • Sleep at least 7 hours each night
  • Drink water before meals (aim for at least 2 cups each time)
  • Replace one or two meals with protein shakes to help reduce calories
  • Fill half of each plate with vegetables (plus some fruits)
  • Eat protein at each meal and snack
  • Cut added sugar and sugary drinks
  • Replace sugary beverages with water or unsweetened coffee or tea
  • Eat 5 or 6 smaller meals throughout the day instead of large meals

Try a structured workout program or find a workout buddy to keep you accountable for regular daily workouts, and aim to complete at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

Stay active all throughout the day, not just during workouts. Protein-rich smoothies make an excellent pre-and post-workout pick-me-up when you need energy without the extra calories.

Let us show you how you can start losing weight this week! We’ll email you our free meal plan & workout + email coaching.

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Finding the Best Weight Loss Supplements for Women

Choosing the best weight loss supplements for women and especially ones that keep you healthy may seem like a daunting task, as numerous dietary supplements are available to choose from.

Generally speaking, chat with your doctor about supplements before you make a final decision — especially if you’re taking any medications.

Supplements that are generally a safe bet for women of all ages are omega 3s, homemade protein-rich meal replacements, probiotics, multivitamins, and calcium/vitamin D supplements.

Your doctor can let you know (after a simple blood test) if your body is deficient in any nutrients to determine which supplementations are the best match for you.

Many people become overwhelmed by weight loss supplements for women, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Simply choose supplements that are backed by research and match your individualized needs, and you’ll hit your goal weight (and boost energy) in no time!

Erin Coleman
Writer, The Fit Father Project
A 15-year freelance writing veteran, Erin is registered dietitian and health educator who is passionate about health, fitness and disease prevention. Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife and mom of two beautiful children.

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Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

A Look at Vitamins, Minerals, Botanicals and More

When you reach for that bottle of vitamin C or fish oil pills, you might wonder how well they’ll work and if they’re safe. The first thing to ask yourself is whether you need them in the first place.

More than half of all Americans take one or more dietary supplements daily or on occasion. Supplements are available without a prescription and usually come in pill, powder or liquid form. Common supplements include vitamins, minerals and herbal products, also known as botanicals.

People take these supplements to make sure they get enough essential nutrients and to maintain or improve their health. But not everyone needs to take supplements.

“It’s possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods, so you don’t have to take one,” says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian and consultant to NIH. “But supplements can be useful for filling in gaps in your diet.”

Some supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines. Supplements can also cause problems if you have certain health conditions. And the effects of many supplements haven’t been tested in children, pregnant women and other groups. So talk with your health care provider if you’re thinking about taking dietary supplements.

“You should discuss with your doctor what supplements you’re taking so your care can be integrated and managed,” advises Dr. Craig Hopp, an expert in botanicals research at NIH.

Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods, not as drugs. The label may claim certain health benefits. But unlike medicines, supplements can’t claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease.

“There’s little evidence that any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic disease,” says Hopp. “Don’t take supplements with that expectation.”

Evidence does suggest that some supplements can enhance health in different ways. The most popular nutrient supplements are multivitamins, calcium and vitamins B, C and D. Calcium supports bone health, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants—molecules that prevent cell damage and help to maintain health.

Women need iron during pregnancy, and breastfed infants need vitamin D. Folic acid—400 micrograms daily, whether from supplements or fortified food—is important for all women of childbearing age.

Vitamin B12 keeps nerve and blood cells healthy. “Vitamin B12 mostly comes from meat, fish and dairy foods, so vegans may consider taking a supplement to be sure to get enough of it,” Haggans says.

Research suggests that fish oil can promote heart health. Of the supplements not derived from vitamins and minerals, Hopp says, “fish oil probably has the most scientific evidence to support its use.”

The health effects of some other common supplements need more study. These include glucosamine (for joint pain) and herbal supplements such as echinacea (immune health) and flaxseed oil (digestion).

Many supplements have mild effects with few risks. But use caution. Vitamin K, for example, will reduce the ability of blood thinners to work. Ginkgo can increase blood thinning. The herb St. John’s wort is sometimes used to ease depression, anxiety or nerve pain, but it can also speed the breakdown of many drugs—such as antidepressants and birth control pills—and make them less effective.

Just because a supplement is promoted as “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. The herbs comfrey and kava, for example, can seriously damage the liver.

“It’s important to know the chemical makeup, how it’s prepared, and how it works in the body—especially for herbs, but also for nutrients,” says Haggans. “Talk to a health care provider for advice on whether you need a supplement in the first place, the dose and possible interactions with medicine you’re already taking.”

For vitamins and minerals, check the % Daily Value (DV) for each nutrient to make sure you’re not getting too much. “It’s important to consider the DV and upper limit,” says Haggans. Too much of certain supplements can be harmful.

Scientists still have much to learn even about common vitamins. One recent study found unexpected evidence about vitamin E. Earlier research suggested that men who took vitamin E supplements might have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. “But much to our surprise, a large NIH-funded clinical trial of more than 29,000 men found that taking supplements of vitamin E actually raised—not reduced—their risk of this disease,” says Dr. Paul M. Coates, director of NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements. That’s why it’s important to conduct clinical studies of supplements to confirm their effects.

Because supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, the FDA doesn’t evaluate the quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body. If a product is found to be unsafe after it reaches the market, the FDA can restrict or ban its use.

Manufacturers are also responsible for the product’s purity, and they must accurately list ingredients and their amounts. But there’s no regulatory agency that makes sure that labels match what’s in the bottles. You risk getting less, or sometimes more, of the listed ingredients. All of the ingredients may not even be listed.

A few independent organizations conduct quality tests of supplements and offer seals of approval. This doesn’t guarantee the product works or is safe; it just assures the product was properly made and contains the listed ingredients.

“Products sold nationally in the stores and online where you usually shop should be fine,” Coates says. “According to the FDA, supplement products most likely to be contaminated with pharmaceutical ingredients are herbal remedies promoted for weight loss and for sexual or athletic performance enhancement.”

To make it easy to find reliable information, NIH has fact sheets on dietary supplements at ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/. NIH also recently launched an online Dietary Supplement Label Database at www.dsld.nlm.nih.gov. This free database lets you look up the ingredients of thousands of dietary supplements. It includes information from the label on dosage, health claims and cautions.

For more personalized, on-the-go information about dietary supplements, check out NIH’s free updated app for your smart phone or tablet: My Dietary Supplements (MyDS).

The MyDS app provides the latest supplement information and lets you keep track of the vitamins, minerals, herbs and other products you take. You can even keep track of supplements taken by your parents, spouse or children.

“Deciding whether to take dietary supplements and which ones to take is a serious matter,” says Coates. “Learn about their potential benefits and any risks they may pose first. Speak to your health care providers about products of interest and decide together what might be best for you to take, if anything, for your overall health.”

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