Your local grocery store or pharmacy probably contains a whole wall or section of vitamins for sale. They might even outnumber painkillers, antihistamines, and cold medication. That’s enough to make anyone wonder if they’re messing with their health by not taking vitamin pills. Claims that vitamins can do everything from preventing colds and cancer to treating major depressive disorder make it seem like all you need to live a long, healthy life is one of everything from the supplement section.
If you’re taking vitamins just because you think you should, you aren’t alone. A 2012 study found that 52% of participants used some kind of supplement, but less than one quarter were taken under a doctor’s recommendation.
Among the most commonly used are:
- Omega-3s/fish oil
- Vitamin D
Do we really need to add these vitamins into our diets?
Vitamins from Food Sources
- Natural, whole foods contain nutrients besides the essential vitamins, like minerals and antioxidants that are also useful to the body.
- Getting vitamins through food sources requires a balanced diet that tends to include more fiber and unrefined carbohydrates from foods like fruits and vegetables.
- Some vitamins may have a more powerful effect from natural food sources. A 2007 experiment showed that juice from blood oranges provided more antioxidant protection than water that had been artificially fortified with vitamin C.
- Vitamin E taken in supplement form is inconsistently absorbed. But foods that naturally contain Vitamin E produce high levels in the bloodstream
- Food sources generally provide the most economical way to obtain vitamins, yet Americans spend more than $30 billion each year on dietary supplements.
When to Supplement
Scurvy is probably the most well-known vitamin deficiency, occurring in sailors who spent long stretches of time without access to vitamin C. Vitamin deficiencies are fairly uncommon in modern, industrialized countries. But there are a few supplements that are more frequently recommended by health care providers.
- This B-vitamin is especially important for pregnant women, as it prevents neural tube defects like spina bifida. Because these defects form very early on in pregnancy, the CDC recommends all women of childbearing age consume at least 400 mcg of folate each day.
- Folate is found in foods like spinach, citrus fruits, beans, and in fortified breads and cereals. It might be difficult for some women to get 400 mcg from food alone, and most doctors recommend taking a folic acid supplement before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of birth defects.
- An essential vitamin that helps the body to make new cells and synthesize DNA. Vitamin B12 is mostly obtained through animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, and is used to fortify some cereals.
- Vegans and vegetarians are often advised to take a B12 supplement, as it’s difficult to get from a diet that doesn’t contain animal products.
- Some people have trouble absorbing B12 directly from food, and may need to take a supplement to ensure they receive enough.
- People with HIV and the elderly are among the most likely to have vitamin B12 deficiency.
- Known as the sunshine vitamin, exposure to UVB rays stimulates vitamin D production in the skin.
- Vitamin D is also present in a few food sources, including fatty fish, beef liver, and fortified dairy products.
- Vitamin D deficiencies may occur in people who receive little sun exposure or don’t eat animal products.
- Melanin in skin reduces the ability to make vitamin D, and darker skinned adults are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency.
Supplements to Avoid Taking Too Much Of
One of the main reasons food sources are preferred over supplements is that it’s difficult to get too much of any one vitamin from a regular diet. But improper use of supplements has the potential to cause toxic overdose.
Found in animal products like eggs and dairy and plant material like carrots, vitamin A has a well-deserved reputation for supporting eye health. But if you’re supplementing vitamin A, pay careful attention to your doses.
Consistently consuming more than the recommended upper intake levels of vitamin A from supplements (more than 10,000 IU for most adults) can cause symptoms like increased intracranial pressure, dizziness, nausea, and may result in birth defects when consumed by pregnant women.
A recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the proportion of Americans taking more than the daily recommended dose of vitamin D (600 IU) increased significantly between the years 2000 and 2014. More people are also taking the maximum recommended dose of 4000 IU per day.
Vegans or people with milk allergies who live in northern climates might be advised to take a vitamin D supplement, but long term over-use can cause toxic symptoms including:
- Decreased appetite/weight loss
- Heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Calcification in blood vessels and tissues that may damage the heart and kidneys.
An essential component in red blood cell production, iron deficiency is fairly common among women who are young or pregnant. Iron supplements may be necessary for some people, but they can have disastrous consequences when accidentally ingested by children.
- The amount of iron in many adult or prenatal vitamins is enough to cause iron poisoning in young children.
- High levels of iron act as a corrosive in the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.
- If a child is suspected to have accidentally ingested supplements containing iron, parents should bring them to an ER even if no symptoms are present.
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