Can You Really Hack Your Health with Vitamins and Supplements?
By Fani Mari | Mar 9, 2021
The past year has served as a strong reminder that our health and wellbeing should take precedence above all else. But it’s also been a breeding ground for misinformation around topics like immunity and virus prevention. The internet is rife with articles claiming that certain vitamins are cure-alls for everything from the common cold to COVID-19, making it hard to parse fact from fiction.
Despite the fact that every day, a myriad of brands promote new supplements that promise to support our health, brain and skin, the question remains: is taking vitamins really worthwhile? We spoke to experts to understand exactly how vitamins and supplements can (and cannot) support our health.
What exactly is a vitamin?
Sure, we know what vitamins are, but what are they really? On the most basic level, vitamins are molecules that our body needs to keep healthy and carry out metabolic functions, according to neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart. Surprisingly, there are only 13 recognized vitamins our bodies need for cell growth and normal development, including vitamins A, C, D, E, K and eight different B vitamins. These are categorized as either water-soluble or fat-soluble.
Olianna Gourlis, a biomedical scientist, nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner explains that vitamins are essential for life: vitamins play a vital role for the execution of the multiple chemical reactions that happen in our bodies every second. When someone has vitamin deficiencies, these reactions get blocked, which in turn can lead to chronic symptoms and diseases. Even the word ‘vitamin’ has a relevant etymology, according to functional nutritionist Niti Shah, as the word ‘vita’ means ‘for life’.
We can get most of the vitamins we need through our diet in small amounts and some can be synthesized in our bodies, such as Vitamin D, which is produced when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Despite this, most people are deficient in vitamin D. Another common deficiency is vitamin B12 or folate (B9), both of which can lead to anemia.
How do vitamins differ from supplements?
Think of supplements as a cocktail; a mix of vitamins with other ingredients, like minerals (eg. magnesium), trace minerals (eg. zinc, iron), enzymes and even herbs. These days it’s quite common to find supplements that contain adaptogens (plants and herbs believed to regulate the protective mechanisms of cells and regulate stress) if you want to take a more holistic approach. It’s important to remember not to self-diagnose nor self-prescribe supplements, as they can wreak havoc on our bodies when taken incorrectly and aren’t regulated like prescription medications.
Okay, so what are the benefits of taking them?
The vitamins synthesized in our bodies don’t provide enough nutritional support on their own, which makes a balanced diet important. You can get Vitamin C, for example, from eating citrus fruits, as well as peppers, strawberries, blackcurrants, broccoli and brussels sprouts. B12, which is essential for a healthy nervous system, can be found in meat, fish, milk, eggs and cheese. Oats, bananas, milk, peanuts and soybeans are good sources of B6, which supports our red blood cells and the body’s conversion of food into energy.
While experts agree that vitamins and supplements should never replace a healthy diet, if you have known deficiencies, it can be beneficial to add them to your regimen, Shah says. Living a more sedentary lifestyle than people once did, that often involves too much caffeine, alcohol and ample amounts of stress, we may also need the extra support. “Nowadays, our body is using more nutrients to cope with increased toxicity and higher stress hormone levels,” Gourlis says.
Dr. Swart confirms this, noting that “in recent decades, research has demonstrated the importance of nutrition in the long-term health of cardiovascular, brain, nervous system, immune system, eye and bone health.” Our brain needs 20 essential nutrients daily and it may be difficult to get those from food alone, she says.
Vitamin C is especially crucial as it contributes to the proper functioning of our immune system, as does vitamin D, iron, zinc and selenium, according to Laura Tilt, a registered dietician. However, the efficacy of beauty supplements is more gray. Targeting your hair, nails, or skin without looking at the bigger picture won’t be helpful in the long-term, say experts. Dr. Swart says the exception is collagen, which decreases after our 30s, but otherwise prefers a healthy diet and brain-focused supplements over the latest beauty fad.
Are these pills even processed by our bodies?
Dr. Swart explains that our bodies can store fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E, and K) in our liver and fat cells for a long time, where the body can access them as needed. But this means it’s also easier to absorb more than the recommended daily intake of a certain vitamin, which can lead to toxicity. By contrast, water-soluble vitamins (such as C and B) absorb quickly, with the kidney excreting any excess via our urine.
There are also liposomal vitamins that come in gel form and are taken in water, which can sometimes make them easier to absorb, Gourlis says. But it’s important to research each vitamin to find out which form is best – for example, the antioxidant glutathione, believed to ward off free radical damage, is an example of a supplement that can only be absorbed in liposomal form.
The biggest issue with vitamins and supplements is that they’re often taken without consulting a health expert. This means you could be taking something unsuitable for you or a sub-par product. High doses can be dangerous, says Shah, offering the example of zinc, which if taken on its own for a long time can lead to copper deficiency. Tilt adds that Vitamin A in high quantities can also be toxic.
“It’s important to remember [that] supplements are regulated as foods, not medicines, despite the fact that they can have significant biological effects in the body” says Tily.
What should I look for in vitamins and supplements to know they’re safe?
The quality of the supplement or vitamin is of the utmost importance: there's a reason why supermarket or drugstore-sold supplements are so cheap and others are triple the price. As with every product, it comes down to their ingredients and production process.
Gourlis explains that there are two categories available for purchase: synthetic (human-made) and whole-food (extracted from food) supplements. The latter, which she recommends, offer bioavailable forms of nutrients, which are absorbed right away without the need for conversion. It’s also important to find out whether the vitamin or supplement contain excipients, binders, fillers, or artificial colors. “Taking one supplement with excipients might not be a problem, but taking many for an extended period of time, may result in unwanted side effects, like liver damage and toxicity,” Gourlis explains.
Finally, supplements composed of organic forms of nutrients are best, per Gourlis, as they are easier to absorb. For example, the organic form of zinc is picolinate, while the non-organic form is oxide. For iron the organic form is bisglycinate, while the non-organic form might say ferric or ferrous on the packaging.
Ok, so which vitamins, if any, should I take?
There’s no one size fits all approach to a vitamin regimen due to differing lifestyles, hormones, ages, environments, and medical histories. However, all of the experts emphasized that everyone can benefit from a high quality multivitamin and a probiotic to support a healthy gut. Anything else should be discussed with your doctor, who can identify your exact needs through testing.
As for which brands are best, the experts we spoke to recommend Metagenics, Integrative Therapeutics, Symprove, Thorne, Designs for Health, Pure Encapsulations, Viridian, Xymogen, Terranova and Apex Energetics.
To go back to our initial question of whether we hack our health with vitamins and supplements, the answer is, well, sort of: they’re not a cure-all but they can boost an otherwise healthy lifestyle when chosen wisely. The key is that we have to meet our supplement routine halfway: eating healthy, nutrient-rich meals and moving our bodies regularly.
Shop the supplements the experts recommend:
Metagenics PhytoMulti, $65.95
Photo Credit: JPC via iStock
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