Find out which vitamins and minerals your body really needs with Alessandra Felice…
Many people ask themselves whether or not they need nutritional supplements to complement their diet. Ideally, no one would need to supplement, and nutritional needs would be met primarily from nutrient dense foods that contain essential vitamins and minerals, fibre and other phytonutrients. Our modern lives though are filled with different physical and psychological stressors and environmental toxins that could lead to the decrease of certain nutrients in the body. Plus, the soil composition is not what it used to be due to modern industrial practices. We could then think supplementation is necessary. In many cases it is, but not for everyone. And especially not everyone will need the same supplements, as we are all individually unique.
Older adults, pregnant women, people with limited food choices due to allergies, medical condition or intolerances, smokers, heavy drinkers or people with erratic or unbalanced eating habits may benefit from them under the guidance of a nutritionist or GP. Many that are widely recommended though, can be obtained from food. For the average person there is no need to take a multi-vitamin – you’re better off getting vitamins through a varied diet with plenty of fresh produce, healthy fats and proteins.
Vitamin C and E
Vitamins C and E are important, and essential in protecting cells from oxidative stress, strengthening the immune system, building tissues and collagen structures inside the body, as well as being involved in vital metabolic processes. But you can easily obtain them from berries, citrus fruits, broccoli, leafy greens, peppers, nuts and seeds, and avocados.
B vitamins and magnesium are two other supplements that are very often spoken about. B vitamins are important for energy and neurotransmitters production, metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, as well as the manufacture of hormones, where they also help turn hormones into active or inactive forms. They could be beneficial in cases of adrenal fatigue or inadequate conversion of thyroid hormones. For everyday health, include enough whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy greens to have an adequate supply.
Magnesium can be found in similar foods too. Many people have been found to have low levels of this essential mineral, probably because of the poor quality of soils, but also as it gets depleted in times of stress. So it could be beneficial to supplement when a person is under high stress or to ease sleep and relaxation. Magnesium sprays are also used to ease muscle aches and soreness. Check your levels with your GP and discuss with a nutritional professional if supplementation could be indicated.
You should do the same with minerals like calcium and iron. These two are often recommended, especially to people who follow a plant-based diet, as it is (wrongly) believed that they are not well absorbed from plant sources.
Low levels could be detrimental to health, but high ones could do the same. If you eat more calcium than the body can use, it could cause deposits in the kidneys as kidney stones or in the arteries as plaques. And when iron is taken without actually being needed, it could act as a pro-oxidant in the body and produce oxidative stress.
Luckily, it’s unheard of to reach such high amounts from whole foods. But it could happen when taking high dosage calcium or iron supplements. So, it’s always a good idea to check your levels and consult a professional before starting supplementation. And remember to pair plant sources of iron with vitamin C rich foods to increase absorption and, while calcium from plant sources is absorbed better than from animal ones, phytates and oxalates, two compounds found in whole grains, some vegetables and legumes, can bind to it and inhibit its absorption. Soaking and cooking decreases their effect though.
B12 and vitamin D
A couple of essential nutrients that it’s important to asses through a blood test are B12 and vitamin D. Regardless of our diet, many of us don’t get enough of these nutrients as they aren’t widely present in food sources and in soil.
B12 absorption decreases with age and it’s impaired by certain medical conditions. While we can get vitamin D from sunlight, the conversion in the body may not always function at its best. These days you can easily find fortified foods that include these two vitamins, but it’s worth checking our own levels and discuss the right supplement dosage with a GP or nutritionist if needed. Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are involved in numerous vital processes in the body and their deficiency or low levels could cause damage to our nervous and immune system, bone and tissues health and cellular communication and structure.
- You can read more about B12, and why vegans may have the advantage over meat-eaters when it comes to this vital vitamin, here.
- Read more about vitamin D, and where to find it on a vegan diet, here.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient to be aware of. They are an integral part of cell membranes and cell receptors, allowing message transmission and communication. They are also needed for hormone production, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and regulation of inflammation pathways.
There are excellent vegan sources, such as walnuts, chia seeds and flax, but the body may not be properly converting these fats to the active forms called DHA and EPA, which are the ones utilised by the body. Fortunately, there are several DHA/EPA supplements derived from algae that are highly bio-available. As always, check with a practitioner and assess if supplementation could benefit you.
If you’re wondering what form of supplement is best for absorption and quality, you have quite a variety to choose from. Most vitamin and mineral supplements are in the tablet and capsule form, as they are practical for most people because they can be stored and kept for a long time. Check the label to see what is added to them, such as oils, binders and fillers, which are added to preserve or bulk out the active ingredients.
They can also come in powder form, which can provide extra potency with no binders or additives and it may be useful for people with allergies or sensitivities to them.
Some vitamins such as D or B12 can be found as liquid, spray or sublingual supplements. Liquids are useful for people who have difficulty swallowing tablets or capsules or for children, as they can be mixed with food or drinks.
Sublingual are like tablets, except they melt under the tongue where they immediately enter the bloodstream. The same happens to spray, which, by not having to be processed through digestion first, is usually faster absorbed and assimilated.
Make sure to pick vitamins that don’t have added refined sugars, colourings or other flavouring agents that are often used to make the sprays or liquids have a nicer taste.
Another form often talked about regarding B12, is injections, but unless you’re in need of a quick high dose advised by a physician for a specific condition, there’s no need to have one to get your recommended amount.
Muscle injections are necessary for some, such as people with problems related to the ileum, whether it has been removed or doesn’t function properly – it’s where the body absorbs B12.
Remember not to listen to what’s marketed as necessary. We’ve all seen commercials or read something and thought we have the symptoms and must need the supplement, but we’re all unique and different from one another, so find what’s right for you and what your body really needs. And refer to a professional to do so.
Alessandra Felice (ND Dip CNM)
Alessandra is a nutritional therapist and medicinal chef, who trained with the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.