Dietary supplements help you get the nutrients you need to stay healthy. But not all supplements are made the same, and with so many different kinds on the market, it can be difficult to know which ones are worth taking.
Here, we discuss everything you need to know about dietary supplements, including what supplements to take and which ones are best left out of your medicine cabinet.
What Are Supplements?
Dietary supplements, as their name suggests, are used to supplement your diet so you can get the vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients needed to maintain your overall health.
In Canada, dietary supplements or “natural health products” (NHPs) are classified as non-prescription drugs. As such, NHPs can be purchased over the counter and do not require a doctor’s prescription.
- Vitamins and minerals
- Botanicals or herbal remedies
- Botanical compounds
- Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs)
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
- Amino acids
Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms, including:
- Gel caps
Why Do People Take Supplements?
Many people who take supplements don’t get enough essential nutrients from their diet alone. This can happen for a variety of reasons.
Some people may have certain health conditions that keep them from consuming particular types of foods, such as Celiac Disease and Crohn’s Disease. Others may miss out on important nutrients due to their lifestyle, religion, income, or even where they live.
How Effective Are Supplements?
It’s difficult to quantify just how effective supplements are. While there is some scientific evidence that supplements can be used to treat micronutrient deficiency, the jury is still out on whether they can prevent or treat diseases.
It’s important to remember that supplements are not medicine nor are they designed to replace a healthy diet. At the end of the day, supplements can’t substitute for whole foods like fresh fruits and leafy green vegetables. These foods don’t just provide you with essential micronutrients, but they also contain things like dietary fiber, which can improve digestion and reduce the risk of diabetes, and antioxidants, which are known to slow cell and tissue damage.
So, does that mean supplements aren’t worth taking? Not entirely.
There are a handful of vitamin and mineral supplements that have been proven to reduce the risk of developing certain health problems.
What Supplements Should You Take?
The types of supplements you should be taking depend on factors like your diet, lifestyle, family history, risk factors, health conditions, and age.
Below is a list of some of the most promising supplements and what they can do for you.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Stored mainly in your teeth and bones, calcium is believed to be responsible for building and maintaining strong bones. Calcium deficiency – which is common in people who are allergic to dairy, lactose intolerant, or follow a strict dairy-free diet – is often associated with conditions such as osteoporosis, osteomalacia, and rickets.
If you want to avoid such conditions, consider increasing your intake of calcium-rich foods such as dairy products, dark, leafy green vegetables, tofu, soy, and soft-boned fish. If you can’t do that, calcium supplements can help you meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 1,000 mg for those aged 19 to 50 and 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 71.
Folic acid is one of the most important supplements pregnant women should take. According to the CDC, folic acid is “the best tool” to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies. NTDs are birth defects in the brain and spine that occur when the neural tube (embryonic brain) does not close properly in the early stages of development. The most common NTDs are spina bifida, which affects the spinal cord, and anencephaly, which affects the brain.
The CDC advises “anyone who can become pregnant” to take 400 mcg of folic acid a day and consume foods that are rich in folate. This includes dark, green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, liver, spinach, and brussels sprouts.
Even if you don’t plan on getting pregnant, folic acid can still benefit you. Folic acid promotes the production of new cells and can help keep your hair, skin, and nails healthy.
Iron is a mineral that helps produce red blood cells and transports oxygen through the body. The primary sources of iron are foods such as nuts, legumes, egg yolks, dark green vegetables, and lean red meat.
Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or don’t consume a lot of red meat are at a greater risk of having an iron deficiency. This can lead to anemia, which is characterized by weakness, tiredness, shortness of breath, reduced exercise intolerance, chest pain, and an irregular heartbeat.
Omega-3 fatty acids are recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) as a way of reducing cardiovascular events such as heart attack or stroke in people who have already had one.
Two omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are currently being studied for their potential to lower blood pressure. And for people with rheumatoid arthritis, omega-3 supplements could be effective in fighting inflammation and joint pain related to RA.
However, as stated in Harvard Health Publishing, the consumer health education arm of Harvard Medical School, the evidence that omega-3 supplements promote heart health and reduce heart disease in those who have not had a cardiovascular event remains inconclusive.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish and shellfish. Diets that are high in seafood are associated with better heart health and a decreased likelihood of dying from a heart ailment. If you are not too fond of seafood, however, or if you’re worried about consuming too much mercury, omega-3 supplements may be a viable alternative.
Vitamin A is most commonly associated with eye health. Beta-carotene, an inactive form of the vitamin that can be found in yellow and orange foods like sweet potatoes and carrots, may slow age-related macular degeneration. In short, a vitamin A-rich diet may preserve your eyesight.
Aside from yellow and orange foods, vitamin A can also be found in dairy products, eggs, liver, fish, seafood, and leafy vegetables.
The RDA for vitamin A is 900 mcg for adult men and 700 mcg for adult women.
Vitamin B Complex
There are a total of eight B vitamins, and each one plays a key role in maintaining your health. Aside from helping the body convert food into energy, each type of B vitamin comes with its own particular set of benefits:
- Vitamin B1: Also known as thiamine, vitamin B1 is sometimes referred to as the “anti-stress” vitamin for its potential benefits in strengthening the immune system.
- Vitamin B2: Riboflavin is believed to have antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also being studied as a potential treatment for migraines and a way to reduce the risk of cataracts in malnourished people.
- Vitamin B3: Also called niacin, vitamin B3 is an important nutrient that works to synthesize the coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD). NAD helps our cells function properly and repair DNA. NAD and its precursor, NMN, are being studied as a potential means for slowing aging and alleviating symptoms of age-related conditions.
- Vitamin B5: Pantothenic acid keeps the skin healthy, promotes the formation of red blood cells, and even has the potential to aid with cholesterol management.
- Vitamin B6: Also known as pyridoxine, this vitamin’s coenzyme form is involved in over 100 enzyme reactions, particularly when it comes to protein metabolism. Vitamin B6 is also known to aid in cognitive development and immune function.
- Vitamin B7: Biotin is a fairly common supplement that is used to manage and treat hair conditions. It is believed to have potentially beneficial effects for those who are suffering from brittle hair syndrome and other similar ailments.
- Vitamin B9: Also known as folic acid, vitamin B9 is an essential supplement that can reduce the risk of certain birth defects.
- Vitamin B12: Cobalamin is commonly associated with maintaining the health of nerve and blood cells. Vitamin B12 deficiency is characterized by chronic fatigue, heart palpitations, muscle weakness, numbness, tingling sensations, and depression.
Vitamin C is one of the most common supplements out there, with many people believing that it can strengthen the immune system and prevent or even fight off respiratory infections.
A recent study found that vitamin C may shorten the duration of colds. That said, the truth is that there isn’t enough definitive evidence that Vitamin C can boost your resistance or prevent colds.
This doesn’t mean vitamin C isn’t useful. As an antioxidant, vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) can protect cells from damage by free radicals. Vitamin C is also essential in the production of collagen, a protein that promotes wound healing and maintains skin elasticity. Finally, vitamin C may enhance the absorption of iron, a mineral that keeps blood cells healthy.
Vitamin D is an underrated nutrient that serves a wide range of essential functions, from helping the body absorb calcium (and thus contributing to bone health) to keeping inflammation at bay.
Also known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D can be gained from sun exposure. However, sun exposure alone is usually not enough, particularly for those with darker skin. Vitamin D can be found in foods like egg yolks, dairy products, fish, and liver.
It’s important to get enough vitamin D (600 to 800 IU or 15 to 20 mcg daily for adults), as vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets in children and fatigue, muscle weakness, cramps, bone pain, and mood changes in adults.
Zinc is the second-most common mineral in the body after iron. It helps with a variety of functions, such as DNA creation, cellular growth, tissue healing, and maintaining a healthy immune system.
More recently, zinc supplements have been suggested to help prevent and reduce the severity of COVID-19. However, there isn’t enough evidence of its efficacy in this area.
You should take zinc supplements if you have a zinc deficiency, which is characterized by sudden weight loss, chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, depression, and hair loss.
On the upside, your body doesn’t need large amounts of zinc. The RDA for healthy adults is just 8 to 11 mg a day.
Are There Health Risks To Taking Dietary Supplements?
While some vitamins, like vitamin C, only have mild side effects in large doses, others may pose serious health risks. This includes:
- Vitamin D: Taking too much vitamin D can result in hypercalcemia, which can cause kidney stones, heart palpitations, and even depression.
- Calcium: Hypercalcemia is the result of having too much calcium in the body. Aside from causing the aforementioned issues, hypercalcemia can also result in kidney failure and bone pain.
- Vitamin A: Getting too much preformed vitamin A can lead to severe headaches, dizziness, and issues with coordination. If you’re pregnant and you take too much vitamin A, you also put your baby at risk of developing birth defects that affect the eyes, skull, heart, and lungs.
- Gingko: This is an herbal supplement derived from one of the oldest living species of trees. It is often touted as a potential treatment for age-related memory loss. People with epilepsy or those who are prone to seizures should avoid ginkgo, however, as the ginkgotoxin found in ginkgo seeds can cause seizures.
- St. John’s Wort: This plant may be beneficial in treating depression, but more studies need to be done. Those who are taking prescription drugs should exercise caution, though, as St. John’s Wort can weaken the effects of certain medications, including antidepressants, birth control pills, and HIV drugs.
- Zinc: Since we only need small amounts of zinc in our bodies, it can be easy to go overboard on zinc supplements. Be careful, as excessive intake can lead to poor copper absorption. This can compromise your immune system and cause a spate of neurological issues.
The Bottom Line
It can be tough to know which supplements to take and which ones to avoid. But, armed with the right information, you’ll be better equipped to make informed decisions about your health.
Remember, always consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before starting any new supplement regimen!