A quality vitamin supplement that boosts health and fills nutritional gaps is a true wellness superstar. But when it comes to navigating the supplement aisle, what should we be looking for? From whether you really need extra vitamin C to the ingredients you should be avoiding, we sat down with Nutritionist Cassandra Barns to put together the ultimate vitamin and mineral cheat sheet...
Why do you need it? Magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in our body so a lot can go wrong if we’re deficient in this mineral. It plays a role in both energy and in muscle relaxation, and levels are depleted faster when we’re stressed.
What are the signs you could benefit from taking it? If you’re suffering from low energy, high stress levels, headaches or migraines, joint or muscle pain, poor sleep, period pain, and even high blood pressure, it could be worth taking a supplement. It’s worth noting that magnesium is abundant in the likes of seeds, nuts, beans, lentils and wholegrain, although for many it is tricky to get adequate magnesium from diet alone.
How much? Aim for 300-400mg daily; take it in the evening for optimal results as it can aid relaxation and sleep. Keep an eye on ingredients, however, as not all magnesium is created equal – many cheaper supplements contain magnesium oxide, a form of magnesium that can be difficult to absorb. Instead, reach for magnesium citrate and magnesium glycinate.
Where can you find omega-3s? Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and you should be eating at least three to four portions per week.
Could you benefit from taking a supplement? If you struggle to eat this much oily fish then yes, it’s worth taking a supplement, especially if you’re suffering from dry skin, poor memory and concentration, depression, or fatigue. It’s also the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that’s important. It’s easy to have an abundance of omega-6 fats in our diet, from vegetable oils, processed foods, and nuts and seeds, but harder to have enough omega-3s. This imbalance may lead to increased inflammation, which can worsen or even cause symptoms such as aches and pains, eczema and skin rashes, as well as longer-term problems related to ‘hidden’ inflammation such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases and diabetes.
How much? A good quality fish oil should provide at least 1000mg of EPA and DHA (the long-chain omega-3s our body needs) combined, not just the total weight of the oil, as you sometimes see in supplements labelled ‘1000mg’ on the front – watch out for this.
Are there any signs we need a probiotic? Bloating, wind, IBS or constipation can be indications that we have an imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in our gut, and may be helped by a probiotic. Other symptoms can include thrush or athlete’s foot, as these conditions suggest a fungal overgrowth in the gut – which can occur when we don’t have enough of the right types of bacteria. Being prone to allergies or infections is another sign (our gut is vital for a healthy immune system) as well as if you have recently taken antibiotics.
What should you be looking out for? When it comes to probiotic supplements, look for a formula that has a minimum of 10 billion bacteria per dose.
Why do you need it? Vitamin A is vital for eyesight, immunity, skin health, and mucous membranes (our ‘internal skin’ such as the lining of our gut, bladder and inside our eyelids). It also works with vitamins D and K and helps our body to use iron effectively. This means that if you’re taking vitamin D or iron supplements but not getting enough vitamin A, these other nutrients may not be as effective.
So where can you find it? We’re often told that vitamin A is found in vegetables such as carrots – this isn’t technically true. They actually contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene, which our body can use to make vitamin A. But this process doesn’t always happen efficiently, meaning we may be converting very little of those carotenoids to vitamin A. True, ‘body-ready’ vitamin A – retinol – is only found in animal foods; rich sources include liver, egg yolks, whole milk and butter from grass-fed cows, and cod liver oil. So, people who don’t eat much of these foods may be prone to deficiency – symptoms include night blindness, acne, dry skin, and poor wound healing.
What about supplements? Look for one containing true vitamin A – it will usually say ‘retinyl palmitate’ on the back of the bottle – and take up to 5000 IU per day. Avoid if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
Why do you need it? There are eight B vitamins, which all work together, and help to support everything from energy levels to healthy skin and muscle tone as well as enhancing immune and nervous system functions. They are water-soluble vitamins which means the body can’t store them – they need to be replenished daily because whatever the body doesn’t use gets flushed out when you go to the loo.
Where can you find B vitamins? Most people get a good range of B vitamins from their diet although vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be deficient as B vitamins are predominantly found in meat, dairy products and eggs.
How much? If you are suffering from low energy levels, then you could benefit from taking a supplement (most B vitamins play some role in helping our body convert food to energy). Look for a supplement that contains a variety of B vitamins although the main exception is B12, which may be needed in higher doses if you’re deficient.
Why do you need it? Vitamin C is vital for immunity but also helps to make collagen – the protein that provides strength and structure in our skin, bones, joints, gums, tendons and ligaments. It’s also essential for energy. Signs of vitamin C deficiency include bleeding gums, easy bruising, joint pain or swelling, low energy or increased susceptibility to colds.
Are citrus fruits the best form of vitamin C? Surprisingly not – the likes of broccoli, peppers, kale and Brussels sprouts are actually higher in vitamin C than oranges. The best way to get plenty of vitamin C is to eat a wide range of vegetables and fruit.
Do you need a supplement? Even if you have a well-balanced diet, take around 500 mg once or twice a day. If you are suffering from a cold or flu, you can double this dosage.
Why do you need it? As well as being essential for healthy bones, vitamin D is vital for the immune system. So, one of the first signs of low vitamin D can be coming down with more colds or flu – or taking a long time to get over one. Low vitamin D may also affect our mood: because vitamin D levels often drop low during winter, this is thought to be a factor in SAD (Seasonal Affective Depression). Weak bones or osteoporosis can be a longer-term consequence of lack of vitamin D.
Should everyone take it? There is strong evidence to suggest the majority of Britons could benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement. Between around the end of September and late March in the UK, the sun isn’t strong enough to stimulate vitamin D production even on a bright sunny day. Your vitamin D stores deplete gradually, so by the second half of winter, you could well be deficient – unless you’re taking supplements or have been holidaying in sunnier climates. Even in summer, you’re more likely to be deficient if you stay out of the sun, always cover your skin or wear a strong SPF. The best way to tell if you’re deficient can be to get a vitamin D blood test: your GP can do this, or you can order an at-home test here.
How much? Around1000 to 2000 IU per day year-round to safeguard against a deficiency.
Why do you need it? Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting, as well as bone strength. Few people know there are actually two forms of vitamin K – K1, which is found in green veg and used primarily for blood clotting, and K2, which activates a protein that helps bind calcium into our bones. While K1 is found in plant foods, K2 is found in animal foods (especially liver, egg yolks and butter), explaining why vegans and vegetarians may be deficient.
What are the signs of a deficiency? If you’re taking calcium supplements for your bones, or suffer from osteoporosis, then you could benefit from a K2 supplement – the calcium needs the K2 in order to get into your bones.
How much? Aim for 100-200 micrograms (µg) per day of a K2 supplement that contains M-7, a form of vitamin K that is crucial for bone health.
Why do you need it? Zinc is essential for immunity, wound healing, healthy skin, hair and nails, and hormonal balance.
What are the signs of a deficiency? Slow wound healing, acne, white marks on your nails, or being more prone to infections such as colds and flu are signs you may be deficient. Women with PCOS (Polycystic Cvarian Syndrome) may also benefit from getting more zinc.
How much? Aim for 15mg per day but make sure your zinc supplement also contains copper (around 1mg of copper to every 15mg of zinc) for optimal health. Those suffering from acne or PCOS can take up to 50mg per day on a short-term basis.