Vitamin and mineral supplements
Vitamins are organic compounds that our bodies use in a variety of metabolic processes in very small quantities. Eating a range of healthy, unprocessed foods with vitamins and minerals is best.
Taking a general vitamin and mineral supplement “just in case” is of low health risk and it is recommended not to take vitamins and mineral supplements instead of eating a nutritious diet for a person whose diet is restricted and varied.
Deficiencies in vitamin and minerals
Your body needs just a few vitamins and minerals every day. A diverse diet usually provides plenty of vitamins and minerals. Some individuals may need supplements to correct certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies, however.
People who benefit from supplements with vitamins and minerals include:
- pregnant women
- women who are breastfeeding
- People who drink alcohol above the recommended amount to reduce disease risk (one standard drink per day for women who are not pregnant and two for men)
- cigarette smokers
- illegal drug users
- crash dieters or people on chronic low-calorie diets
- the elderly (especially those who are disabled or chronically ill)
- some vegetarians or vegans
- women with excessive bleeding during menstruation
- people with allergies to particular foods
- people with malabsorption problems such as diarrhoea, coeliac disease or pancreatitis.
Women planning for pregnancy should consider adding folic acid (folate) to minimize the baby’s risk of neural tube defects. Folic acid can also be found in certain fortified foods such as breads. During production, the nutrient was added to the folic acid fortified food to enhance its nutritional value.
Vitamins and minerals from food
Research shows that most of the vitamins you get from the food you eat are better than in pills. Although vitamins are synthesized to the exact chemical composition of natural vitamins in supplements, they still do not work.
The main exception is folate. The synthetic form (additionally or in fortified food) is better absorbed in the body than folate from food sources.
Food is a complex source of vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals that all work together. Supplements are usually isolated. Research shows that a food component that has a particular impact on the body may not have the same result when isolated and taken as a supplement. This could be because other food components also influence the vitamins and minerals in foods, rather than the’ active ingredient.’
Phytochemicals are a key component of food and are thought to reduce the incidence of heart disease and some cancers. Supplements do not bring the benefits of phytochemicals or other food components. Taking vitamins and mineral supplements will not replace a healthy diet.
Use of mineral and vitamin pills such as medicine
It is commonly believed that mega doses of certain vitamins act as medicines to cure or prevent certain diseases. For example, vitamin C is proposed as a cure for cold, and vitamin E is widely promoted as a beneficial antioxidant to prevent heart disease.
However, after extensive research, none of these claims proved to be true. Large studies have consistently shown little benefit in taking mega-dose supplements. Indeed, it is clear that taking high-dose supplements to prevent or cure major chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, can harm your health.
Vitamin and mineral supplements in high doses can be toxic
Taking some vitamins in higher doses than recommended may cause problems. For example, vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble so that they are stored in the body. High doses of vitamins may be toxic.
High doses of water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin B6, can also be harmful. Large intakes of folate may conceal vitamin B12 deficiencies. For example, the work of anticonvulsant drugs, such as epilepsy, is stopped in extreme cases where people take 100 times the recommended dietary intake (RDI).
Excessive amounts of some minerals can also cause problems. Only five times can RDI be increased to toxic levels in the body: zinc, iron, chromium and selenium, for example:
- Large intakes of fluoride (especially in childhood) may stain, and even weaken, the teeth.
- Very large doses of fish oil can lead to decreased blood clotting.
- Iron toxicity is also common. Even a small amount over the RDI can cause gastrointestinal upset, nausea and black bowel actions (poo). Severe toxicity can lead to coma and even death.
- High levels of vitamin B6 have been linked to some types of nerve damage.
- Doses of vitamin C above one gram can cause diarrhoea.
- High doses of vitamin A may cause birth defects, as well as central nervous system, liver, bone and skin disorders.
If supplements are used in a healthy adult, they should normally be taken at levels close to RDI. Unless medically advised, high-dose supplements should not be taken.
Stress, fatigue and vitamin pills
Vitamin supplements are generally considered to be stress antidotes. Pressure does not automatically lead to vitamin deficiencies, and taking a vitamin supplement does not necessarily lead to stress loss.
Popping a pill is also unlikely to cure persistent fatigue. If you feel down, it is more likely than a certain vitamin deficiency due to stress, depression, inadequate sleep and other factors.
Short-term measurement of vitamins and minerals
Taking vitamins and mineral supplements as a short-term measure should be considered. The long-term use of certain high-dose additives may lead to toxicity symptoms. If you feel that some vitamins and minerals may lack you, it may be better to look at changing your diet and lifestyles instead of finding supplements.
Where can I get help?
- Your doctor
- Australia Dietitians Association
- Nutrition Australia.
Things you should remember
- Vitamins are organic compounds that the body uses for various metabolic processes in small quantities.
- A healthy diet can not be replaced with vitamin supplements.
- Those who may need vitamin supplements include pregnant or breastfeeding women, people who consume alcohol in quantities above those recommended as safe, drug users and elderly people.