When it comes to getting all the nutrients you need, few diets provide adequate amounts of every single vitamin, mineral and antioxidant necessary for optimal health. Even if your diet is so-called “perfect,” many other factors contribute to the absorption of these vital nutrients. That is why, despite all the debate, supplements are an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet.
Bioavailability and absorption are two important factors when it comes to sufficient intake of micronutrients. For example, oxalates are a chemical found in tea. While herbal teas are good for you, this chemical can limit the bioavailability of several nutrients, like iron and calcium. Tea has become as much a staple in many diets as coffee or water – meaning your body may not be benefiting from your “perfect” diet.
Another common example is consuming milk with a meal containing eggs – it is highly unlikely you will absorb much of the calcium in the milk. Iron, found in eggs, binds calcium in the intestines, limiting absorption. Ideally, these two micronutrients should be consumed three hours apart, but do you really have time for that much planning and fretting?
For this reason, supplements are essential and, if you plan appropriately – taking the more sensitive vitamins and minerals in the evening before bed and the fat-soluble vitamins with a meal - you will find you have a sort of “insurance policy” on your micronutrient absorption.
Of course that “insurance policy” is useless if it comes from a low-quality source. Supplements found in grocery stores and lining the shelves of vitamin shops are not held to any heavy mandates or quality standards. Manufacturing conditions are often poor and labels are classically found to be inaccurate (many times the supplement is more filler than nutrient). Pharmaceutical-grade supplements, on the other hand, maintain higher-quality standards of manufacturing, labeling and nutrient content. Your doctor will be able to offer insight to these types of supplements and recommend leading brands within the industry.
There are several vitamin and mineral supplements that both men and women should take on a daily basis and a few others that come more highly recommended for each gender.
For men and women:
• Multivitamin. Everyone can benefit from a multivitamin. This is a great way to avoid taking a million pills every day and still supplement the nutrients you need. When choosing a multi, examine the label – find one that offers the nutrients you need most. For example, if you have a family history of eye disease, you may want to choose a multivitamin with lutein or if prostate cancer is a concern, choose a multi with boron.
• Fish Oil. The effectiveness of fish oil supplements for warding off heart disease and preventing cognitive decline has been questioned by recent studies. More careful examination of the study questioning the efficacy of fish oil against cognitive decline suggests their findings are weak. The supplements used in the study were low in DHA - the key component linked to cognitive function. Despite what the media suggests, you can benefit from the powerful omega-3s found in fish oil. Omega-3s are linked to higher levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol), improved metabolism and better nutrient absorption. Just be sure to choose high-quality supplements with high levels of DHA and EPA.
• Vitamin D3. If you haven’t heard by now, sufficient levels of vitamin D are essential for maintaining good health. Low vitamin D has been linked to several types of cancer, weight gain, depression, poor nutrient absorption and low bone density. Vitamin D3 is the most bioavailable form (most readily available for absorption in the body). The sun’s rays, when absorbed by the skin, convert to D3 in the body; however most Americans do not get enough sun year round. Studies have shown that high doses of vitamin D3 supplements – more than 800 IU/day - can have great benefits.
• Coenzyme Q10. CoQ10 is well-known as an inflammation fighter. Inflammation in often the root cause of excess pounds, arthritis, headaches and heart disease. Daily doses of 100 mcg of CoQ10 have been shown to improve many of these conditions – but be sure to choose a soft gel over the powder capsule.
• Folic Acid (Folate). Most people are familiar with the importance of folate for women during their childbearing years to decrease the risk of children born with disorders of the brain and spinal cord. However, you may not be aware of the numerous benefits folate has for men and women of all ages. Folate is an essential B-vitamin that has been proven to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and improve arterial blood flow – lowering your risk of hypertension and heart disease as well.
• Calcium. Calcium is renowned for its healthy body benefits: strong bones, healthy teeth, muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission and blood clotting. Due to its multiple functions in the body, calcium intake must remain sufficient throughout the lifespan. Inadequate consumption of calcium forces the body to leech calcium from the bones to fulfill necessary task throughout the body – over time this can lead to brittle bones, fractures and osteoporosis. Women are more susceptible to these conditions than men due to the loss of estrogen that occurs with menopause. Estrogen facilitates absorption and retention of calcium. Vitamin D is necessary for optimal absorption of calcium. Women should try to achieve 1500 to 2000 mg of calcium per day through food consumption and supplements.
• Iron. Iron supplements are not for every woman, but women should work with their doctor to carefully monitor iron levels, because many women experience lower levels due to monthly menstruation. Iron is vital for transport of oxygen to your brain, muscles and organs. Women with low iron may experience bruising, fatigue, weakness or have difficulty concentrating.
• Boron. Boron is essential for improving testosterone levels in men and plays a role in maintaining cognitive function. Adequate levels of boron have been linked to prostate health. In studies, men with adequate levels have been shown to reduce their risk of prostate cancer by 65 percent.
• Selenium. Selenium is found in abundance in soil and is generally easily obtained from the food supply. In some areas of the country, poor soil conditions lead to low levels of selenium. Inadequate levels of selenium have been linked to an increased incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease and impaired male fertility. Talk to your doctor before supplementing selenium – excessive levels can worsen certain diseases and conditions.
Remember: Supplements do not replace a healthy, balanced diet. Strive to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and lean proteins in moderate portions.