Deficiency in a Vitamin or Mineral like Vitamin D, Iron or Essential fatty acids, can explain some health issues. Supplements could help ease symptoms. This beginner’s guide to the Essential Vitamins and Minerals, from our resident nutritionist Maya Oakley, will help you navigate the science and explain what each supplement actually does.
The variety of supplements on the market is staggering. Each one claiming to be ‘the answer’ to our health and wellness issues. So how do you know which is actually the best for you? In this guide, I’m going back to basics, to explain the essential Vitamins and Minerals and what they do.
The B Vitamins
What B Vitamins do
There are eight B vitamins: B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin/Niacinamide), B5 (Pantothenic acid), B6 (Pyridoxine), B7 (Biotin), B9 (Folic acid) and B12 (Cobalamin). These all work together to convert the food we eat into usable energy and to keep our nervous system functioning well.
Symptoms of a B Vitamin deficiency
If you’re tired all the time and suffering from low mood or anxiety, you might need more B Vitamins (although you should first rule out any underlying factors such as anaemia or thyroid issues). Supplementing with a B-Complex can be a great place to start.
How to supplement B Vitamins
The Bs work best together. You can find specific formulas with higher amounts of a certain B too, if needed. They’re best taken in the morning or with lunch, as they can be energising and for some people disrupt sleep. The exception is B6, which can be taken before bed as you need it to make serotonin and melatonin: the sleep hormones.
What Vitamin A does.
Vitamin A supports immunity and speeds up healing. It’s also vital for the health of your skin and eyes. As an antioxidant, it’s also involved in reducing inflammation by fighting free radical damage (Free radicals are molecules produced by every biochemical reaction in the body.)
Signs of a Vitamin A deficiency
Although it’s rare to be chronically deficient in vitamin A, older populations with poor diets may be at greater risk. Symptoms such as bumps on the back of your arms, dry eyes, night blindness (carrots really do help you see in the dark) and getting sick often, may suggest you need to increase your intake.
How to supplement Vitamin A
Vitamin A can build up to toxic levels as it’s stored in the liver, so it’s good to stick to no more than 800-1500mcg in a multivitamin. High doses should also be avoided in pregnancy.
What Vitamin C does
Probably best known as the Vitamin you take when you’re ill, Vitamin C can speed up recovery from a cold or flu. It also speeds wound healing. Our bodies need it to produce collagen too.
Signs of a Vitamin C deficiency
Signs you might need more Vitamin C include poor resistance to infections, physical weakness, anaemia and fatigue. Chronic deficiency can also cause scurvy, swollen gums, loose teeth, sore mouth and ulcers.
How to supplement Vitamin C
Your body can’t absorb much more than 200mg of Vitamin C at one time. If you do need to take a higher dose for a specific condition, it’s best to spread doses over the day to optimise absorption.
What Vitamin E does
Heart health, eye health, skin healing and a healthy immune system are all linked to Vitamin E. It can also reduce your risk of developing some types of cancer – and even help with menopausal hot flushes.
Signs of a Vitamin E deficiency
Although it’s rare to occur with a balanced diet, you might develop a Vitamin E deficiency if you take certain medications. The symptoms of a deficiency can be poor coordination, balance and speech, muscle weakness, eye problems. In some cases, it can also cause the development of prostate cancer.
How to supplement Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a collective description for eight compounds that provide different benefits. To benefit from all of them it’s best to get a variety of Vitamin E compounds from your supplement. Look for ‘mixed tocopherols’, which is Vitamin E in its natural form, over ‘dl-alpha’ which is the synthetic version.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
What Coenzyme Q10 does
Coenzyme Q10 benefits your heart and circulation, supports the nervous system and can positively impact fertility for both men and women. We also need CoQ10 for energy metabolism.
Signs of a Coenzyme Q10 deficiency
Some common medications, like statins, might lead to a coenzyme Q10 deficiency. The signs can range from aching muscles, gum disease and fatigue to cardiac arrhythmias and diabetes.
How to supplement Coenzyme Q10
There’s currently no specific dietary intake recommendation for coenzyme Q10. I’d stick to 50-100mg a day for general health support and speak to a trained practitioner if you want to use it to solve a specific concern.
The Minerals and Trace Elements
What Calcium does
We all know that Calcium is a vital component of healthy teeth and bones. It also looks after your heart and blood pressure, as well as your muscle function.
Signs of a Calcium deficiency
Low levels of calcium in the blood can lead to muscle spasms. Prolonged deficiency may lead to bone deficiency and osteoporosis. Those at risk of low intakes can include vegans or people with malabsorption issues.
How to supplement Calcium
For general health we should aim to get around 700-1200mg a day from food and supplements combined. It can interfere with absorption of minerals like Iron and Zinc, so make sure you take them at separate times.
Supplements explained: Vitamin D
What vitamin D does
Vitamin D is actually a hormone and not a vitamin: we make it from cholesterol when we’re exposed to UV rays. It’s vital for looking after your bones and metabolises calcium. It’s also fantastic for your immunity, with potential cancer-preventing properties.
Signs of a Vitamin D deficiency
If you live in a country with shorter daylight hours in the winter, it’s possible that you won’t get enough vitamin D all-year round. Signs that you may be deficient include catching a lot of colds, a low mood and fatigue.
How to supplement Vitamin D
The supplements you can buy ‘off the shelf’ range in amounts from 400IU/day to a safe upper limit of 4,000IU/day. With some studies suggesting that if you’re obese or suffer from a chronic disease that doses as high as 10,000IU/day might be beneficial. As a fat soluble Vitamin, it is best taken with food.
What Magnesium does
Magnesium is great for so many aspects of your health: energy, your heart, blood sugar balancing, muscle tension, anxiety and sleep.
Signs of a Magnesium deficiency
Your stores of magnesium can be reduced if you workout a lot, are stressed or have a chronic illness. Some signs that you could be deficient are insomnia, muscle pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, fatigue and migraines.
How to supplement Magnesium
There’s a number of forms you can take Magnesium in. However you supplement it, I would aim for 200-400mg a day with higher doses taken under supervision. For best absorption, take Magnesium with food.
What Zinc does
We need Zinc for many essential reactions, including immune and nervous system function. It also has an impact on our hormones, skin health and digestion.
Signs of a Zinc deficiency
A Zinc deficiency can affect your sense of taste and smell, and weaken your digestive system. You might also experience hair loss and skin rashes, acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
How to supplement Zinc
If you’re supplementing Zinc using a multivitamin, aim for at least 10-30mg. Higher doses up to 40 or 50mg are safely taken short term to support immunity. But they can interfere with other minerals if taken long term.
What Iron does
Iron most famously prevents anaemia (not having enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body). It also keeps your immune system functioning.
Signs of an Iron deficiency
The signs of an Iron deficiency are very similar to the symptoms of some chronic diseases: weakness, fatigue, poor concentration, looking pale, shortness of breath, hair loss, easy bruising, headaches and dizziness, palpitations and anxiety. You should always have a blood test to make sure it’s Iron that you need, before supplementing.
How to supplement Iron
Unless you have a diagnosed condition that requires a larger supplement, you should only take iron as part of a multivitamin at the recommended daily amount of 9-15mg.
The Essential Fatty Acids
What Essential Fatty Acids do
Essential fatty acids are essential nutrients that we can’t make ourselves. Which means we have to get them from food or supplements. We need them to maintain the health of our hearts, brains and circulatory system, as well as reduce inflammation in our bodies.
We need a balance of Omegas 3, 6 and 9 to moderate inflammation. Most of us get too much omega 6 (found in grain-fed animals, seed oils and processed foods). So the most benefit comes from supplementing with Omega 3, to maintain the necessary balance.
Signs of Essential Fatty Acids deficiency
Insufficiency in omega 3 is fairly common as the main source is wild oily fish, which few of us eat enough of. The symptoms that you could be low on essential fatty acids are skin conditions like scaly skin, dermatitis and cracked heels, and dry hair, dandruff and brittle nails. Your risk of inflammation and cardiovascular disease also increases.
How to supplement Essential Fatty Acids
When you look at the back of your supplements, you’ll find omega 3 as EPA and DHA. Fish oil supplements often contain around 1000mg of combined EPA and DHA. You can take higher doses safely up to around 3000-4000mg, if you take a 1000mg dose with each meal. For vegans, the limited studies into EPA and DHA from algae shows that it may be as good as fish oil.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any condition. If you have a medical condition, are pregnant, or take any form of medication, consult a trained professional or doctor before taking supplements.