Should I be taking a multivitamin? What are the essential vitamins I should be taking? Do I even need to supplement? Are supplements just a money-making tool for health companies?
These are questions I get asked a lot, not only by clients but also by friends, family, and even colleagues!
The truth is, there’s no clear-cut answer, and what's right for you will depend on your current health condition and circumstances.
But, as a general rule, are supplements worth the money? And should (most) people be taking a multivitamin?
There are many practitioners in the alternative health community who argue that supplements are a waste of money, and that you should be getting your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, not least because (they argue) a supplement will provide an extracted form (of the vitamin or mineral) and therefore misses lots of the other (probably synergistic) ingredients that the natural, whole food form of the vitamin or mineral, from food, contains.
Yet, while that may be true in an ideal world, the reality is that our soil is now so depleted that even if you were eating the perfect diet (which, let’s face it, most of us aren’t!), you still might not be getting adequate intake of certain vitamins and minerals.
That’s why I believe that supplements do have an important role for optimal health and wellbeing.
I don't, however, generally recommend a multivitamin, mostly because it's hard to find a very high quality one (without lots of fillers and binders), and not all of the ingredients will be appropriate for your unique body. There is also some evidence to suggest that certain vitamins (mainly vitamin A and vitamin E) should not be taken in supplemental form, and it's hard to find a multivitamin that excludes these ingredients (the one exception is Dr Fuhrman's multivits which I highly recommend if you can afford them). A much better idea is just to take the specific vitamins, minerals and supplements that you need.
So what are the basic essentials that I recommend everyone should be taking?
(It's super important to consult with your health care provider before starting any supplemental regime.)
Contrary to popular opinion, B12 does not come from meat, it comes from bacteria in the soil (which animals therefore eat if they are given access to graze outdoors).
In the past we would have gotten our B12 from drinking stream water and from gardening (getting dirt under our fingernails and then eating using our hands!) and from not washing our vegetables (which I don’t recommend!).
B12 is essential for so many functions in the body, and yet many of us – not just vegans – are deficient. For meat eaters, this can be because many people inherently have trouble absorbing B12, plus the B12 in meat is bound to other proteins in the meat which makes it harder for us to break down and absorb. In addition, if the animal being consumed did not have access to outdoor grazing (which most factory farmed animals do not, as they spend their short lives indoors and are not fed their natural diet (they are usually fed grains and sometimes even other animals, instead of grass)) then she will also be deficient in B12, which means you will not receive any B12 from eating her!
For this reason, I recommend everyone – not just vegans – supplement with B12.
There are two forms of B12: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. I recommend supplementing with the latter, which is the better absorbed version.
#2 Vitamin D3
Like B12, vitamin D (known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’) is so important for so many pathways in the body, particularly for energy production and for immunity, yet most of us in the Northern hemisphere are deficient.
Sadly, just getting outdoors more often won’t make much difference; if you live at a latitude north of Atlanta, Georgia, there’s just no way you could get enough vitamin D solely from sunlight, it’s simply not intense enough. And even if you live a latitude south of Atlanta, Georgia, you would only be able to make sufficient vitamin D in the summertime, if you’re outdoors when the sun is at its highest and strongest, and you’re out for at least 20 minutes, and you have enough naked skin exposed (and are not wearing sunscreen). And, even then, you may still not make enough vitamin D, since, according to the Vegetarian Health Institute, many other factors can interrupt our body’s conversion rate, including cloud cover, smog, age, and skin colour (darker skin pigmentation requires more time to produce vitamin D).
For this reason, I recommend everyone take a vitamin D supplement; at least 400iu in summer (up to 1000iu if you feel you need it – you're struggling with low energy or feeling run down, for example), and then minimum 1000iu in winter (up to 2500iu depending on how you feel). It is possible to take too much vitamin D, so I don’t recommend taking more than 2500iu without checking with the doctor first, and it’s important to get your vitamin D level checked by the doctor before starting to supplement (they do this through a blood test; they should check your 25-hydroxy-vitamin D level).
Given its important role in immune function, you can also take a higher dose (1000-2500iu) in summer if you notice people around you are getting sick, during flu season, or while COVID-19 is still present.
There are 2 main forms of (supplemental) vitamin D: D2 and D3. Your body has to covert D2 into D3, so supplementing with D3 is more efficient and gives your body a helping hand. Traditionally D3 supplements came from animals (or lanolin - the oil in sheep's wool), and so was not vegan/vegetarian, but nowadays you can find plenty of vegan D3 options, just be sure to check the label if you are vegan. Similarly, vegans might want to be wary of buying packaged items that are fortified with vitamin D if it doesn't specifically say that the item is vegan (especially if it's D3). An example is Sunny D orange juice, which (unless the recipe has been changed recently) is not vegan as it's fortified with animal-based D3.
#3 Omega-3 (DHA + EPA)
Again, omega-3 fatty acids are so important for a myriad of reasons, but especially for brain health, skin health, and anti-inflammation. It’s important to supplement because our diets these days (especially the Western standard diet) are far too high in omega-6 compared to omega-3. Omega-6 is found in vegetable oil (and therefore most processed food), and the ratio in the past was much smaller, around 3:1 (omega-6 to omega-3), whereas it now may be as high as 20:1! This has disastrous consequences for our health, as omega-6 in excess is inflammatory, while omega-3 is anti-inflammatory.
Contrary to popular opinion, omega-3 does not come from fish (although fish oil is the most widely available form of omega-3). It actually comes from algae (seaweed), which the fish eat (that’s how they get their omega-3 content). Like most things, it’s therefore a much better idea to go straight to the original source and cut out the middleman, not only because it’s more efficient, but also because it cuts out the heavy metals and toxins present in most fish these days, as well as eliminating the environmental and ethical issues surrounding fish consumption.
There are three main forms of omega-3: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA, which is present in flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, is the precursor to EPA (which is then converted by the body into DHA). Some people’s bodies are not very efficient converters of ALA into EPA and DHA; that’s why supplementing with EPA and DHA is important (even if you consume a lot of flax or walnuts), as it gives your body a helping hand, and ensures you get those all-important EPA and DHA.
There are many options for vegan (algae) DHA and EPA supplements these days, but many of them come with other added ingredients (such as vegetable oil, vitamin E, etc.) that are not always appropriate for everyone, often unnecessary, and maybe even harmful. That’s why I love Feel Omega-3. It’s super clean, with no fillers or added ingredients, and their subscription service means you don’t have to worry about running out of this super important supplement. You can use my link to get a massive 20% off your first order.
Those are my three most essential supplements, but some people may also benefit from taking a good quality probiotic, and also a magnesium supplement, since most of us are deficient nowadays and magnesium plays a crucial role in many mechanisms in the body. There are many different types of magnesium, each of which treats different symptoms, so I recommend getting the one that addresses your specific needs. Magnesium citrate is the most widely available (and the one that is present in most multivitamin blends), but may not be appropriate for most people’s needs.
These are the general supplements I recommend for most people who have no specific health concerns, but just want to make sure they’re looking after themselves as best they can. If you have a specific issue, such as adrenal fatigue/low energy, hormonal imbalance, gut issues, and so on, you will probably need more specific, tailored supplements (probably in addition to the above). Book in for a health coaching session if this is something you’d like support with.
Just like the quality of our food is important, the quality of our supplements is really important. Many vitamin and supplement brands use a lot of added fillers and bulking agents, as well as other questionable ingredients. The quality of the vitamin itself may also be lower in certain brands. My favourite go-to brands are Dr Fuhrman's, Time Health, and Feel (for omega-3), but there are many other good brands out there; speak to an expert for more advice or book in for a free health chat with me.
If there’s someone you know who would benefit from this information, please share it with them!
What are your essential supplements for great health and energy? Let me know in the comments below!