Health Benefits of Multivitamins
Around 40% of UK adults take a daily multivitamin to protect against nutritional deficiencies, improve energy and performance, and guard against disease. While we all know how important vitamins and minerals are for good health, is a multivitamin tablet the best source of these essential nutrients?
Which Vitamins Are Most Important?
There are more than 50 nutrients needed for thousands of metabolic processes and the maintenance of good health. Here are a few of the key players:
Vitamin A – Good for vision, healthy skin, and proper growth, and development
Also known as retinol, vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that maintains good skin, strengthens the immune system, and supports vision, particularly in dim light. Good food sources include carrots, sweet potato, and melons.
Vitamin B – Good for energy levels, psychological wellbeing, and brain function
The eight B vitamins help the body turn food into fuel, boost energy levels and promote healthy brain function, concentration and memory. They may also reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and low mood. Good food sources include whole grains, lean meats, and eggs.
Vitamin C – Good for antioxidant protection, skin health, and strengthening blood vessel walls
Vitamin C maintains healthy connective tissues in the joints and skin and may help to accelerate wound healing and reduce bruising. It also helps to ward off colds. Good food sources include red peppers, kiwis, strawberries, and citrus fruits.
Vitamin D – Good for healthy bones, immune function, and mood
Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphorous in the body, and so plays an important role in maintaining normal bone density. It is also essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system and immune system. Nearly two-thirds of the UK population are severely lacking in vitamin D. Most of our vitamin D is sourced from the sun, while certain foods may contain lesser amounts, such as eggs, oily fish, and mushrooms. Vitamin D supplements are particularly popular in the UK during the winter months.
Vitamin E – Good for antioxidant protection, skin health, and circulation
Vitamin E strengthens cell membranes and protects cells against oxidative damage from free radicals. It plays an important role in the maintenance of healthy vision, skin, and immune function. Good food sources include almonds and sunflower seeds.
Folic acid – Good for cell renewal, heart function, and prevention of neural tube birth defects
Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is crucial for the production of healthy cells and haemoglobin. It also helps to maintain normal homocysteine levels, which supports heart and cognitive function. Folic acid is so important that it is often fortified in cereals and flours. Other food sources include dark leafy greens, asparagus, and broccoli.
Calcium – Good for strong teeth and bones, and blood clotting
Healthy calcium levels are essential for the development and maintenance of bones and teeth. It also regulates muscle contractions (including the heartbeat), blood pressure and hormone secretion. The best foods sources are dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese.
Iron – Good for maintaining healthy blood and muscle function
Iron is needed to produce healthy red blood cells and haemoglobin and helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients to all cells in the body. It also supports the production of neurotransmitters, hormones and collagen. It is estimated that 32% of women of childbearing age (19-64) don’t consume enough iron. Good food sources include shellfish, beans, and lentils.
Zinc – Good for immunity, fertility, and skin
Zinc is an essential building block for enzymes, proteins and cells. It plays a vital role in the maintenance of a strong immune system and supports skin health and wound healing. Zinc is also important for proper taste and smell. Good food sources include oysters, spinach, and dark chocolate.
Chromium – Good for blood glucose levels
Chromium helps to determine the amount of energy we release from food and enhances insulin sensitivity. Because of this, it may be beneficial for those with diabetes. Good food sources of chromium include whole grains, broccoli, and oats.
Magnesium – Good for muscle function and strong bones
Magnesium plays a role in the conversion of food into energy. It also partners with calcium to maintain normal muscle function, blood clotting, and bone density. Good food sources include pumpkin seeds, spinach, and black beans.
Who Can Benefit from a Multivitamin?
In recent years, many multivitamins have become specialised, targeting consumers of certain ages, gender or activity levels. Those who may benefit from a daily multivitamin include:
- Athletes: People with a physically active lifestyle need more nutrients than the average non-active person to support muscle recovery and any fitness related goals. Creatine and amino acid supplements can support muscles during short bouts of intense exercise, and aid growth and recovery. Strenuous exercise is also associated with oxidative stress and tissue damage, so athletes require a higher intake of antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E.
- Deficiency: Several large-scale observational studies show that many people simply don’t achieve nutritional sufficiency through diet alone. This may partly be caused by declining soil quality which means fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t as nutritious as they were 70 years ago. It may also be explained by the increasing reliance on convenient pre-packed meals. A daily multivitamin with the recommended allowance of vitamins and minerals can help to protect against such deficiencies.
- Pregnancy and lactation: The Department of Health advises all women who are considering pregnancy to take a daily 400mcg folic acid supplement to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, and a daily vitamin D 10mcg supplement to support the growing foetus. A multivitamin high in iron, folic acid and vitamin D is also suitable.
- Children aged 6 months to 5 years: The Department of Health also advises all children between the ages of six months to five years to be given a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D. These vitamins are particularly important during the early years, especially if children are fussy eaters.
- Over the age of 65: Our nutritional needs change with age. This is partly because the stomach secretes less hydrochloric acid, which impairs the breakdown of food and the absorption of nutrients. As a result, many mature adults need to consume higher quantities of nutrients in order to absorb the same amount. All adults over 65 are advised to take a daily vitamin D 10mcg supplement to maintain bone strength, while calcium, iron, vitamin C, and Coenzyme Q10 are also important.
- Menopause: During and after menopause women require greater intakes of certain nutrients, particularly calcium and vitamin D. This is because the loss of protective oestrogen during this period accelerates bone loss. Some women also find that phytoestrogen supplements such as black cohosh help to relieve common symptoms of menopause, including such as hot flushes, night sweats and irritability.
- Smokers: Regular smokers need high doses of vitamin C in order to maintain a steady body reserve. This antioxidant vitamin is crucial for the neutralisation of free radicals molecules produced by chemicals in cigarettes. Vitamin B12 is also important as smokers often have lower vitamin B12 serum levels. However, it’s important to remember that a daily multivitamin certainly doesn’t cancel out a harmful habit. There is some evidence to suggest that smokers should avoid high levels of beta-carotene as it may increase the risk of lung cancer.
- Restricted diet: If your diet is restricted in any way, you may be missing out on certain nutrients. For example, vegetarians and vegans are often low in B12 as this vitamin is primarily found in meat. Even trends such as paleo or Atkins diet can limit your intake and may be bolstered by a daily multivitamin.
- Those with little exposure to natural sunlight: Vitamin D is a foundation to good health but it is difficult to get sufficient amounts from food alone. Plus, during the winter months, the sun’s rays simply aren’t strong enough in the UK for the skin to synthesise vitamin D. A daily 10mcg supplement can help to ensure that vitamin D levels don’t get too low.
Can Multivitamins Pose a Danger?
Several media reports have questioned the value of taking a multivitamin, with the authors of one recent meta-analysis concluding that “multivitamins have little health benefits in generally well-nourished, Western populations.” So are we collectively throwing away millions of pounds into multivitamins that may do more harm than good?
While multivitamins can provide certain health benefits, they can also cause problems when they contain too much of something we don’t need. For example, too much calcium may increase the risk of kidney stones or heart disease.
One factor to consider is the difference between how water-soluble and fat-soluble nutrients are stored and excreted from the body. Water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C are used quickly and any excess is immediately excreted from the body. These are unlikely to cause harm, even at higher doses. In contrast, fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A and D are stored in body tissues. When consumed in mega-high doses, these can build up in the body and may pose health risks.
If you’re taking a basic multivitamin with 100% of the recommended daily dosage then there’s no need to fear taking too much. However, if your multivitamin contains high dosages of certain ingredients you should ask yourself if this is necessary. If you are not at risk of deficiency, it probably isn’t.
Should You Take a Multivitamin?
You should strive to eat fruit and vegetables on a daily basis to fuel your body with the right food before taking a multivitamin. If you eat a healthy and complete diet, a multivitamin may not offer much additional protection. Chances are you’ll meet your daily intake requirements. However, at normal doses, it shouldn’t cause any harm either.
If you eat moderately well, a multivitamin may provide some extra nutritional support. If your diet isn’t as good as it should be and you don’t consume a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables, a multivitamin will likely be beneficial. However, it’s important to remember that you can’t out supplement a poor diet.
If you choose to take a multivitamin for its “insurance” value then it may be beneficial in fortifying your diet and protecting against nutritional deficiencies. However, if you take them to combat chronic diseases in a similar way to pharmaceutical drugs then you will likely be disappointed.
Composition and quality can vary from product to product so be sure to choose a high-quality multivitamin. The nutrients will be provided in their most bioavailable form to enhance digestion and absorption. Try to choose a multivitamin targeted to your age, gender and activity levels, and always take your tablets with a meal to improve absorption.
The best approach? Keep physically active, eat a balanced diet with at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, and take a multivitamin to safeguard your nutritional intake.