Over half of all Americans (68%) take vitamins and supplements. It is critical we get enough of these essential micronutrients to optimally function on a daily basis - for our brains, bones, blood, metabolism and more (1).
But about 10% of the people in the United States have a nutrient deficiency - and this can jump to as many as 30% in certain populations. While these deficiencies are dangerous, taking too many supplements can also be bad for your health (2).
Here’s your step by step guide to what vitamins and minerals you should be taking.
What are Vitamins vs. Supplements ?
Dietary supplements include essential micronutrients like vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids, enzymes, and herbs. They come in non-food forms such as pills, capsules, powders or liquids and are taken with the intention to help support our health. You can shop for these products just about anywhere with a wide selection often available in natural food sections, CVS like stores, at the pharmacy, and of course online.
The nutrition found in a balanced diet often naturally provides adequate sources of vitamins you need for your health and wellness. However, many people are at risk for nutrient deficiencies that can easily be avoided by taking the right dietary supplements.
The federal drug administration (FDA) is not required to monitor supplements. And with so many choices, ingredients, formulations and different brands, it can be hard as a consumer to find accurate information about the quality and safety of each supplement and choose which one is right for you.
Specific populations are at much higher risk for micronutrient deficiences.
These include people who have:
- Low Intake of Micronutrients (ie: restricted diets such as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free)
- Difficulty Absorbing Micronutrients (ie: Crohn’s Disease, gastric bypass, celiac disease)
- Difficulty Producing Micronutrients (ie: vitamin D deficiency in those not exposed to sunlight)
- Increased Loss of Micronutrients (ie: dialysis)
- Difficulty with Metabolism (ie: genetic conditions, alcoholism)
Multivitamins are the most common supplement people take. They contain the right amounts of vitamins and mineral supplements most of us need on a daily basis.
Taking a daily multivitamin is an easy and effective way for most people to meet their essential micronutrient needs.
Multivitamins help us to avoid the most common nutrient deficiencies including (2):
Best Vitamins for Women
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to be careful with their nutritional intake and take additional supplements in order to best care for their baby.
Women are also more susceptible to iron deficiencies and may be at risk for other nutritional deficiencies after menopause.
Physical deformities, developmental delays, mental retardation, and miscarriages are all potential devastating consequences of nutrient deficiencies during pregnancy. It’s therefore especially important for pregnant women to get enough micronutrients to support both themselves and the baby growing inside them.
The world’s most preventable cause of mental retardation is low iodine levels (2).
All women who are trying to get pregnant, are currently pregnant and those who are breastfeeding should be taking a prenatal vitamin.
Best Prenatal Vitamins
|Micronutrient||Primary Function||Daily Requirement|
|Folic Acid||Neurological Development||400 mcg|
|Iodine||Thyroid & Neurological Development||150 mcg|
|Iron||Red Blood Cell Function, Growth||varies based on person|
|Calcium||Lowers Risk of Pre-Eclampsia||1 gram|
|Vitamin D||General Development & Bone Health||600-4,000 IU|
While these nutrients are important for all pregnant women, some women need higher levels than others. Talk with your doctor to make sure you’re on a prenatal vitamin that’s right for you
Iron is needed in your blood to help carry oxygen to every cell in your body. Low levels of iron cause anemia, referred to as iron deficiency anemia.
Women are at an increased risk for iron deficiency, especially women with heavy menses and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
High-Risk Conditions for Iron Deficiency
- Women (especially pregnant & breastfeeding)
- Vegetarians & Vegans
- Absorption Disorders (ie: celiac disease, crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis)
- Blood Loss & Bleeding Disorders
People with iron deficiencies usually need more iron than what’s included in most multivitamins.
Most people with iron deficiency need at least 150-200 mg of iron supplements daily (6).
After menopause, women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis, a condition that involves the loss of bone density. Vitamin D and calcium help bones to stay strong.
Best Vitamins for Men
Men need many of the same nutritional supplements as women. Many men consider taking testosterone supplements, especially as they age.
Testosterone isn’t a dietary vitamin or a mineral. However, it’s included here because many men wonder if they should be taking it as a supplement.
Testosterone is an important hormone that helps men’s:
- Production of Sperm
- Bone Health
- Muscle Development & Maintenance
- Blood Health
Testosterone starts to decline in men around their 30’s.
Some men have abnormally low testosterone (ie: in hypogonadism) for which their doctors may prescribe testosterone supplements.
There isn’t any good evidence that taking testosterone supplements helps otherwise healthy men, even as they age and their testosterone levels naturally decline. There are also side effects of taking testosterone.
Potential Health Risks of Testosterone Supplements:
- Enlarged Prostate
- Enlarged Breasts
- Testicle Shrinkage
- Sleep Apnea
- Heart Disease
- Blood Clots (DVT & PE)
Before you decide to start taking testosterone, it’s important to consider these potential risks and discuss them further with your doctor (8).
Vitamins in Older Adults
Health problems, unfortunately, become more common as people age. To help best support elderly individuals, the following extra supplements are often recommended, in addition to a well-balanced nutrient-dense diet (9, 10).
|Micronutrient||Primary Function||Recommended Daily Dose|
|Calcium||Supports Bone Health & Helps Prevent Osteoporosis||1200mg|
|Vitamin D||Supports Bone Health & Helps Prevent Osteoporosis||600-800 IU|
|Vitamin B12||Supports Neurological Health||2.4 mcg|
|Omega 3 Fatty Acids||Helps Prevent Cardiovascular Disease, Decreases Inflammation, Possible Preventative Influence Alzheimer's & Cancer||1000mg|
|Vitamin B6||Supports Blood Health||1.7 mg|
Vitamins for Energy
Many nutrient deficiencies can result in low energy levels, including vitamins and minerals such as iron.
The B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 , seem to have a particularly positive influence on energy.
Older adults, people with limited diets including vegans, and people with medical conditions affecting nutrient absorption are at an especially high risk for B12 deficiency.
Studies have shown that certain supplements may help to prevent problems with our eyes. In fact research has shown that a treatment of combined micronutrients can help prevent age-related macular degeneration(11).
Recommended Supplements for People at High Risk for Macular Degeneration
|Micronutrient||Daily Recommended Dose|
|Vitamin C||500 mg|
|Vitamin E||400 IU|
|Beta-carotene (non-smokers only)||15 mg|
Vitamins for Memory
While it’s extremely important for the brain to get enough of the essential micronutrients, many people wonder if additional supplementation may help memory and even prevent brain problems like dementia.
However, studies have not found any good evidence that taking an excess over what our bodies need of these micronutrients helped to prevent memory conditions like Alzheimer disease.
And because too much of these vitamins can result in toxicities, the potential cons seem to outweigh the theoretical pros as research has not shown a surplus to be beneficial. Therefore it is not recommended to take more than the daily requirements for memory loss prevention (12).
Hair, Skin & Nail Vitamins
Deficiencies in almost any of the essential micronutrients can contribute to problems with hair, skin, and nails.
In particular, vitamin C, E, A, and biotin, are all thought to play a particularly important role (13). However, there is no good evidence that taking any of these vitamins in excess of our daily requirements gives additional benefit.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins are those that are easily absorbed. The body also gets rid of these nutrients easily. This means we need to frequently replenish them to meet all of our daily requirements.
Water Soluble Vitamin List:
Fat-soluble vitamins aren’t absorbed quite as easily into the body - and require other substances including bile and other proteins to help them be distributed into the body. Surplus fat-soluble vitamins are also often stored in fat tissue or in the liver (14).
Fat Soluble Vitamin List:
Vitamins are generally safe and beneficial. However, taking too much of some vitamins can cause harm. These dangers are especially applicable to the fat-soluble vitamins as they are more easily stored (and can thus more easily accumulate) in the body (15).
|Micronutrient||Possible Toxic Effects||Toxic Dose|
|Vitamin A||Birth Defects, Liver Problems, Skin Conditions, Osteoporosis||>10,000 IU|
|Vitamin B3 (Niacin)||Flushing, Nausea, Vomiting, Elevated Liver Tests, Constipation||>500 mg (>35 mg for skin flushing)|
|Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)||Numbness/Tingling, Skin Conditions, Nausea, Vomiting||>200 mg|
|Vitamin C||Kidney Stones||> 1000 mg|
|Vitamin E||Diarrhea, Vomiting, Blood Problems, Fatigue||> 800 IU|
Bottom Line: Supplements can be powerful and interact with each unique person in different ways. It’s therefore extremely important to talk with a health professional about what supplements you are taking and to get their recommendation on which supplements are best for you.
This is especially important when starting a new medication and before surgery.
You can ensure you’re getting all the micronutrients you need by eating a:
Well-balanced nutrient-dense diet. This means eating foods that are relatively low in calories compared to how many
Portion controlled diet. This helps to prevent complications of obesity and other diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.