Vitamins and minerals are perhaps as important as the energy giving nutrients.  The body cannot function without them.  The presence of vitamins and minerals allow crucial chemical reactions to take place within the body that otherwise would not happen, or at least not quickly enough.  Vitamins and minerals are found in food sources, but not all vitamins and minerals are found in any one food.  This is part of the reason a balanced diet is so important.  A lack of vitamins/minerals in the diet can lead to detrimental physical conditions because certain chemical reactions are not able to take place or at least not fully take place.  Unfortunately, too much of certain vitamins/minerals can also have negative effects.

Water Soluble vs. Fat Soluble

All minerals and some vitamins are fat soluble.  That is to say they dissolve in fat (not water) and any excess is stored in the fat of the body.  So enough of an excess can essentially poison the body. The B vitamins and vitamin C are water soluble, which means they dissolve in water and any excess is discharged in the urine.  So it’s virtually impossible to overdose on water soluble vitamins.  To do so, you’d have to pretty much be trying to overdose.  A very large dose of any vitamin/mineral can be detrimental; however it typically requires an enormous dose over a long period of time.  My opinion on the matter is that it is better to have an excess of water soluble vitamins than not enough.  Again I stress the importance of moderation.  For instance, although 400 IU of vitamin E is the lower end of recommendation, 4000 IU is just too much.

Antioxidants are basically cancer preventing substances.  Some are vitamins, some minerals, some more complex organic molecules.  As your cells utilize oxygen they also produce waste products called free radicals.  Free radicals have a charge like a magnet only on a much smaller scale, which allows them to react with other molecules.  These “other” molecules could be part of a cell or even DNA.  If the DNA or an important structure of the cell is damaged it may become cancerous and produce more and more cancerous cells.

Our bodies are constantly producing free radicals as a natural byproduct of cellular respiration (cell breathing), but don’t fret.  Most free radicals are taken care of by your immune system, and cancers that do result are usually destroyed before they become a problem.  It is when your body can’t deal with all the damage, or else overlooks it, that you actually “get” cancer.  Smokers, drinkers, and individuals that were or are exposed to certain chemicals (like asbestos) are at a much higher risk for cancer because their bodies are flooded with many more free radicals created as a result of their exposure.

So these free radicals are floating through your cells trying to attach to whatever is willing, so to speak.  Antioxidants are chemicals that will combine with free radicals to neutralize them and make them harmless.  Antioxidants are found in many foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.  Onions and garlic are two powerful sources of antioxidants.  Vitamins A, E, and C are antioxidants as well as selenium.  Thousands of other molecules serve as antioxidants as well: carotenoids, phytonutrients, bioflavonoids, etc.  Many of these are found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Of course pretty much any antioxidant can be found in pill form, that tends to be my preference since I can be sure I’m getting them in pills (they state so in the label).  I don’t know how much are in the highly processed food we all eat every day.  Having been through two cancers in my first 22 years of life, I decided I would rather have more antioxidants than I “need” than not enough any day.  Besides, I’m not convinced even a small percentage of people eat enough of the right things all the time.  And if that’s true, it also means they are not getting enough antioxidants.

Theoretically speaking no one should need to take vitamin/mineral supplements.  However, this is not practical.  It assumes that we always eat what we should, when we should, and in the amounts we should.  If you look at the typical diet, it usually does not contain all the nutrients required by the human body and even if it does it may not spread them throughout the day as they should be.  For example, anyone can see that eating all of you protein for the day in one sitting is certainly less effective than having a little bit several times throughout the day.  Vitamins and minerals are the same.

Supplementation is something that everyone should do.  I don’t mean going overboard and becoming a vitamin fanatic, but a multi (multivitamin) a day may just keep the doctor and sickness at least at bay if not away.  So pretty much anyone could benefit from a multi-vitamin every day and maybe some additional supplementing, depending on the situation.

Supplementing is important because it adds nutrients to your body’s chemistry that would otherwise be lacking, causing inefficiency and even inability for your body to function properly.  Vitamins and minerals are responsible for the function of bodily functions that could not otherwise take place.  So supplementation allows these reactions to take place to a fuller extent.

Too much of a good thing can also be detrimental, though.  One Tylenol® or Ibuprofen® may get rid of you headache, but that doesn’t mean 50 will get rid of it faster or for longer.  Supplementing is similar.  You can take too many vitamins.  First of all it is difficult to overdose on vitamins and minerals unless you take massive amounts of them, say 10-100 times the recommended amount for a long period of time.  It is particularly difficult to take too much of a water soluble vitamin since unused portions pass through your body and out through your urine.  Remember however that anything you put in your body must be dealt with, so the more you put in, the more work your body has to do, so supplement, but don’t go overboard.

Adding antioxidants to your supplement regimen is also important.  Extra vitamin A, C, and E are great choices.  You may also wish to take garlic, grape seed extract, bilberry, selenium; the list is almost endless.  Whoever you are, you can benefit from antioxidants.  All of us produce free radicals all the time as a result of the natural processes of our bodies.  However, many things that surround us can increase the number of free radicals in your body.  Fumes, exhaust, smoke, and even some medical procedures can all increase free radicals in our body.  There are also many more environmental conditions we are exposed to every day that increase free radicals in your body.

All fruits and vegetables have some antioxidants, and so naturally so do supplemental extracts of them.  Some vitamins and minerals are also good antioxidants as well as many other substances that don’t really fit into either of these categories.  Multivitamins are often a source of at least some antioxidants.  Like I said before, some vitamins and minerals can act as antioxidants.  Plus, good multivitamins always contain additional substances, many of which serve as antioxidants.  However, because a good multivitamin has so many components, the “extra” antioxidants are often present in fairly small amounts.  As such, it is beneficial to supplement with more than just what your multivitamin gives you.  Some antioxidant formulas for example will contain A, C, E, and selenium.  Others are extracts from dozens of different fruits and vegetables. There really are a myriad of substances that can function as at least mild antioxidants, most of which have other roles as well.  Here are some examples of what would be considered pretty strong antioxidants, meaning worth considering supplementing with:

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but these are some of the strongest antioxidants and worth taking a look at.

Multivitamins are your foundation for a good diet.  A multivitamin is a vitamin that contains many different vitamins and minerals.  Some are very basic, such as ™Centrum.  Others are more complex (and much better) such as many types carried by health food stores.  There are 23 vitamins and minerals that are considered essential.  Your multivitamin should have all of them (except iron for most men).  Some of the better multis will also contain “extras” such as amino acids, additional antioxidants, and herbs.  I would recommend a multivitamin that has these “extras,” particularly antioxidants such as the ones listed above.  That way you are already taking many beneficial substances (such as antioxidants) in addition to all of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function properly.

Why a multivitamin?

I said that a multi is the “foundation” for a good diet, but I didn’t say what that meant.  It sounds good, but let’s give some meaning to it.  The fact is that most people (probably all people) don’t get enough of each vitamin and mineral for optimal bodily function every day.  It’s a great theory to say that you get enough from food, but the fact of the matter is that no one does; at least I’ve never met them.  You may get enough to function well, but that is not the same as functioning optimally.  That is why taking a multivitamin is so vital.  It essentially fills in the blanks in your diet.  This is especially important for vegetarians because some vitamins and minerals are virtually impossible to get in adequate amounts in a vegetarian diet.

Whose multivitamins (and other products) can I trust?

The supplement industry is somewhat self regulated, but the FDA does play an important role.  More importantly, independent labs also exist to protect consumers.  Most of your big name vitamin stores have quality products.  Many of their products also have received a “Good Manufacturing Practices” award from the FDA, an award not easily given, especially considering the FDA does not tend to be a big fan of anything that’s not a drug.  This award is exactly what it sounds like, good manufacturing practices, and the requirements are very strict.

Another gauge of product quality is independent testing.  There are a number independent labs that test various nutritional supplements, perhaps the most common is Consumer Labs.  They test everyone you’ve ever heard of and many that you haven’t.  They test for potency, purity, and even conduct consumer satisfaction surveys.  You can get quite a bit of information for free online and much more if you subscribe with them.  You can find them at www. ConsumerLabs.com.  For the most part, here are some names that you can trust for quality products:

Vitamin World(recommended)

Puritan Pride(recommended)

GNC

Super Supplements

Vitamin Shoppe

Vitacost (NSI)

Nature Made

Nature’s Bounty

Thorne

Rexall

Sundown

Swanson

Advocare

Nutrilite

Rainbow Lite

Keep in mind that this list is not meant to be exhaustive.  They are other high-quality vitamins out there, but these are some of the more common retailers/manufacturers that you can trust.  That being said, you won’t find a higher quality than the first 3.

How much of each vitamin/mineral should I have in my multi?

I don’t think I’ve seen a supplement that gives you too much of anything.  Although it is possible to overdose on some vitamins and all minerals, taking a multivitamin daily will never cause a toxicity.  Each of the essential vitamins and minerals has a recommended daily allowance (RDA) established by the FDA.  So when you see 100% next to say selenium on your multivitamin label you may be wondering why you would take 100% in addition to what is found in your diet.  That’s too much, right?  The answer is “no.”  The RDA’s (some of which were established decades ago) were established as a minimum for the avoidance of an associated deficiency.  In other words, the least amount you need to not have a noticeable disease from having so little.  Let me give you an example:  The RDA for vitamin C is a meager 60mg.  That is the average minimum a person needs to keep their teeth from falling out (scurvy).  However, this is NOT the amount your body needs to function well, or better yet, optimally; that’s more like 500-10,000mg.  All vitamins and minerals follow the same pattern.  So don’t be scared of 100% or more for a vitamin.  Besides, I think the likelihood of you NOT taking enough is higher than taking too much.

Your multivitamin should have at least the following in it.

Vitamin A (or beta carotene)

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

Vitamin D

Vitamin E

Vitamin K

Vitamin B-1 (thiamin)

Vitamin B-2 (riboflavin)

Vitamin B-3 (niacin)

Vitamin B-6

Folic acid

Vitamin B-12

Biotin

Pantothenic acid

Calcium

Iron (NOT for men)

Phosphorus

Iodine

Magnesium

Zinc

Selenium

Copper

Manganese

Chromium

Molybdenum

Chloride

Potassium

Vanadium

Silicon

Boron

Tin

Nickel

I purposely didn’t include amounts of each nutrient because I didn’t want to get too confusing.  High quality vitamins are pretty standard-ish anyway, so if you get just about any multi, you will probably have enough of each of them.  If you find a multi with all of these and more, say some herbs or something, great.  That’s even better, but it should have at least what I have outlined.  What I believe are the best mens’, womens’, and childrens’ multivitamins can be found below.  They have all of the vitamins and minerals you (or ‘they’) need, but also beneficial nutrients, herbs, and antioxidants; basically everything you need all in one place.

Supplementing during pregnancy

First of all, prenatals are usually a waste of money.  They typically cost more and they are usually just weak multivitamins; about the potency of a children’s’ multivitamin.  Just take a multivitamin as usual but be sure to take an additional 400 mcg of folic acid and 1200-1500mg of calcium for the duration of your pregnancy, but don’t take more than that.  Also do not take extra vitamin A.  Your multi will have vitamin A, and that’s fine, but don’t take more than that.  You need the extra folic acid and calcium for you and your baby, but too much could be detrimental to your child.  For maximum efficiency, the folic acid should be taken separately from the multivitamin, and the calcium should be taken in 3 divided doses throughout the day with magnesium and vitamin D.  Often you can get a combination of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D.  Don’t get one with phosphorus though, it fights with calcium to be absorbed

Other suggestions for pregnancy

Phosphatidylserine (PS): This helps with brain function in children and adults.  I am not aware of any study that tries to test its benefit for your unborn child, but it is an important constituent of brain tissue.  I do not foresee any negative side-effects, but I do see potential cognitive benefits for your baby.  (I gave it to my wife with our 3rd with no side effects, although it’s too early to see if she’s a genius quite yet).

Fish Oil: This is another important one for the brain.  It actually combines with phosphatidylserine to make up the important phospholipid bilayer of your brain cells (and cell “organs”).  This helps them work more efficiently and form more easily.

Age specific supplementing

First let’s start with children 12 and under.  Supplement like you would an adult, but smaller doses, based on size. If they are half your weight, give them about half what you get and so on.  Antioxidants per say aren’t such an issue because they are so young and naturally healthy, so a children’s multi every day is probably sufficient.  You may want to give them extra C and maybe some zinc when they’re sick though.  For the rest of human life it should be about the same as I just outlined with the exception of pregnancy and women over 40 who should take 1200-500 mg of calcium.  Men could benefit from some extra calcium as well as bone mass tends to decrease with age in both sexes.  Men also have higher bone density than women, hence more calcium making up that bone.  So a 6 foot tall man actually has more bone than a 6 foot tall woman.  Since men have denser bones, they tend to have fewer bone density problems than woman.  Men have to lose a lot of bone to weaken them enough to be a problem.  Women only have to lose a little.  That’s why men don’t tend to have problems with osteoporosis and such.  That’s also why men need calcium as much as women.

I would also recommend that at any age there be some additional antioxidants in your diet (see “Supplements 201″ for a list of some really good ones).  This should increase with age because the older you get (particularly over 50), the less efficiently your body will function and the more “help” it needs.

Supplementing when you’re sick

The reason you get sick is that some virus or bacteria has overwhelmed your immune system.  Most of the time your body will deal with it, eventually.  Eventually is the problem.  Your body can always use some extra help.  I recommend when you even start to feel sick (or are sick already) that you take your multivitamin as usual.  Vitamin C and zinc are very important in helping the immune system function at its optimum.  Therefore I suggest 10,000-20,000mg of vitamin C spread throughout the day and about 200-300 mg of zinc also spread throughout the day.  Echinacea is also a great herb to help. This will help to “boost” your immune system and help your body destroy the germs that are invading it more quickly.  Also drink lots of fluids, especially water.  I won’t go into detail here, but later you will see the importance of water and get a better idea of how much to drink.  You should do this until the illness is gone and you feel back to normal.

You are probably wondering what you’re supposed to do when you have the flu and can hardly keep food down.  The answer is that you need your vitamins more than ever in these circumstances so you just need to find a way.  Even if you can only drink a little juice, do it and take your vitamins.  It may take a long time to get well if your body doesn’t receive additional nutrition.