In an ideal world, we would get all the nutrition we need from the food we eat however research supports what many holistic health professionals have long said, in this day and age we simply aren’t getting the nutrients we need from our diet. Reasons for this lack are numerous from poor nutrient soil quality and intensive farming techniques to western food diets and modern day stressors placing a greater demand on our bodies.
The lack of nutrient intake has become so significant that The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) now recommends a daily multivitamin as a way of supporting our nutritional needs and promoting better health.
A daily multi may not answer to all of today’s ills but it is seen as a form of "insurance" against less than optimal nutrient intake (Fletcher & Fairfield, 2002). Taking a daily multi may also promote increased energy and reduced stress levels in the short term. In the long term, it may offer some benefits for increased cardiovascular health and improved eye and brain health as well as a decreased risk of osteoporosis.
Sounds pretty good? The question is, when looking at the array of multivitamins available, how do you know which one is for you? Walking down the aisle of a healthfood store or pharmacy it is possible to identify 15 or more different types of multivitamin & mineral: one for women, another for men, a seniors version and one that promotes cardiovascular health, more ingredients or less…the list goes on.
Given the multitude of choices, it can be difficult to know which one is best suited to your individual needs. Keep in mind it might be different one than for your spouse, friend or child. So firstly, let’s look at some key questions to ask yourself when deciding which multi is right for you:
1. Gender – do you want a multi that is formulated specifically for your gender? Specific multis for men or women are based on a common set of assumptions about their differing nutrient requirements. A men’s multi is more likely to contain more zinc and less iron than a women’s multi. Zinc is required for prostate and reproductive health in men. Whereas while women also need zinc, they lose some iron each month during their menstrual cycle so the assumption is that they have a greater need for this particular nutrient.
Women’s multivitamins are also more likely to contain higher levels of folic acid, up to 400mcg per daily tablet. This is to help combat the likelihood of neural tube defects which is linked to low levels of folic acid in women during pre-conception and early pregnancy.
2. Age group or specific needs – multis are often formulated for the specific needs of the young, the elderly or for pregnant women. Children’s multi formulations tend to be quite simple and lower dose purely because they are smaller and as a result, require less daily intake of key nutrients than adults. Key nutrients for brain, eye and motor skills in children include vitamin A, zinc, iron, iodine and fish oils. When choosing a multi for your child, ensure at least the first 4 nutrients are included. Fish oil may or may not be included however, can be taken separately.
With regard to seniors, homocysteine lowering factors for cardiovascular health are essential and these include folic acid, vitamin B12 and B6. Vitamin E is also important as low levels in the elderly are associated with poor immune function. Sometimes, ingredients that support digestion such as digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid are also included. This is to support the decline in digestive function that is commonly associated with the ageing process.
In addition to extra folic acid, multis for preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding are likely to include omega 3 fatty acids, often in the form of fish oil. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for foetal brain and eye development so are important. If this ingredient isn’t included it is a good idea to take it in addition to a multi. The other key factor to look for in preconception/pregnancy multis is that it excludes vitamin A and instead includes betacarotene or even better, mixed carotenoids. There is some risk that in high doses, vitamin A may have harmful effects on a growing foetus. Compulsory label warnings will state that doses over 5000iu of vitamin A may be harmful during pregnancy. On the other hand, vitamin A precursors betacarotene and/or mixed carotenoids are not harmful during pregnancy and supply the body with these necessary nutrients.
One final note about folic acid, it is important that a preconception/pregnancy multi supplies a daily dose of at least 400mcg of folic acid as this is considered the minimum dosage requirement for protection against neural tube defects.
3. Dosage – most multis these days are "one-a-day" however some may require a second tablet to meet a higher daily intake of nutrients. While one tablet a day is convenient, keep in mind that a multi generally offers lower doses of essential nutrients and is usually not enough to counteract a specific nutrient deficiency. A specific nutrient deficiency is considered a serious condition. Higher doses of nutrients may be required and in such cases the supervision of a health care provider is essential.
4. Strength – the level of individual nutrients in a multivitamin & mineral can vary quite a bit when comparing labels. A basic multi will generally have a lower level of nutrients and cost less. More comprehensive multi formulations will often have higher nutrient levels and come at a greater price. Generally, you get what you are prepared to pay for with higher prices multis providing higher levels of nutrients.
5. Vegan/Vegetarian – if this is a consideration, look for the label claim of "vegan or vegetarian". Some multivitamins & minerals may contain ingredients of animal origin such as vitamin A from cod liver or enzymes. If you are unsure, ask.
6. Interaction with prescription medications – if you are taking prescription medications it is important to check with your health care professional before you take any nutritional supplementation and this includes multivitamin & mineral preparations. While there is risk of negative interactions, there may also be significant benefit to taking a multi if you are on certain medications. Examples include the Oral Contraceptive Pill which tends to increase vitamin B group losses or mineral laxatives which deplete fat soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, E, K and D. Again check with your health care provider before proceeding.
7. Synergies/interactions with other nutritional medicines – if you are taking other nutritional supplements, it is important to ensure you are not doubling up. For example, if you are taking or iron supplements you may not need the additional level of these nutrient provided by a multi. In this case, you may choose an iron free multi.
Once you have considered your requirements for a multi, there are some key quality issues to look out for:
What to look for from a quality perspective:
1. Vitamin E – natural vitamin E is 100% more bioavailable than synthetic vitamin E and for this reason alone is a better choice. Look for d-alpha tocopherol, the natural form. Avoid the synthetic form which is listed on the label as dl-alpha tocopherol.
2. Vitamin A or Betacarotene – choose betacaroten or mixed carotenoids over vitamin A particularly if you are a woman of child bearing age or vegan/vegetarian.
3. Herbs included or excluded – in most cases, herbs included in multis are well below therapeutic dose so don’t offer much benefit. In addition, the inclusion of herbs will push up the cost. More often than not, herbs are included to make a multi look more comprehensive without offering much additional benefit.
4. Antioxidants – look for the inclusion of antioxidants such as vitamin E, betacarotene and zinc for their important free-radical quenching benefits. Other beneficial antioxidants that may be included are lycopene and luteine.
After considering the above recommendations, if you still have in doubt, ask your health care professional or in-store naturopath/nutritionist which multi is best for you. And please remember, while a multi offers both short and long term benefits, it may not be the only answer to your health issues.
References: Fairfield, K. & Fletcher, R. (2002). Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults. JAMA, 287(23), 3116-3126.
Author: Ananda Mahony ND is a naturopath and skin care specialist. Ananda owns Vitale Natural providing organic skin care online. http://www.vitalenatural.com.au
For more information about natural & organic skin care products contact Ananda Mahony ND at http://www.vitalenatural.com.au or at email@example.com
As a naturopath Ananda has been involved in the natural skin care industry for many years. She specialises in the treatment of skin disorders such as acne, eczema, rosacea and dermatitis as well as anti-aging.