When trying to live a healthier lifestyle, it’s best to take small, realistic steps. For decades, one of the most popular ways to get more of the nutrients your body needs to thrive has been through vitamin supplementation.
Most experts recommend getting the majority of these nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet. However, multivitamin supplements can serve to fill in some of the gaps.
In this guide, I’ll show you what a multivitamin is, what their potential benefits are, and how to evaluate if taking a multivitamin is right for you.
- What Are Multivitamins?
- Do Multivitamins Really Improve Health?
- How Do I Know If I Need a Multivitamin?
- Will a Daily Multivitamin Help My Immune System?
- Differing Expert Opinions
- What to Look For in a Multivitamin: Key Nutrients
- Multivitamins for Specific Groups
- What’s the Best Time of Day to Take a Multivitamin?
- The Importance of a Healthy Diet
What Are Multivitamins?
According to the USDA, multivitamins are defined as “dietary supplements containing three or more vitamins with or without minerals or other bioactive components.” Essentially, a multivitamin is any combination of vitamins and minerals, most of which are specially formulated to provide those most important for overall human health.
A typical multivitamin contains the following vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamins A, D, E and K
- B-vitamins such as B-6, B-12, Folate, and Thiamin
Vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal remedies, and other products are not regulated by the FDA. This means that they can contain ingredients that are not FDA-approved, and in any amounts. However, there are a couple of private agencies that ensure the ingredients listed on the label are actually correctly stated.
Do Multivitamins Really Improve Health?
Health does not have a universal meaning for everyone, so it’s important to understand what supplements you are interested in taking so you can make an informed decision with the help of your doctor. They will be able to assist you in determining what multivitamin or supplement is right for you with consideration for any underlying conditions or problems you may have.
General Health Benefits of Multivitamins
The majority of multivitamins include the following nutrients:
- Vitamin A: important for eye health, proper immune function, and healthy skin.
- Vitamin D: important for bone health as it aids in the absorption of calcium.
- Vitamin E: a powerful antioxidant that is also important for healthy skin and hair.
- Vitamin K: important for blood clotting.
- Calcium: important for healthy bones.
- Magnesium: needed for proper nerve and muscle function.
- Phosphorus: necessary for the body in small amounts for creating energy for cells.
- Zinc: needed for immune function, as well as proper growth and development in pregnancy and childhood.
- Copper: needed in small amounts for proper growth and development, as well as making energy.
Multivitamins and Disease
Often times people become interested in living a healthier lifestyle because they want to prevent disease. A friend or family member may be diagnosed with a chronic illness such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, or cancer and it causes those around them to be hyperaware of those illnesses. However, there are mixed results in clinical trials concerning the long-term use of multivitamins to prevent disease.
A meta-analysis study published in 2018 found that high blood pressure was only minimally reduced in test subjects and that most studies had too few participants to really determine whether or not a multivitamin had any long-term benefit. It is also important to consider that many people who take daily multivitamins may be more likely to participate in other health-promoting behaviors as well. Activities such as regular exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables and incorporating stress reduction techniques play a major role in overall health as well.
Another meta-analysis published in 2013 determined that multivitamin use had no effect on the mortality rate of the subjects, whose average age was 62 years. An article published in Hopkins Medicine states that a study involving nearly half a million people found no benefit to heart health with multivitamin supplementation–and that a healthy diet was superior.
However, a study published in 2017 found that taking a multivitamin did decrease the number of US adults with certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Considering that we know micronutrient deficiencies are linked to adverse health effects, including chronic disease, this might suggest that multivitamins could contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
An older study (published 2002) in the Journal of the American Medical Association echoed similar results. They stated that doctors may want to consider offering multivitamins as a solution to patients who are at risk of deficiencies (such as those living in areas with less access to nutritious food, the elderly, or other vulnerable groups). Their reasoning for this was because many doctors “may be unaware of common food sources of vitamins,” and therefore would do their patients a disservice by not offering a supplement as a solution.
This same study suggested that a multivitamin, by way of reducing micronutrient deficiencies, may prevent several types of cancer, heart disease, birth defects, and bone diseases.
How Do I Know If I Need a Multivitamin?
There is no one size fits all approach. Depending on your unique health needs related to any underlying conditions or concerns, your nutrient needs may differ. Other factors such as your lifestyle, financial and social situation, plus other considerations must be taken into account to determine what is going to be best for you.
In general, most people could see modest benefits by taking a daily multivitamin. However, this is only in combination with a healthy lifestyle: exercising at least 30 minutes per day, drinking lots of water, finding ways to manage stress, and eating a balanced diet all factor into your health. A multivitamin is not going to do much if you’re lacking in those other areas!
That being said, there are specific groups that are typically advised to take a multivitamin or similar supplement. Pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions that may affect the absorption of certain vitamins are the most common. Other examples include those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, who may need to ensure their daily multivitamin includes B12 since a major source of dietary B12 comes from meat.
Will a Daily Multivitamin Help My Immune System?
The human immune system is incredibly complex. Additionally, there is no way to truly “boost” the immune system or immune response. Your immune system is it’s strongest when you adopt a lifestyle that supports it. You’ve heard it all before–exercise, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, and yes, your eating habits–all affect your immune system. Overall health is the most important factor in preventing disease and maintaining a healthy immune system that can effectively fight harmful viruses and bacteria.
Although, you might find it intriguing that there is currently a study going on in China to see if high doses of vitamin C supplementation may reduce the length of ventilation for patients with severe Sars-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) related pneumonia. This may corroborate the understanding that vitamin C plays an important role in our immune health, but it is still not proven to be a cure for Coronavirus. Plus, taking it in high doses can be dangerous if you are not under the direct supervision of a health professional.
Basically, a multivitamin may help support your overall health, which in turn can keep you strong and healthy so your body can fight off illness. But it isn’t the end-all: those small, consistent choices that you make for your health add up to a healthy lifestyle, and that includes fighting off illness.
Differing Expert Opinions
Many doctors and registered dietitians believe that you can get all the nutrients you need from food. However, some within these same professions have expressed concern over evidence that points to a decline of nutrients in our soil over the past several decades.
The thought is that our great-grandparent’s food grew in more nutritious soil, and the food we are eating now is severely depleted and would require consuming inhuman amounts to achieve the same levels of nutrients. For this reason, some research has led practitioners to insist that supplementation is necessary for optimal health.
Jo Robinson, the author of the New York Times Best-Seller Eating on the Wild Side, suggests in her book that industrialized agricultural practices have depleted our soil of nutrients and that the produce we buy at the grocery store is not nearly as nutritious as those found in the wild. She states that this is the cause for the rise of the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry–and that if we would focus on preparing foods in ways that optimize their nutrient density, we wouldn’t need supplements.
Right now, the consensus seems to lean more towards the idea that soil depletion should not be a major concern, and that increasing fruit and vegetable intake, along with supplementation if desired, is still largely beneficial for health.
What to Look For in a Multivitamin: Key Nutrients
Now that we’ve covered what multivitamins are, why you need them, and some reasons they may benefit your health, you’re probably wondering what nutrients are most important in a multivitamin. There are several nutrients that are important for the body, and you’ll want to ensure your multivitamin includes these so you’re getting the most bang for your buck. This list should help you decide which ones you want to buy!
- Vitamins A, D, E, K, C, E
- B vitamins or a B-complex: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12, biotin, and folate or folic acid
- Minerals: calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium
As far as nutrient composition goes, there’s not much difference between gummies, soft gels, slow-release capsules, vegan or vegetarian capsules, and so on. Most of those differences come down to your own personal preference and the types of supplements your body tolerates best.
Some people struggle to take capsules but find that taking gummies works better for them because they look forward to eating them daily. Others have stomach upset when they take a regular tablet, so a slow-release supplement works best for them. Many people do not like the taste multivitamins leave in their mouth, and may prefer a supplement with a slightly flavored coating to help it go down more easily.
Multivitamins for Specific Groups
Often, multivitamins are split into categories such as men, women, kids, and ages 50+. This is likely because nutrient needs vary based on these categories. Some examples of key differences between sex and age groups include:
- Women need more folate and iron than men due to higher needs in child-bearing years (especially during pregnancy).
- Older people need more calcium and vitamin D. Post-menopausal women are especially at risk for osteoporosis, and these nutrients can help bone strength.
- It’s recommended by the USDA that men get more magnesium, zinc, manganese, vitamin A, C, K, and choline than women across many age groups. This could be because men are generally larger in size and/or because they metabolize some nutrients differently from women.
What’s the Best Time of Day to Take a Multivitamin?
Whenever you are most likely to consistently take the vitamins is the best time of day for you. Everyone’s schedules are different. Some people find more success taking supplements at night, while others do best taking them with breakfast in the morning.
Should I Take My Multivitamin With Food?
It depends on how your body reacts to the supplement. If you find that taking the supplement on an empty stomach causes you discomfort, then try taking them with a meal. If it upsets your stomach when you take it with a meal, try taking it between meals.
The Importance of a Healthy Diet
I’ll leave you with this parting thought: while supplements can certainly have their place in a healthy lifestyle, practicing healthy behaviors such as eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and dietary fiber is still important. A multivitamin is not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle. It’s worth it to examine your motives when opting for a supplement.
Helpful questions to ask yourself:
- Will this help me reach my health goals?
- Is this something I can realistically start including in my routine?
- Have I considered the other factors that affect my health goals?
- Am I working toward overall health, or using this as a “magic pill” hoping it will fix my problems with minimal effort on my part?
There are no shortcuts to optimal health. Making intentional choices daily adds up to a healthy lifestyle. Talk with your doctor or dietitian if you are concerned about any vitamin or nutrient deficiencies you may be experiencing, and be sure to let them know at your next appointment if you decide to include supplements into your daily routine!