How to make vitamins work best for you
Do you need vitamins? And, if so, what ones?
Have you ever stood in the vitamins aisle at the chemist and felt overwhelmed by all the options? Or perhaps a friend swears by a certain vitamin supplement and you’re wondering if you should try it too?
At nib, we consider ourselves your health partner, working with the experts to give you the tips and tricks to live your healthiest life yet. So, we spoke to nib Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black to find out when vitamins are needed and how to make them work best for you.
When are vitamins needed?
“The short answer is that vitamins are not needed for healthy people who eat well,” says Hamish. “Those people can save money by not buying vitamins from the chemist or supermarket.
“That being said, there’s a large number of people who do need extra vitamins because they’re not absorbing adequate amounts. They might not be getting enough vitamins in their diet or not getting enough UV light on their skin, in the case of vitamin D.
“The most common groups of people that may need vitamin supplementation are those who are pregnant, vegan or on a restrictive diet such as ones that excludes a whole food group. Also, those with high alcohol intake, chronic liver disease or malnutrition, such as with an eating disorder. Gastrointestinal diseases, pancreatic diseases and bariatric surgery may also cause vitamin malabsorption.”
When should you start taking vitamins?
The best way to get all the vitamins you need is to eat a healthy and varied diet. There’s no need to take supplements unless medically indicated. For example, people who follow vegan diets may need vitamin B12 supplements. If you think you might be deficient in a certain vitamin or nutrient, seek advice from your GP first. They may order a blood test to check for any deficiencies.
One notable exception to this rule is pregnant women and women who are planning to fall pregnant. It is recommended that they take a daily folic acid (folate) supplement of 400mcg from 12 weeks before conception (if the pregnancy is planned) until at least 12 weeks of pregnancy. Folic acid supplementation has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida by up to 70%.
What can vitamins do for your health?
“Vitamins and minerals are vital to the healthy functioning of our body at a cellular level, and significant vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause potentially fatal illnesses,” explains Hamish. “But supplemental vitamins will not improve health for those people without a condition that requires vitamin supplementation. In fact, we know that excess vitamin supplementation can cause harm.”
Research shows that taking high doses of vitamins including A, B6, D, E and K can be toxic and high-dose supplements of vitamin E have even been linked to earlier death. During pregnancy, too much vitamin A may cause birth defects and other conditions.
Before jumping on the supplement bandwagon, talk to your doctor about whether you need extra vitamins in your diet.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
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Dr Hamish Black
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Dr Hamish Black
Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.