Vi­ta­mins are vi­tal to our health. Here’s what you need ev­ery day and why.

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY LISA BENDALL

Vi­ta­mins are vi­tal to our health. Here’s what you need ev­ery day and why.

IN 2013, San­dra McDow­ell had been hav­ing mem­ory prob­lems and dizzy spells for weeks. But it wasn’t un­til she no­ticed her heart pound­ing one night that she be­came con­cerned enough to see her doc­tor. “What went through my mind was: heart con­di­tion,” re­calls San­dra, who lives in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada. Her physi­cian, how­ever, sus­pected a dif­fer­ent prob­lem that was con­firmed by a blood test. “I was low in iron,” McDow­ell says, who is in her mid-40s.

The pre­vi­ous year, McDow­ell had gone from eat­ing meat twice a week to a com­plete plant-based diet. But she’d failed to re­place the iron con­tained in meats that was now miss­ing from her diet. “I had no idea that my health was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing,” she says.

IT MIGHT SEEM sur­pris­ing that peo­ple who have ac­cess to an abun­dant food sup­ply can lack es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents in their di­ets. How­ever, it does hap­pen more of­ten than we think, and there are a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. “As

peo­ple age, for ex­am­ple, di­ets aren’t al­ways bal­anced, or peo­ple elim­i­nate food groups be­cause they can’t tol­er­ate them,” says Dr. Shan­thi John­son, a reg­is­tered di­eti­tian and a pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

In younger peo­ple, trendy di­ets or con­ve­nience foods can take the place of healthy eat­ing. “The more we com­pro­mise on food groups, the higher the chances of be­com­ing de­fi­cient in cer­tain nu­tri­ents.” John­son says. In­di­vid­u­als with mal­ab­sorp­tion con­di­tions, like Crohn’s dis­ease and cys­tic fi­bro­sis, may also have trou­ble get­ting enough nu­tri­ents.

What­ever the rea­sons, stud­ies find that Euro­peans gen­er­ally don’t con­sume enough of the ba­sic vi­ta­mins and min­er­als—and they may not know it. Here are five nutri­ent de­fi­cien­cies to watch for, and the daily amounts rec­om­mended by the Euro­pean Food Safety Au­thor­ity, an in­de­pen­dent agency funded by the EU that sci­en­tif­i­cally eval­u­ates nu­tri­tion guide­lines and other food safety is­sues. Re­mem­ber, th­ese vi­ta­mins and min­er­als are im­por­tant to your body’s health, ei­ther through diet, sup­ple­ments or both.


Iron, like other vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, has mul­ti­ple pur­poses in our bod­ies. It’s needed to pro­duce he­mo­glo­bin, the pro­tein in red blood cells that helps the blood carry oxy­gen. Peo­ple who are low in iron may de­velop a type of ane­mia, which means there aren’t enough healthy red cells in the blood. They may feel weak and dizzy, like San­dra McDow­ell, or tired be­cause their cells aren’t prop­erly supplied with oxy­gen.

On her doc­tor’s advice, San­dra started tak­ing iron sup­ple­ments and eat­ing foods rich in the nutri­ent. It took six weeks for her iron to reach a healthy level and six months be­fore her symp­toms fi­nally eased up. Since then, she has gone for a blood test to check her iron lev­els ev­ery six months or so.

A per­son is at risk of iron de­fi­ciency if they aren’t eat­ing enough iron-rich foods. Plant-based iron is harder to ab­sorb than meat sources. If you’re a veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan, you should aim for al­most twice the rec­om­mended daily in­take. You can boost iron ab­sorp­tion by adding a vi­ta­min C food, such as a citrus fruit, to your meal. Red wine, cof­fee, tea and high cal­cium lev­els all in­ter­fere with ab­sorp­tion if taken at the same time as iron.

Sup­ple­men­ta­tion can com­pen­sate for di­etary short­com­ings, and IV in­fu­sions may be used if iron is se­verely low or pills aren’t ef­fec­tive or well tol­er­ated. Some peo­ple find that sup­ple­ments can cause nau­sea or con­sti­pa­tion. If that’s the case, try tak­ing yours with meals, di­vid­ing the dose through the day or ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent types, as it’s very in­di­vid­ual. Iron is avail­able in dif­fer­ent for­mu­las,

al­though the liq­uid form has been known to stain teeth, so drink it with a straw or mixed with juice. EUROPE’S RDA: 11 mil­ligrams for men 18 and older, and post­menopausal women; 16 mil­ligrams for pre­menopausal women 18 and older.


It’s not un­usual to be un­aware of a vi­ta­min D de­fi­ciency, as symp­toms are rare, but a sim­ple blood test can tell you if you’re low on this vi­ta­min.


The vi­ta­min is es­sen­tial for good health, es­pe­cially for the func­tion of mus­cles, nerves and the im­mune sys­tem. “Ev­ery tis­sue in the body has re­cep­tors for vi­ta­min D,” says Dr. Linda Rap­son, Med­i­cal Di­rec­tor of the Rap­son Pain and Acupunc­ture Clinic in Toronto. When th­ese re­cep­tors are ac­ti­vated, they af­fect many sys­tems in the body by ei­ther the pres­ence or ab­sence of vi­ta­min D. Se­verely low vi­ta­min D can lead to thin­ning bones or rick­ets. In­suf­fi­cient vi­ta­min D has also been linked to heart dis­ease, mus­cle weak­ness, chronic pain and even de­men­tia.

It can be chal­leng­ing to get suf­fi­cient vi­ta­min D through food sources alone. It’s hard to find the nutri­ent in foods, un­less they’ve been for­ti­fied (such as dairy in Canada, Fin­land and Swe­den, as well as other coun­tries).

Al­though a com­pound in our bod­ies can pro­duce the vi­ta­min when our bare skin is ex­posed to UVB rays from the sun, we’re of­ten in­doors, liv­ing too far north, wear­ing sun­screen to pre­vent cancer or cov­ered up with cloth­ing. Obese peo­ple are also at higher risk of a de­fi­ciency (be­cause the vi­ta­min is fat-sol­u­ble, it be­comes locked away in tis­sues), as are those over 65 (we’re less able to ab­sorb vi­ta­min D with age) and in­di­vid­u­als with darker skin (pig­men­ta­tion in­ter­feres with UVB ab­sorp­tion).

Also, many com­mon pre­scrip­tion drugs, in­clud­ing cer­tain cor­ti­cos­teroids and seizure med­i­ca­tions, can in­ter­fere with how we process vi­ta­min D. For­tu­nately, sup­ple­ments are in­ex­pen­sive.

EUROPE’S RDA: 15 mil­ligrams (600 In­ter­na­tional Units) for adults age 18 and older.


One of folate’s main func­tions is to help in cell di­vi­sion, which means our im­mune sys­tem and red blood cells rely on get­ting enough. It’s also im­por­tant for healthy fe­tal de­vel­op­ment and pre­vent­ing birth de­fects, so preg­nant women re­quire more folic

acid (folate) than what typ­i­cally get from their di­ets.

Sev­eral stud­ies sug­gest this nutri­ent, which is also called vi­ta­min B9, can pro­tect against colon, breast and other can­cers. This de­fi­ciency can also cause cer­tain cells to be­come ab­nor­mally large—if red blood cells are af­fected, you might ex­pe­ri­ence ane­mia


(fa­tigue and weak­ness) and weight loss, while ex­pand­ing mu­cous mem­brane cells can cause a sore tongue.

For­ti­fied food is a foolproof way to en­sure get­ting enough Vi­ta­min B9, but in most Euro­pean coun­tries, there’s no man­date to add this nutri­ent, so de­fi­ciency is com­mon in many ar­eas. A re­search re­view in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Nu­tri­tion, for in­stance, found that the av­er­age folate in­take was too low in Nor­way, Swe­den, Den­mark and the Nether­lands.

EUROPE’S RDA: 330 mi­cro­grams daily for adults age 18 and older. Preg­nant and lac­tat­ing women should get 600 and 500 mi­cro­grams a day, re­spec­tively. “When peo­ple get older, we start losing bone mass,” says Dr. Hope Weiler, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the School of Di­etet­ics and Hu­man Nu­tri­tion at McGill Univer­sity. “It’s a small per­cent­age, but it’s mean­ing­ful in terms of func­tion­al­ity and strength.” Cal­cium is es­sen­tial for bone health and a de­fi­ciency in­creases the risk of os­teo­poro­sis and bro­ken bones.

Cal­cium is abun­dant in dairy prod­ucts and is of­ten added to dairy al­ter­na­tives. It’s also in other foods. Af­ter age 50, we should be aim­ing for the equiv­a­lent of three dairy prod­ucts a day. Non-dairy in­clude tofu, tinned pink salmon with bones and a cal­cium-en­riched rice or al­mond milk. An­other way to up your cal­cium in­take is to en­sure you’re tak­ing vi­ta­min D. When taken in tan­dem, the two nu­tri­ents work more ef­fi­ciently.

If you’re con­cerned about your cal­cium in­take or have been di­ag­nosed with os­teo­poro­sis, talk to your doc­tor. “There are med­i­ca­tions to slow the loss of bone and in some cases add a bit of bone,” says Weiler.

EUROPE’S RDA: 950 mil­ligrams of cal­cium for adults age 25 and older.


As we age, our abil­ity to ab­sorb this nutri­ent di­min­ishes, so se­niors are the most likely to de­velop a vi­ta­min B12 de­fi­ciency, and B12 is im­por­tant to healthy brain func­tion.

“We have found that low-nor­mal

B12 is associated with more rapid shrink­age of the brain in the el­derly. In a trial we showed that this could be pre­vented by tak­ing B12 sup­ple­ments,” said Pro­fes­sor A. David Smith, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of phar­ma­col­ogy, Univer­sity of Ox­ford, UK. As well as age, med­i­ca­tions that re­duce stom­ach acid, such as famo­ti­dine (Pep­sid) and omepra­zole (Olex), can in­ter­fere with B12 ab­sorp­tion.

Ve­gans, too, can be low in B12, since the vi­ta­min is only avail­able in animal prod­ucts such as eggs, dairy and meat. Our bod­ies also rely on B12 to pro­duce enough red blood cells, so peo­ple low in this vi­ta­min can de­velop a type of ane­mia. They may have trou­ble with co­or­di­na­tion or con­cen­tra­tion and no­tice tin­gling or numb­ness in their ex­trem­i­ties—nerves are an­other part of the body that can’t func­tion prop­erly with­out B12.

This was the ex­pe­ri­ence of Mi­randa Thyssen of Lon­don, Eng­land, who had ex­pe­ri­enced shoot­ing pains and the oc­ca­sional loss of feel­ing in her fin­gers and hands for a num­ber of years. She didn’t re­al­ize her symp­toms could be re­lated to a lack of vi­ta­mins un­til her doc­tor di­ag­nosed her with a B12 de­fi­ciency in Oc­to­ber 2016.

“I was sur­prised the de­fi­ciency had that much of an im­pact,” says Thyssen, 26. “You’re al­ways told vi­ta­mins are good for you, but you’re not re­ally aware of what they do.”

If B12 de­fi­ciency symp­toms are se­vere, a doc­tor may rec­om­mend in­jec­tions. But in most cases, sup­ple­ments will treat a de­fi­ciency—Rap­son rec­om­mends tablets that dis­solve and are ab­sorbed un­der the tongue, not­ing that the nutri­ent trav­els more im­me­di­ately into the blood­stream with this for­mu­la­tion. Note: The vi­ta­min is par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive if con­sumed along­side vi­ta­min B9, or folate, as the two run on the same molec­u­lar path­ways.

EUROPE’S RDA: 4 mi­cro­grams for adults age 18 and older.

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