Vitamins: supplementary questions
THE QUESTIONS I am asked most in my job as a nutritional therapist are: “should I take vitamins?” and “what vitamins would you recommend?” The answers are never straightforward. There are 13 vitamins, divided into fat-soluble and water-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K and the water soluble are C and the Bs — B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 (folic acid) and 12 (there is no B4, 8, 10 or 11).
Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s liver and fat cells and are best eaten with a fat source (they are often found in fatty foods, for instance vitamin A in liver, or E in nuts). We do not store water-soluble vitamins — the body takes what it needs from food and excretes the rest (think of eating lots of fruit to keep you “regular” — it is not just the fibre but the vitamin C, too). For this reason, we need to include daily sources of these vitamins.
So, should we take vitamin supplements? Well, in theory, apart from vitamin D, we should be able to obtain all the vitamins we need from food. To do this, though, relies on several factors. Firstly, it depends on the quality and variety of one’s diet. A mainly plantfood based diet, with a little meat and fish and no processed, or high-sugar foods, is optimal. But not many of us manage to eat like this. B12 and A are obtained only from animal products; the other vitamins are found in vegetables and fruit but you need a variety of colour, types (stalks, leaves, roots) and cooking methods.
Secondly, even if you are eating a “perfect” varied diet, the vitamin content of our food has declined since largescale, industrialised farming. This is largely out of our hands but you can make simple changes by “eating local”, so check the origin of your veg. Vitamins are likely to be more plentiful in asparagus grown in Herefordshire, which has not travelled far, than in asparagus flown over from Kenya.
Also, if your digestion is compromised, you will not be adequately absorbing vitamins from food. It is not a case of “you are what you eat” but rather “you are what you absorb”.
Certain people have higher-thanaverage nutrient requirements, such as those with an auto-immune or chronic disease, mental health issues, anxiety or stress.
One vitamin is hard to obtain from yet essential for most bodily systems, immunity and prevention of chronic disease — and 90 per cent of UK residents are deficient in it. This is vitamin D. We can obtain some from oily fish and fortified foods but not enough. We get vitamin D from exposure to the sun but in the UK the sun is at the right latitude only between March and October (if your shadow is longer than your body, you cannot generate vitamin D). Even in summer, vitamin D may be lacking in those who spend all day indoors, cover their bodies for modesty or never venture outside without sunscreen.
If you conclude you might benefit from vitamin supplementation, you need to find a suitable product.
Remember, vitamins are not a magic pill to be popped, to cure an ailment. They are there to help the body get back to health by ensuring it has the most effective resources. This means diet always comes first — there is no point in taking vitamins if you are eating a rubbish diet. Vitamins work in conjunction with minerals (trace elements used in the body for proper functioning) and it is usual for supplements to combine both.
I rarely recommend my adult clients take a multivitamin and mineral supplement but children and teenagers often benefit from specific formulations. For clients who are low in energy, trying to reduce or cut out sugar, or have a heavy life load, I usually suggest a good-quality B vitamin complex. For those who are often run down or catch frequent colds and infections, I would point to an immune support complex (containing vitamins A, C, E and zinc). Vitamin D, I generally always recommend, unless a blood test tells otherwise.
For more complex health issues, I select targeted supplement formulations carefully and advise seeking help from a nutritional therapist. The supplement company Solgar also recommends going to health stores for advice, saying: “Solgar focus heavily on ensuring store staff are well trained on our entire product range, so they are well qualified to provide the best recommendations to the public.”
Choose a “practitioner grade” supplement — you can tell these from information on the company’s website and whether they offer “technical” advice. Then select the type that suits you best — liquids (drops) and powders are the most absorbable; capsules often have the highest nutrient levels and are good for those with digestive issues; tablets can be easily broken to tritate the dose, or make for easier swallowing. Some children’s supplements are nothing more than fortified sweets.
Certain supplements, especially capsules, contain gelatin, so be wary if you keep kosher or are vegan. Solgar’s range includes 189 kosher products. Some Viridian and some Lamberts products are also kosher, as is the whole Wild Nutrition range.
There should be no need to stay on a specific vitamin formulation longterm. Seek a professional opinion and have regular reviews. You can find a fully qualified nutritional therapist from the BANT website.
Vitamin D is vital and 90 per cent of us are deficient’
Laura Southern has a busy nutritional therapy practice in Finchley, londonfoodtherapy.com