Supplements Made Simple

In recent years, nutritional deficiencies have become endemic in our society. Changes in the quality of our food and food production methods have meant that our food does not provide the same nutritional benefits that it did generations ago. As a result, many people are turning to pills and capsules to make up the deficit. But are these, often synthetic forms, as good as the original sources they mimic

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be explaining the roles of individual vitamins and minerals in our bodies and discussing how effective the various supplement forms are. Today however, I'm going to start with a general overview of why vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are so important.

 a hand holding supplement pills

The function of vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals play an essential role in the body's ability to function properly. Some of these (vitamins D, K and B3) are made within the body, but others have to be sourced in our food (for example Vitamin C). Vitamins are easily broken down by processes such as heat or acid, meaning that they can often be lost when foods are cooked, or processed. Minerals play an equally important role in numerous processes within the body, but are more robust and will not break down when cooked, making them easier to find in the correct sources. Our bodies do not produce any minerals and so they all need to be obtained in food. Minerals fall into two categories: macrominerals, such as calcium and magnesium, that the body requires more than 100mg of per day, and trace minerals, such as copper and iron, that the body requires tiny amounts of. Despite their minimal quantities, trace minerals play numerous vital roles within the body and a long-term deficiency can have devastating consequences on health. Vitamins and minerals exist in an intricate balance within the body and having too much of one can be as problematic as having a deficiency. It is important to know that every vitamin and mineral has an effect on other vitamins and minerals. For example, too much zinc depletes copper, too much vitamin D drives down potassium and excess iron depletes vitamin C and zinc.

The best way to maintain your levels of essential vitamins and minerals is to eat a healthy and varied diet.

Identifying and treating a vitamin or mineral deficiency

There are so many vitamins and minerals, each with their own role to play within the body, that there is also a huge variety of symptoms resulting from a deficiency, many of which overlap with each other. This can make it difficult to identify exactly which vitamin and mineral deficiency is responsible for the often debilitating symptoms. The most reliable way to ascertain a deficiency is to identify some general symptoms and then perform a test, either with your GP, or with a qualified nutritional therapist. Over the next few articles, we will look at warning signs and symptoms of some of the most common deficiencies, such as magnesium, vitamin D and iodine. 

If you do find that you have a deficiency, just about every nutrient you can think of is available in a pill or capsule form from your local supermarket or health food shop. The problem is that these often synthetic forms are not always ideal for the body. Vitamin C in the form of Ascorbic acid, for example, disrupts copper absorption in the gut  Additionally, many synthetic vitamins go through a chemical manufacturing process using harsh chemicals. 

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The best way to maintain optimal levels of essential vitamins and minerals is to eat a healthy and varied diet. However, with the increase in chemically sprayed and processed foods, supplementing is becoming more necessary and there will always be times and situations when deficiencies will arise, even for the conscientious eater. The good news is that many of the nutrients we are lacking can be supplemented in whole food form. For example, one of the best sources of vitamins A and D is good old cod-liver oil, while bee pollen (pictured here) is a wonderful natural source of B vitamins (no pun intended).

Please check back next week, when I will start to look at the roles of individual vitamins and minerals, starting with one of the most important, yet most overlooked nutrients: magnesium.

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