The single most commonly asked question of my medical career is, what vitamins and supplements should I be taking, doc?
Well, I’m glad you asked!
Vitamins are essential minerals and organic compounds that our bodies need in order to function properly. They’re usually obtained from the food we eat and given how important they are, taking vitamin supplements to top up your body’s needs must be a good idea right? Wrong!
Unless you are actually deficient in a certain vitamin, taking extra supplemental vitamins won’t actually do anything and might even do more harm than good.
While most vitamins are water-soluble and simply pass out in your urine if you take too much, certain vitamins are fat-soluble (Vitamins A, D, E and K). These vitamins can actually build up to toxic and harmful levels if taken in large doses when not necessary.
The most popular vitamin supplement is Vitamin C but there is in fact no significant evidence to support the idea that it helps to prevent cold and flu virus infections (including COVID-19 infection) or speed up recovery. No doctor in their right mind would prescribe Vitamin C for their patients so if your doctor starts prescribing you some fancy expensive preparation of Vitamin C, run away, fast!
Vitamins A and E are often touted for their antioxidant and skin improving benefits, but there are studies to suggest that Vitamin A and E both can be fatal if taken in excess.
Vitamin A has been associated with causing deformities in babies if taken in large amounts by childbearing women whereas Vitamin E has been associated with actually increasing the risk of certain cancers.
Often patients will come to me requesting Vitamin B complex to boost their energy levels and improve nerve function. Vitamin B may have a role in certain disease states (Vitamin B1 deficiency in alcoholic patients etc), but taken by healthy individuals, it may actually increase the risk of nerve damage.
On a side note, I have strict vegetarian and vegan patients who sometimes come to me with B12 deficiency anaemia. These patients then require regular B12 injections to stop their blood counts dropping.
If you need to inject regular chemicals because of what your diet is doing to you, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s a huge sign that what you’re doing is not particularly healthy.
If you want to really do something to boost your health and immune system, then there is only one vitamin supplement I would recommend and that’s Vitamin D.
Vitamin D functions as a hormone and is involved in numerous metabolic pathways in the body, moderating immune function, facilitating calcium metabolism and bone formation. Vitamin D is involved in brain development and low levels can cause low energy and depressive symptoms. Vitamin D has even been implicated in blood pressure, weight and mood control as well as cancer prevention.
But why would I recommend Vitamin D over all these other vitamins? Because there is increasing data to show that most people are deficient.
Our bodies can actually synthesize Vitamin D through the skin if exposed to sunlight. About half an hour of sun in the early clear morning before the sun gets too intense should do the job, but with modern hectic lifestyles, office jobs, the pursuit of fairer skin, we simply aren’t getting the sun exposure our bodies need. There are even population studies in America that suggest that as much as 50% of people there may be deficient of Vitamin D.
Despite it being a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it can accumulate in the body, supplementing oneself with 1000 to 2000IU (international units) of Vitamin D per day is generally considered safe.
If you want to really confirm whether you are deficient of Vitamin D or not before you start taking any supplements, you can ask your GP to check for you with a simple blood test.
Some even suggest, anecdotally, that catching a cold or flu is a sign of Vitamin D deficiency.
In countries that get to enjoy four seasons, the winter months are associated with an actual phenomenon known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where people feel less happy, are more depressed and even fall sick more easily during the doom and gloom of the shorter, darker winter days.
One of the hypotheses is that the reduced sun exposure results in less Vitamin D synthesis and guess what, you feel less happy, your immune system drops and you fall sick. Is it a coincidence that the winter season is often referred to as the flu season? I think not!
For those of you not enjoying your fatty fish, you can also consider an Omega Fish Oil supplement (aim to get a total of 1g EPA and DHA per day) for improved blood lipid levels, brain function, eye, mental and joint health.
So there you have it, bottom line, if you really must take a vitamin supplement, go for Vitamin D.
This just leaves you with the dilemma of deciding which brand to go for, as there are so many brands and supplements out there that don’t deliver the doses promised on the packaging.
Oh well, you could just save yourself all this hassle by simply enjoying a nice balanced diet.
Dr Bobby Stryker
(Clinical Director, RESCU)