There’s a jungle of vitamins and supplements out there, but it’s hard to know what they do (if anything).
Yeah, why am I seeing vitamins everywhere?
People have been focusing on #wellness for a while. And even before COVID-19, vitamins like Sugarbear gummies (a Kardashian favorite) were big business on Insta. The global pandemic only increased interest in immunity-boosting pills.
So do I need to take any?
Depends. Here's the thing: Every person’s biological makeup is different, from the way they absorb nutrients to how they respond to stress. So there’s no one-size-fits-all set of vitamins. And know that adding supplements comes with some risk. Also, a reminder: Supplements are called that because they’re meant to supplement what you’re eating and doing if you aren’t able to get enough nutrients naturally. It's important to talk to your doctor or dietitian to address your specific health concerns, but registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel helped us sort through the vitamin aisle for this guide.
Here are the basics on some of the most popular vitamins, minerals, and supplements, A through Zinc.
Vitamin A…There are a couple ways to get As. “Provitamin A” is found in a number of veggies, like carrots and sweet potatoes, which have carotenoids that your body can convert into vitamin A. You can also look for “preformed vitamin A,” or an active form of Vitamin A that your body can use as is, which is found in non-vegan sources like fish and dairy. It supports bone growth, vision, and a healthy immune system.
Adaptogens...A word for herbs and mushrooms meant to promote homeostasis, aka help you chill. Look for ashwagandha, reishi, and rhodiola, which might (or might not — the science is still unclear) work like magic at lowering anxiety and building immunity.
Vitamin B-12...If you have a vegan diet, you might consider tacking on extra B-12, because some of the best food sources are meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. The B doesn’t stand for "baby," but it is important for people nursing or pregnant, and for helping keep blood and nerve cells healthy.
Biotin...It’s helpful in converting foods into energy, but the hyped-up link between biotin supplementation and healthy hair is… debatable, to say the least. Still, it’s a popular ingredient in multivitamins for hair, skin, and nails.
Vitamin C...Many fruits and veggies are ‘C’ foods, though they get an ‘A+.’ The vitamin helps increase collagen, which helps wounds heal (and can give your skin that glow up.)
Calcium...Got milk? Or broccoli, kale, and salmon, which are also loaded with the mineral that’s to thank for strong bones and good blood circulation. And it makes sense for prenatal vitamins to include calcium, because it can help build a baby’s teeth and bones.
Collagen...One of the body’s most abundant proteins. But you produce less collagen as you age. Studies show collagen supplements can improve skin elasticity and hydration (which is why it’s a common “anti-aging” ingredient), and may promote hair growth. Vitamin C-rich foods (see above) also help produce collagen.
Vitamin D...So hot right now after recent studies investigated possible associations between people with low vitamin D and a higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Sources for some good D: the sun, fatty fish, egg yolk, and mushrooms.
Vitamin E...It acts as an antioxidant, helping protect your cells from exposure to free radicals through UV rays, pollution, and cigarette smoke (to name a few). Go nuts for it...and after vegetable oils and green veggies.
Fish Oil...One of the bigger fish in the supplement sea, it may help lower levels of triglycerides and help symptoms of arthritis. The omega-3 fatty acids in this supplement are also found naturally in fish. Shocking.
Folate and folic acid...Aka B-9 — a major prenatal vitamin ingredient. Found in green veggies, orange juice, and peas, and it’s often added to grains and cereals. It also helps make new red blood cells (whose job it is to transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body).
Iron...Your body absorbs it best from sources like lean meat, poultry, and seafood, but iron is also in soy, veggies and some beans. The mineral is vital for carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, which is especially important if you’re pregnant. Note: Iron deficiency is much more common in women than men. If you're feeling weak or tired all the time, and suspect you’re iron deficient, you might want to get your levels tested.
Magnesium...Its claim to fame is that it's a sleep aid. But some studies suggest that people may benefit from taking magnesium (which is also in milk, leafy greens, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and dark chocolate) to help manage depression, too.
Melatonin...The supplement is a must for some night owls who just want to get sleep. Foods like milk, almonds, tart cherries, turkey, and oats can be a source of melatonin (or tryptophan, which is converted into melatonin), but your body does produce it naturally — it’s 'turned on’ in response to darkness to signal to your brain that it’s bedtime.
Probiotics...The pros at dealing with digestive issues (think: IBS, ulcerative colitis, and constipation) and keeping the body’s bacteria balanced (vagina flora included). Kefir, kombucha, and kimchi, looking at you.
Zinc...The one people take during flu season, because it helps the body’s immune system fight off foes. Major food sources include red meat and shellfish.
Is it possible to over-supplement?
Short answer: Yes. Extra water-soluble supplements (think: B vitamins and Vitamin C) might just come out when you pee. That’s one way your body avoids vitamin toxicity. However, when you go all out on fat-soluble vitamins like D and A, it takes longer for your body to flush itself naturally and could lead to health issues. In order to avoid overdoing it, read the suggested usage on the bottle. And then really study the label to check that there’s a significant source of the supplement you’re after (aka, it’s not just a bunch of additives) before you add to cart.
Vitamins aren’t magical pills. They’re meant to supplement — hence the name — a balanced diet. If you’re going through changes like pregnancy or breastfeeding, or you’re feeling sluggish or off, talk to your health care provider about whether you should be including more minerals in your diet, or considering supplements as a way to add even more nutrients into your life.
theSkimm consulted with registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel for this guide.
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