We have heard it from the time we were children, from our parents, our doctors, friends, or loved ones: You should be taking a multivitamin. “It’s good for you!” “It will help you grow big and strong!” “You just need it.” Why?
Even though most of us take a multi every day, just because it’s what we should do, we’re taking that little pill without really knowing why or what it’s actually doing in our bodies.
A Short Story of the Multivitamin
The concept of vital dietary nutrients began to emerge in the late 1800s with Dr. Christiaan Eijkman, who discovered that chickens being fed white rice were developing a disease known as beri-beri, which had also been plaguing humans since the processing of rice began earlier that century. Dr. Eijkman observed that once the chickens were fed a diet of unprocessed rice, their symptoms began to disappear, leading him to believe that there was important value in the outer layer of the grains of rice. A later scientist, Casimir Funk, dubbed this important attribute a “vitale amine”, which thereafter became the common term we know now: vitamin.
Since the discovery of the vitamin in the early 1900s, 13 vitamins and 15 essential minerals have been identified. The multivitamin made its first appearance on the market in the 1940s, and has been one of the most recommended and utilized supplements since.
What Exactly are Vitamins and Minerals?
Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential for the normal growth, development, and function of the human body, yet cannot be synthesized within the body and therefore must be obtained through dietary sources. These vitamins are typically water soluble, such as B vitamins and vitamin C, or fat soluble, like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Water-soluble vitamins cannot be stored in the body, so they must be consumed on a daily basis, while fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body and therefore don’t often need to be taken in as large a quantity or on a daily basis.
The fat-soluble vitamins, including A, D, E, and K, are essential for the formation and maintenance of healthy teeth, bones, skin, and blood. Vitamin D in particular is necessary for the absorption of calcium and phosphorous, while vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps in wound healing, anti-aging, and has been linked to the prevention of several types of cancer. Symptoms of deficiencies in these vitamins include dry skin, brittle nails and hair, brittle bones, and sub-par immune function.
The B vitamins are all essential for normal energy, metabolism, immune, and nervous system function. Deficiency in B vitamins can show up as fatigue, poor memory and cognitive function, skin disorders, frequent infections, and a lessened ability to tolerate stress.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant that is necessary for immune system function, wound healing, healthy gums, and the absorption of iron. Symptoms of a vitamin C deficiency include swollen and painful joints, inflamed or bleeding gums, loose teeth, slow healing wounds, susceptibility to infection, and dry or brittle hair.
Essential minerals—calcium, iron, selenium, and zinc—are important chemical elements involved in various processes in the human body, including the regulation of cell function, and serve as the building blocks for our cells, tissues, and organs. These minerals must also be obtained through dietary sources.
If Vitamins are in Food, Why Take a Multi?
Theoretically, a well-balanced diet full of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein should ensure a complete nutrient profile. The narrowing of the human diet, however, is contributing to wide-scale nutrient deficiencies. Many of these vitamins, for example, are obtained from eating adequate amounts of liver, kidneys, and other organ meats, which most humans no longer consume. In order to achieve adequate intake of plant-based vitamins and minerals, we would need to eat at least 6-8 servings of vegetables daily, which can be difficult at best.
Adequate amounts of vitamin D could be obtained from exposure to 15 minutes of sunshine, three times per week; however, most people, due to work schedules, living location, and climate (i.e. winter), are not getting enough sun exposure to produce vitamin D, which also happens to be extremely difficult to get enough of from dietary sources alone.
Furthermore, due to conditions such as changes in our soil profiles and eating produce that has been picked too early, even individuals eating a very clean, organic diet are likely not getting the vitamin and mineral composition in their food that our ancestors once had. Combine that with a decrease in our body’s ability to absorb nutrients in our food, resulting from changes in gut flora, exposure to environmental pollutants, and the difficulty with which we digest processed foods, most of us are walking around with varying degrees of nutrient deficiency.
Specialized diets, including vegetarian, vegan, raw, and those involving food allergies (i.e. shellfish), can also decrease an individual’s nutrient intake simply because certain vitamins and minerals are not as bioavailable or absorbable from plant-based sources. Other populations at greater risk for nutrient deficiency include fussy eaters, individuals over the age of 65, post-menopausal women, individuals who smoke, excessive drinkers, and pregnant women.
While vitamins are of great importance in ensuring an adequate nutrient profile and proper functioning of the human body by filling in certain dietary gaps, the important thing to remember is that they are a supplement; this means they enhance the effects of a well-balanced and diverse diet – they do not compensate for eating a highly processed, nutrient-poor diet. The best way to ensure that you are getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal function is to eat a clean, diverse, and whole-foods based diet combined with taking a high-quality multivitamin.
Quality, Quality, Quality
One of the most important things to know when choosing a multivitamin is that not all vitamins are created equal. Generic, drug-store brand vitamins are often synthetically-derived, meaning the nutrients in them are created in a lab.
Unfortunately, the human body has not evolved to absorb or utilize lab-based nutrients, so most of the vitamins and minerals will simply be excreted from the body, producing what many nutritionist refer to as highly-expensive urine. Additionally, these drug-store-variety vitamins come packed with fillers, binders, artificial coloring, and artificial flavors that increase inflammation in the body, increase the body’s toxic load, and actually work against the health benefits of taking a multivitamin in the first place.
Because the human body is designed to absorb nutrients from food sources, the best choice is to take a food-based multivitamin to ensure maximum absorbability. Taking a multivitamin that is designed for your age and gender will ensure that your body is getting the specific nutrient profile that it needs. New Chapter multivitamins for women and men are a great choice for a food-based, non-GMO multivitamin of high quality that combines nutrients and herbs for energy, endocrine function, and digestive health. The New Chapter process actually ferments their food sources to create beneficial bacteria and dynamic nutrients that optimizes the absorbability and utilization of their product.
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy