An A to Z Guide to Supplements
Opinions on supplements are often mixed, with some experts saying they are unnecessary for anyone who eats a balanced diet and others recommending a whole alphabet of vitamins and minerals. However, most Americans don’t take in the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for all nutrients. Add to that the fact that our need for vital nutrients increase as we get older or are under physical or mental stress; if we’re recovering from illness or surgery—or if we’re taking medications that interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients.
More and more studies demonstrate the benefits of certain supplements. For example, studies have shown that antioxidants help prevent cell damage, which makes them powerful wellness weapons that can help prevent many conditions, from dry skin to heart disease.
Yet like so many things that can help us maintain good health, supplements can be dangerous if used improperly or in too-large doses—or if they interact in a negative way when used with certain medications. For example, Vitamin K should not be taken by anyone using anti-coagulant drugs. Diabetics need to consult a physician before taking chromium—and pregnant women must take special care about using anything without their physicians’ approval. These are just a few instances when it would be essential to check with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet—and then to double-check when filling a new prescription at your pharmacy.
The list that follows isn’t comprehensive; a visit to your local health food store will reveal scores of supplements. What we’ve included here are the most common, along with some of the symptoms that indicate a deficiency. You’ll notice that symptoms of some deficiencies are similar, so again, your physician is the best person to recommend what you’ll need, what dosage you’ll need—and perhaps what you should avoid. Special care should be taken by pregnant women.
Vitamin A (beta carotene) increases resistance to infection, is essential to healthy eye tissue (it may slow the progression of retinitis pigmentosa); sustains skin and mucous membranes; and is involved in the growth and repair of body tissues and in tooth and bone formation. It is important in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Deficiency: Rough skin, dry eye, night blindness, impaired bone growth.
Vitamin B 1 (thiamine) helps maintain nerve function, muscle tone, growth and healthy appetite; it is involved in producing energy from carbohydrates.
Deficiency: Serious symptoms may include confusion, memory loss, heart failure, and muscle weakness.
Vitamin B 2 (riboflavin) aids in the formation of red blood cells and antibodies; helps turn food into energy; helps support adrenal function; maintain a healthy nervous system; and facilitate key metabolic processes, such as normal cell function and growth. It also aids the function of other B vitamins and acts as an antioxidant that helps control free radicals that can damage or destroy healthy cells.
Deficiency: Cracked skin, especially around the mouth, swollen tongue, sore or swollen throat, dermatitis and anemia. The eyes may also be affected, becoming bloodshot, itchy, sore or light-sensitive.
Vitamin B 3 (niacin) promotes healthy skin and good digestive function; helps the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and proteins.
Deficiency: Diarrhea, depression, dementia and skin problems–all symptoms of a condition known as pellagra.
Vitamin B 6 (pyridoxine) plays a role in the synthesis of hormones and red blood cells, in supporting adrenal function and a healthy nervous system, and in the formation of antibodies. It helps the body break down and use nutrients and maintain a healthy immune system. Some studies indicate it can be helpful with the symptoms of PMS.
Deficiency: Depression, insomnia, cracked lips, sore tongue/mouth, nerve damage in the hands and feet.
Vitamin B 7 (biotin), like other B vitamins, helps maintain a healthy nervous system and supports adrenal function. It’s necessary for key metabolic processes and may be helpful in maintaining healthy nails and hair.
Deficiency: Dry skin, brittle or dry hair, dermatitis, muscle pains.
Vitamin B 9 (folic acid) aids in red blood cell formation and cell division, boosts stomach acid production and is generally recommended for women of childbearing age to prevent birth defects. Folic acid may also help protect against cancers of the lung, colon, and cervix, and may help slow memory decline associated with aging.
Deficiency: Birth defects, low birth weight, depression, memory loss.
Vitamin B 12 (cyanocobalamin) helps maintain a healthy nervous system; assists in the formation of blood cells and in converting food into energy. Like other B vitamins, it helps support adrenal function and aids in the production of DNA and RNA (the two acids found in human cells).
Deficiency: Shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, nausea, diarrhea, muscle weakness, fatigue, bleeding gums, mouth sores—and even pernicious anemia.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) strengthens the blood vessels; speeds up wound healing; increases resistance to infection; helps the body utilize iron. It helps maintain healthy bones, blood vessels and skin, healthy blood pressure, and normal blood clotting—and may help prevent certain cancers and ease the symptoms of PMS.
Deficiency: Muscle aches or cramps, aching joints, numbness in the fingers, dermatitis, fatigue, bleeding gums, osteoporosis – and even, when the deficiency persists for a long period, scurvy.
Vitamin D stimulates the absorption of calcium and promotes bone mineralization, which may prevent or slow the progression of osteoporosis. Recent studies show that the so-called “sunshine vitamin” (because it is absorbed through exposure to the sun) is more important than previously believed, in helping to strengthen the immune system and protect against a number of serious diseases, including rickets, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain cancers.
Deficiency: Poor bone growth, rickets, porous bones, prone to fractures, weak muscles. Recent studies link vitamin D deficiency to more than a dozen forms of cancer.
Vitamin E lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and cataracts; maintains cell membranes; protects Vitamin A and essential fatty acids from destruction by free radicals—and may enhance immune function. (The term vitamin E applies to a group of eight compounds, called tocopherols and tocotrienols.)
Deficiency: Chronic diarrhea, greasy stools, and an inability to secrete bile.
Vitamin K covers a group of compounds that regulate blood clotting, may reduce bone loss, enhance bone health–and may prevent calcifying of the arteries.
Deficiency: Gastrointestinal bleeding, blood in the urine, excessive menstrual bleeding, tendency to bruise easily.
Boron helps prevent bone loss and demineralization; modulates immune and inflammatory processes.
Deficiency: Information on boron deficiency is limited, though it has been suggested that vitamin levels and bone integrity might be involved.
Calcium helps in the formation of strong bones, teeth and muscle tissue; regulates heartbeat; aids in blood clotting; and is essential to nerve function and muscle action.
Deficiency: Numbness or tingling of the fingers, back and leg pains; heart palpitations; soft, brittle bones; muscle cramps, dermatitis, fatigue, loss of appetite.
Chromium assists insulin function (the use of blood sugar in producing energy); is necessary in maintaining normal metabolism; can help raise HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels.
Deficiency: Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), glucose tolerance, anxiety, fatigue, slowing of healing time following surgery/injuries.
Copper helps the body absorb and use iron to synthesize hemoglobin; helps prevent bone defects; and promotes healthy connective tissue. It also affects the functioning of the heart and arteries.
Deficiency: Anemia, reproductive problems, hair loss, fatigue, bleeding under the skin.
Fish Oil is a rich source of the two essential omega-3 fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). It helps maintain healthy hearts; may help reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, some cancers and auto-immune diseases.
Deficiency (of omega-3 fatty acids): Excessive thirst, frequent urination, and dry hair and skin.
Iodine is used by the thyroid gland to produce the hormones that regulate all the principal metabolic functions, including body temperature, blood cell production, and muscle and nerve function. (As many parents know, iodine can also help prevent wounds from becoming infected.) In tablet form, it can purify water in emergency situations.
Deficiency: Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland), weight gain, fatigue, hair and skin problems, reduced tolerance to cold. In pregnant or nursing mothers, deficiency is very serious and may result in brain damage and other defects.
Iron is essential in the formation of red blood cells.
Deficiency: Anemia; compromised learning ability; reduced endurance levels.
Magnesium helps prevent osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease; helps activate enzymes; helps in maintaining calcium and potassium balance; helps maintain nerve and muscle function.
Deficiency: Muscle tremors/weakness, weight loss, irritability, irregular heartbeat, nausea, hair loss.
Manganese is necessary for the development of skeletal and connective tissue; it works with enzymes that help to metabolize carbohydrates and lipids and activates enzyme functions. It is involved in the synthesis of thyroid hormones and pancreatic function.
Deficiency: Glucose intolerance, reduced insulin production, fainting. Deficiency may be linked to myasthenia gravis.
Molybdenum, a component of the enzymes involved in the formation of uric acid, in alcohol detoxification and metabolizing sulfur, is necessary for DNA/RNA metabolism. It helps break down sulfite buildups in the body and may prevent cavities. It may help to prevent anemia and is needed for normal cell formation and nitrogen metabolism.
Deficiency: Sulfite sensitivity/ an inability to detoxify sulfites.
Phosphorus is needed, along with calcium, for healthy bones and soft tissue. It helps utilize B vitamins; helps promote healthy metabolism, healthy muscle and nerve function, and calcium balance.
Deficiency: Muscle weakness, impaired heart function, seizures, confusion, coma.
Probiotics have been around for a long time, but are now the subject of many television commercials. They are edible products (such as yogurt) containing “friendly” bacteria (usually Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium) that normally live in the digestive tract and assist in digestion. Probiotics can increase the presence of these bacteria that keep your system functioning well, and they can restore normal flora when you are taking antibiotics—which wipe out “friendly” bacteria along with those that cause infection. Probiotics can help treat a number of conditions, including diarrhea, yeast infections, lactose intolerance, thrush, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Deficiency: Without a good balance of normal flora, resistance to infection may be diminished.
Selenium helps protect cells from free radical damage.
Deficiency: Muscle weakness, pain, impaired thyroid function, which can lead to a number of serious conditions.
Zinc plays a role in key enzymes that regulate the metabolism, preserve vision and protect against age-related vision loss; helps in healing and in maintaining immune function and in the development of the reproductive system. Zinc is necessary to normal fetal development.
Deficiency: Hair loss, weight loss, poor appetite, chronic infection, slow wound healing, roughened skin, white spots on fingernails, depression.