This is one of the most confusing topics most of us face. Should we be taking a multivitamin? And how do we make sense of all the products on display in the vitamin aisle?
What is a multivitamin?
Let's begin with a short definition of a multivitamin, so we all know what we are talking about :-). A multivitamin can come in the form of a pill, capsule, powder, gummy bear, liquid or even in the form of an injection (only get this done by certified integrative doctors, not at any random nutrition shop around the corner!). A multivitamin contains a combination of essential vitamins and minerals. Often you can also find other nutrients added as a bonus, for example omega 3 fats or probiotics.
Food first - clean up your diet
Let's start by answering the question first. I don't believe everyone needs to take a multivitamin. We mostly think of multivitamins as quick fixes. We think we can eat anything we want, and then just pop a gummy bear vitamin, and all of our body's needs are taken care of. That is sadly not the case. A multivitamin can be helpful in times of stress, a lowered immune system (for example when kids start a daycare or school), or when we have simply a higher need for vitamins and minerals, like during pregnancy or healing from surgeries.
The reality is that no pill can ever simulate what real food can do for our body. When we eat an apple, there are thousands of nutrient compounds in there. They all work together for the perfect absorption and to balance our body's systems. If we isolate one of those vitamins - let's say vitamin C - it loses all of its buddies that help it get to where it needs to go. This isolated vitamin C will have a much harder time to get digested, absorbed, and then find it's destination in the wound you just got on your hand to help heal it.
Before you start supplementing randomly, I always suggest you start with cleaning up the way you eat. In certain situations, my clients are very depleted in certain nutrients and definitely need to supplement them to get back to a more balanced state. However, I will only do this once we have blood tests that can confirm what the situation looks like. Supplementing randomly is like throwing a pebble into the sea, hoping it will land in a very specific spot.
It all starts with healing your digestion
I have a few more posts coming up about the importance of our digestion, but here is a little break down why it is so important for us to take care of our digestive tract. Even if you eat vitamin and mineral rich, sometimes they just come right back out with your bowel movement instead of getting to their destination. What a waste of a wonderfully cooked meal and the money you spent on all this food! Sadly, for more than 80% of us, the digestive tract is broken. Eating processed foods filled with artificial colors, flavors, and other additives, as well as relying too much on wheat and dairy has led to a digestive tract that resembles a garbage bin rather than a well functioning garbage disposal. The digestive tract can't digest nutrients properly anymore, so instead of the vitamins and minerals getting moved from your gut into the blood and then to their destination, they just come straight back out. When we think we are deficient in certain nutrients and we believe we have taken the first step in cleaning up our diet, then we need to look at our digestion, and how well that is working.
Our food is depleted
The next sobering truth is that our food is not as vitamin and mineral dense as it was just 50 years ago. Our grandparents ate very different food, never needing to supplement with a multivitamin. Our agricultural practices are much more aggressive, leaving our soil depleted. Even if you eat a good amount of plants, you are probably not getting all the nutrients you need from your food. Choosing organic foods can be helpful in this case. The soil in organic farming is still nutrient richer, meaning your fruit and vegetables will also be more nutrient dense.
You may think "I have a higher need for vitamins and minerals because of my stress, and I don't get as many as I need through my food, so why shouldn't I take a multivitamin?" I don't think that a multivitamin is necessarily the best choice. Many minerals and vitamins interfere with each other's ability to get digested and used in the body. For example calcium and zinc use the same path from the intestine into the blood. When taken together, zinc always loses out. This means even though you are supplementing zinc with a multivitamin, you could still be deficient in it. I often prefer to supplement individual nutrients according to your nutritional status. This way they can be spread out throughout the day. This however means you would need to get a full nutritional panel done at your doctor's office or with a private company like Genova. These tests are of course never covered by your health insurance, and they are expensive. And I can honestly say that not everyone is diligent enough to take different kinds of capsules throughout the day without forgetting them. So yes, in the end if you feel like a multivitamin could be beneficial for you, go for it. It's often better than nothing, just be aware that it will not help with all your nutrient needs.
How to choose your multivitamin
When buying multivitamins, be diligent. Turn them around and read the ingredients label, just like you would (or should) with any other food you buy. Not every multivitamin that costs more is automatically also better. There is a great company called Labdoor, that tests supplements for their efficacy and ingredients. The list of multivitamins on their site is growing every day, and it can be helpful to browse and see how your supplements are ranking here. If you can't find any information on your multivitamin brand, then be your own detective:
Is is natural (not just on the label but the ingredient list) or synthetic? I prefer to get a multivitamin that is made from whole foods. In this case you will find a list of vegetable and fruit on the ingredient list in potent quantities. As mentioned above, the synthetic version can just never be as helpful as the real version. There are certain vitamins, where the synthetic version actually can be toxic. This is for example the case when it comes to Vitamin D. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is the natural occurring vitamin D in your body made by the sun shining on your skin. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) on the other hand is synthetic and responsible for most toxicity problems when it comes to Vitamin D.
Are fillers used? Cheap multivitamins will be filled with wheat, dairy, soy, and corn to make up the majority of the pill, capsule or powder. Try to find a multivitamin that has neither of these fillers, as they can in