Taking a supplement or multivitamin feels like a healthy thing to do every morning, but do we really need them? The supplement industry is big business, yet they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Because it’s possible to get all of our nutrients from the foods we eat, it’s important to know who could benefit from the extra oomph of a supplement.
Being low or deficient in a particular vitamin can wreak havoc on our bodies. “Nutrient deficiencies alter bodily functions and processes at the most basic cellular level,” Tricia L. Psota, PhD, RDN, president-elect of the DC Metro Area Dietetic Association told Everyday Health. “These processes include water balance, enzyme function, nerve signaling, digestion, and metabolism. Resolving these deficiencies is important for optimal growth, development, and function.”
If you’re not able to get enough of all the vital nutrients from your diet, you’ve probably looked into a multivitamin. When it comes to knowing for sure if you have a deficiency, talk with your doctor about having a blood test. “It is very hard to self-diagnose [a deficiency] and diagnosing and making generalizations can be a little problematic when it comes to medicine, vitamins and supplements,” says Miami-based physician Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, A.P, DOM. “Readers tend to overdo it and end up taking too much of everything.” If you’ve experienced any of these eight signs below, check with your doctor about starting a daily multivitamin regimen.
Some serious brain fog
Not sure if you’re low? You can always talk with your doctor, but first check your medicine drawer. According to physician nutrition specialist Dr. Adrienne Youdim, MD, the director of the Center for Weight Loss and Nutrition in Beverly Hills, California, a vitamin B12 deficiency can be caused by medication. Taking acid blockers or metformin (used in diabetes) can lower your vitamin B12 level. So can excessive alcohol use, so be sure to go slow at happy hour tonight.
You’ve been feeling just blah
A low iron level could also be to blame. Being low in iron can leave you experiencing “weakness, tiredness, and weakened immune system,” says Bouvier. Being low in iron can do a lot more than just make you feel wiped out. “Common deficiencies of iron are bruising, hair thinning, and low energy — especially before period,” says nutritionist Alyssa Cellini. “Lesser known symptoms of iron deficiency are poor endurance during exercise, cold extremities, and lack of oxygen in nails (look for the half moon where your fingers meet your nail beds).” As someone who is always freezing no matter what, I’m definitely going to look into getting my iron levels checked.
And it’s not just the fatigue making you feel blah. Having a vitamin deficiency messes with your mood as well. According to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, women with low vitamin B12 levels are twice as likely to experience severe depression than those with normal levels.
Your manicurist is judging you
“The average American only gets 40 to 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of calcium,” Registered Dietitian and the Owner of Wellness Nutrition Concepts Ashvini Mashru told me. “If you fall short of your daily dose of calcium, you increase your risk of developing osteoporosis, depression, rickets, tooth decay, insomnia, brittle nails and menstrual problems.” If you’re worried about your calcium levels, talk with your doc about a multivitamin and definitely make sure to be eating plenty of leafy greens. And it may not just be calcium causing your embarrassing fingers. Clinical nutritionist Shawna Kunselman told me that being deficient in zinc can also lead to “brittle nails or white spots on the nails.”
Your roots are gray
Worried about going prematurely gray? Before you head to the salon for yet another touch up, check your folate levels. A folate deficiency can cause gray hair, fatigue, and mouth sores. Folate is found in all prenatal vitamins, because it is crucial to the baby developing a healthy spinal cord, but it is also found in normal multivitamins. Anyone who has ever been pregnant has been lucky enough to experience the luscious hair and nails that come with growing a new baby. Get some of that shine back (without the sleepless nights) by making sure your vitamin levels are sufficient.
You’re craving a big bowl of paint
Chelsey Amer, a private practice dietitian in New York City and creator of CitNutritionally.com, advises clients to look for the less common signs of iron deficiency. In addition to causing anemia and fatigue, being low in iron can make you crave some strange household items. “An uncommon symptom to look out for is craving non-food items like ice or paint chips,” says Amer. “It’s important to get blood work at your physician before you start taking a supplement and see a registered dietitian because small tweaks in your diet may help easily offset these symptoms.” Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was low in iron, and was obsessed with eating ice. So much so that I once sent my poor husband out in the middle of winter to find me a snow cone! He came back with a slushie, so naturally I cried, because he didn’t listen to me. Bottom line — these cravings are real.
“Less common symptoms when the deficiency is severe may include lightheadedness, headache, and shortness of breath,” says physician Nutrition Specialist Dr. Adrienne Youdim, MD, the director of the Center for Weight Loss and Nutrition in Beverly Hills, California. “Other common symptoms, but often not looked for are hair loss, a swollen tongue or cracks around the mouth.” Talk with your doctor about checking your iron levels if you’re concerned.
You’re tossing and turning all night
Kunselman explained to me that being low in magnesium can cause a whole host of problems, such as “constipation, muscle cramps, and insomnia.” So not only will a magnesium deficiency keep you awake — if you actually manage to fall asleep, one of those wicked leg cramps will wake you up!
You just called in sick… again
Being low in vitamin D can lead to “frequent infections or even autoimmune conditions,” according to Kunselman. Vitamin D deficiency is actually becoming more common. “Vitamin D has become a bigger problem in the U.S. because it is produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight,” explains Board Certified Internal & Aesthetic Medicine physician Mira K Kaga, MD. “More and more people are protecting their skin with sunscreen or spending more time indoors, which can interfere with this process.” Dr. Kaga recommends making sure you’re getting about 2,000 to 4,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin D everyday. Check your multivitamin to make sure it meets those requirements.
Our bodies also need zinc to fend off those pesky germs. If you keep coming down with the latest office virus, look into a multivitamin. “I do recommend most people take a Whole Foods form of a multivitamin to ensure they are getting adequate nutrients due to the lack of nutrients found in most people’s diets and because of the decreased nutrients in foods today,” says Kunselman.
You’d love to go to the loo right now… but you can’t
Constipation is no one’s friend. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and can last for days or weeks. Before reaching for the prune juice, make sure it’s not a vitamin problem. “Potassium deficiency can lead to constipation, fatigue, muscle weakness & numbness,” says Rebecca Lewis, in-house dietitian at HelloFresh. If you’re already getting enough potassium, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and taking relaxing bathroom breaks throughout the day.
Watch out for this common deficiency in women
“Calcium is essential in heart, muscle, and nerve functions, and very important to bone health,” says Bouvier. “Dairy products and dark leafy greens are all calcium-rich that can help ensure adequate intakes.”
“Calcium deficiency can lead to numbness, muscle cramps, lethargy, osteoporosis,” says Lewis. We women can’t afford to mess around with weak, brittle bones, so it’s essential to get enough calcium. Check your multivitamin and strength train regularly to keep your bones strong and healthy.
Should everyone supplement?
While there are always differing opinions on what supplements to take or not, the experts I spoke with did agree on one thing: It’s best to get your vitamins from your diet. “I don’t support the use of multivitamins for anyone who eats a well rounded diet of whole food,” says Dr. Jennie Ann Freiman, MD. “I suggest that people focus on diet for most of their nutrients and use vitamins and supplements for adding things they really can’t get by diet.”
Author of Snake Oil is Alive and Well. The Clash between Myths and Reality. Reflections of a Physician, Dr. Morton Tavel, MD, agrees. He cautions that most people don’t need to take a multivitamin if they’re eating a balanced diet. “In general, normal diets contain more that enough to preclude the need for supplementation,” says Dr. Tavel. “If one has a demonstrated deficiency of any, then, upon the advice of a physician, supplementation may be justified.”
So why do some of us still need a supplement? That’s probably because, try as we might, many of us just don’t get enough nutrients from our diets. So focus on eating as healthy as you can, and after that look into a multivitamin. “It’s possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods, so you don’t have to take one,” says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian and consultant to the National Institutes of Health. “But supplements can be useful for filling in gaps in your diet.”