Should You Take a Multi-Vitamin or Specific Supplements?

Drugstores and supermarkets dedicate aisles and multiple shelves to supplements for just about any vitamin or mineral you can think of. Even healthy eaters might take a daily dose of capsules to increase bone health, up iron intake or regulate digestion. While some supplements are appropriate for certain health conditions, others are tailored to general nutritional needs. Doctors may advise those with specific eating habits, like vegans or vegetarians, or women who are nursing or pregnant to take certain vitamins, but is it necessary to take these if you don’t fit into those categories and live a fairly healthy lifestyle?

Almost half of the U.S. population takes vitamins everyday, with multivitamins as the most popular choice. However, unless you have a serious vitamin deficiency, studies show taking additional vitamin supplements might not provide the average person with any extra health benefits. An even more alarming statement is these pills we take every day could harm rather than help our bodies. Before popping another, check out these facts.

Multivitamin

A multivitamin provides vitamins to the body that are not taken in through the diet. They can also treat vitamin deficiencies caused by illness, pregnancy, poor nutrition or digestive disorders. If you don’t fall under one of these categories, should you really take them? First consult with your doctor, who can determine whether pre-existing medical conditions or medications you’re already taking will interfere with how your body reacts to the multivitamin.

People who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet may have a difficult time meeting the daily recommendation of certain vitamins and minerals in their food alone. Some vegans encounter low levels of certain B vitamins found mainly in animal products. In this case, a multivitamin can help ensure proper nutrition.

However, one study that looked at over 38,000 women over the age of 25 who took a multivitamin, showed an overall risk of death increased with the long-term use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper. On the other hand, another study that looked at men and women over the age of 65 showed that taking a multivitamin reduced the risk of micronutrient deficiencies and helped improve cognitive functioning in those over 75. With conflicting advice and the risk of reactions when taking other medications, it’s best to check in with your doctor before going down the vitamin aisle.

Specific vitamins

If multivitamins don’t seem like the best fit for you, should you head straight for the specific single vitamins? That’s not the case. It’s recommended you only take these supplements if you know of the specific vitamin deficiency you have. For example, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant can prevent anemia by taking iron. It’s important to know what you’re taking as some supplements come with mild to dangerous side effects if used incorrectly.

While you might think you can never have enough vitamins or that your body will easily get rid of anything it doesn’t need, that’s untrue with certain varieties. Taking too much of a single vitamin or combining multivitamins, single vitamins, fortified foods and your usual diet can turn into an overdose. Yikes. The biggest risk falls under fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E. These can build up in the body and lead to serious health conditions like liver, kidney and brain damage. Double yikes. That’s why it’s best to ask your doctor about what is safe to take. You might just find that a well-balanced diet you’re already practicing doesn’t require any additional fortification from vitamins or maybe what you thought you had plenty of could actually use a boost. When in doubt, ask your doc.

The winner

Should you really toss the remnants of your medicine cabinet? Not quite, but you should consult with your primary healthcare provider before taking any additional supplements on your own. Evidence shows that taking vitamins provides little benefit to those who are already well-nourished. The pills won’t boost your immune system, promote joint health or reduce stress, even if they promise they will. Unless you know you’re deficient in certain levels, like vegans or vegetarians who often run short of B-vitamins, leave the supplements alone. Taking too much of a certain vitamin, especially the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, could actually end up harming you.

Bottom line: Ask. Your. Doctor. They have the authority to test whether you really need supplements, and if so, can offer advice on the best ones you should take to get back to your balanced self.

Emily is a recent graduate and proud Midwesterner who just moved to the big city to start her career in magazine journalism. When she isn't commuting between Brooklyn and Manhattan, she enjoys browsing bookstores for her next read, sipping chai tea lattes at local coffee shops, and playing tourist in the city she always dreamed of living in.