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By: Victoria Iyeduala (Freelance Health and Wellness Writer and DLHA Volunteer)
With Editorial contribution by The DLHA Team
Vitamins are essential nutrients the body can't do without. Although you need them in small quantities, they are important for every body function.
You need vitamins to:
You can get all the vitamins you need daily from a healthy, balanced diet. However, for some reason, you may need help getting the adequate amount of vitamins from your diet. This is where vitamin supplements come in and this page covers advice for the general population.
"Vitamin Supplements can be in pill, powdery, or liquid form and are taken by mouth. They contain vitamins and are made to support your diet in providing you with the amount of vitamins your body needs to function properly", says Nutritionist Gift Awakessien, Head Clinical Nutritionist at Skin101 Weight Loss Clinic, Abuja, Nigeria. They’re available as multivitamins or individual/single vitamin supplements.
A multivitamin supplement contains many vitamins. An individual or single vitamin supplement is composed of one vitamin or has one vitamin as the main ingredient.
"Although multivitamins should probably contain only vitamins, standard multivitamins – the ones you can easily get on a shelf in stores – contain some minerals, reinforcing the fact that they're generally meant to support your diet regardless of age or gender. As long as you follow the instructions and dosage directions on the pack, you can walk into a pharmacy store and purchase multivitamins", Awakessien says.
"On the other hand, individual vitamin supplements are made to increase your body's supply of that specific vitamin. They're targeted at a specific goal and are mainly used on a doctor's prescription to treat vitamin deficiencies. For example, Vitamin C is used to treat scurvy, a symptom of vitamin C deficiency", Awakessien continues.
You should always consider your needs before getting any dietary supplements. Multivitamins are a reasonable choice if you feel you need to supplement your diet for vitamins and possibly minerals.
Awakessien says, "You can take multivitamins to optimise your diet or if you want a holistic approach to diet and ensure you're not missing any necessary vitamins. Usually, you'll need a doctor's prescription or recommendation to take an individual vitamin supplement if you need it".
Related: Vitamin finder
Supporting your diet
Although nothing beats a healthy diet, vitamin supplements do a good job of helping you get enough of the necessary nutrients you may not be getting from your diet.
Certain things like lifestyle, beliefs and illnesses influence our diets and may restrict the amount of these essential nutrients we can get. Taking a multivitamin/vitamin supplement could help compensate for this loss and ensure your body gets an adequate supply of these nutrients.
Some people are more prone to certain vitamin deficiencies due to their lifestyle, health status, age and other factors. A proper dosage of the right vitamin supplements will help increase their supply of the vitamins and prevent deficiency.
Common vitamin deficiencies in Africa are vitamins D, A, C, K and Folate. These deficiencies are treated with their respective vitamin supplements and a corresponding diet.
Deficiency in -
Depending on the severity, a proper diet could do the trick. Unless the individual can't achieve such a diet, the treatment would depend more on the supplements.
Simple to use
Awakessien says, "Although a regular healthy, balanced diet is best, people like the simplicity of using multivitamins. You go to a store and get a multivitamin pack. It goes with you anywhere you go and can be easily taken. Instead of worrying about how you're not getting enough of this vitamin and that because you can't access a healthy diet all the time, you pop a capsule or pill into your mouth, and you're good to go."
Vitamin supplements are effective but less effective than those from food.
According to Nutritionist Awakessien, whose master’s thesis was to determine the effects of vitamin C supplementation on patients' health, “fruits and vegetables were found to be more potent in correcting micronutrient deficiency in patients than the supplement. So, when used right, vitamin supplements are meant to add to your body's supply of these vitamins, ensuring you're getting enough to improve your overall health."
They're not miracle cures for diseases as some products – the so-called specially formulated multivitamins – might claim.
Remember: Vitamin supplements are not a substitute for healthy meals. They support your diet and ensure you get enough vitamins.
Vitamin supplements are considered safe when taken in the right proportions your body needs.
Since an individual vitamin supplement is for a specific vitamin need, it's easy to overload your system with it, especially fat-soluble vitamins. Water-soluble vitamins are vitamins B-complex and C, while fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K.
"Usually, for water-soluble vitamins, your body uses the amount it needs and removes the excess through urine. So, toxicity from overdose is low and not common. Some symptoms of overdose are stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. However, your body stores excess fat-soluble vitamins for future use. They're stored in the liver and fatty tissues. Having too much in your body will cause problems like liver damage in the long run", Awakessien says.
Additionally, pregnant women don't need vitamin A supplements as excess vitamin A can harm the unborn child causing spontaneous abortion and congenital disabilities. Your doctor would educate you on what you can and can't take during antenatal care.
"Honestly, you shouldn't take anything that's not food without first enquiring from your doctor, especially individual vitamin supplements. Yes, you can walk into a pharmacy store and get multivitamins to optimise your diet, but it's still advisable to see a doctor before taking supplements", Awakessien says.
Awakessien says, "Anybody who doesn't eat a healthful diet every day can consider taking vitamin supplements, multivitamins to be precise."
However, certain people are more at risk of vitamin deficiency. These people need vitamin supplements to prevent this.
Unborn babies get all their nutrients from the mother, which means she needs enough nutrients for two. Usually, she can get the right amount of the necessary vitamins by regularly eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking prenatal multivitamins.
Folate, vitamin B9, has been found to help prevent congenital disorders in babies that affect the spine and brain. It's not possible to get enough from food and so it's recommended that pregnant women take the supplement (folic acid). Unless the doctor sees a need for you to take extra folic acid, a healthy diet and prenatal multivitamins will do.
Vegans and vegetarians
Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin found only in animal sources. Vegans and vegetarians are at a high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since they eat no (vegans) or minimal (vegetarians) animal-derived food products. Taking vitamin B12 fortified foods, multivitamins for vegans or vitamin B12 supplements could help them get the adequate amount they need.
Exclusively breastfed infants have all the vitamins they need from the mother's milk if she's healthy and eats a well-balanced diet. However, suppose the mother's milk can't provide enough of these vitamins for any reason, a doctor may recommend the necessary supplements for the baby.
Toddlers and older children who are picky eaters or have allergies may also need multivitamins.
Older people are at high risk of nutrient deficiencies because of issues associated with ageing, such as loss of appetite and age-related illnesses, some of which restrict the effective absorption of these nutrients.
A doctor may recommend vitamin supplements depending on the cause of this inadequate vitamin intake. Although you can supplement with multivitamins, you should see a doctor first to avoid taking supplements that might interfere with any medications you may be taking.
Some illnesses cause loss of appetite and impair digestion, absorption, storage and usage of certain nutrients. These people may need supplements to make up for the inadequacies in vitamins. Sick people who can't eat certain foods may also need vitamin supplements.
"Most people who get vitamin supplements know when they're not getting enough vitamins, and some know when they're not getting enough of a particular vitamin. These are health-conscious people", says Awakessien.
However, the best way to know is to speak with a doctor. You'll discuss stuff like your present diet and lifestyle. The doctor could also do a thorough body check and will tell you if vitamin supplements are necessary.
You may also be experiencing deficiency symptoms and think it's something else. Seek a doctor's advice before taking medications.
Africa has a large variety of foods which contribute to the versatility and abundance of dishes on the continent. Click here to review some selections of vitamin rich African foods.
Your body needs vitamins to function properly. Regularly eating a well-balanced diet will give you the adequate amount of vitamins you need. Unless, for any reason, you can't access such a diet, are at risk of a deficiency or need extra amounts of vitamins, vitamin supplements are considered unnecessary.
Always read the information on the pack before buying or taking supplements. Also, you should seek a doctor's or dietitian's advice before adding supplements to your diet to ensure you do it right.
Learn more from these resources:
Note that items marked with asterisks are suitable mainly for a professional audience.
1. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements - Multivitamin/mineral Supplements - Consumers. Retrieved December 10, 2022.
2. Mogire, R. M., Mutua, A., Kimita, W., Kamau, A., Bejon, P., Pettifor, J. M., Adeyemo, A., Williams, T. N., & Atkinson, S. H. (2020). Prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Africa: a systematic review and meta-analysis.* The Lancet. Global health, 8(1), e134–e142.
3. Rowe, S., & Carr, A. C. (2020). Global Vitamin C Status and Prevalence of Deficiency: A Cause for Concern?* Nutrients, 12(7), 2008.
4. Moya-Alvarez, V., Koyembi, J. J., Kayé, L. M., Mbecko, J. R., Sanke-Waîgana, H., Djorie, S. G., Nyasenu, Y. T., Mad-Bondo, D., Kongoma, J. B., Nakib, S., Madec, Y., Ulmann, G., Neveux, N., Sansonetti, P. J., Vray, M., & Marteyn, B. (2021). Vitamin C levels in a Central-African mother-infant cohort: Does hypovitaminosis C increase the risk of enteric infections?* Maternal & child nutrition, 17(4), e13215.
5. Ward E. (2014). Addressing nutritional gaps with multivitamin and mineral supplements.* Nutrition journal, 13, 72.
8. Bastos Maia, S., Rolland Souza, A. S., Costa Caminha, M. F., Lins da Silva, S., Callou Cruz, R. S. B. L., Carvalho Dos Santos, C., & Batista Filho, M. (2019). Vitamin A and Pregnancy: A Narrative Review.* Nutrients, 11(3), 681.
7. Pawlak, R., Parrott, S. J., Raj, S., Cullum-Dugan, D., & Lucus, D. (2013). How prevalent is vitamin B (12) deficiency among vegetarians?* Nutrition reviews, 71(2), 110–117
8. Bouillon, R. (2020, January). Vitamin D status in Africa is worse than in other continents.* The Lancet Global Health, 8(1), e20–e21.
9. NHS Inform: Vitamins and minerals. Retrieved December 10, 2022.
10. NHS Inform: Vitamins and minerals in pregnancy. | Ready Steady Baby! Retrieved December 10, 2022.
11. NHS Inform: Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia symptoms and treatments.. Retrieved December 10, 2022.
Published: December 17, 2022
Updated: Jan. 13, 2013
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