Taking supplements requires knowledge. It is not just to buy a jar with tablets and take according to instructions on the label. If you do this wrong, you might waste your money, or even harm your health. Here are some rules of thumb to think of before you buy and start to take anything.
It is a general principle that natural is better than synthetic, and it is not limited to the world of vitamins. In a study with rats, fed only synthetic nutrients, they were all normal - for four generations. Then suddenly they were sterile. That is a very extreme situation, since they were fed with ONLY synthetic nutrients, and it was only one study, but it can serve as a little warning against relying too much on synthetic nutrition.
Yet it can be necessary to use synthetic vitamins under certain circumstances.
Vitamins D, E, essential fatty acids, and bioflavonoids should always be natural. Synthetic vitamin D or E can even be harmful.
Vitamins A, B, and C can be used in a synthetic form, at least partly and temporarily, especially if you take very large doses (which can be hard to cover from natural sources).
For vitamin C, crystalline ascorbic acid (used in the food industry as a preservative) is the best form. It is the one being most completely absorbed and utilised by the body. And it is by far the cheapest!
If you have allergic reactions to vitamins, you are more likely to be allergic to the source of the vitamin than to the vitamin itself. Try to change the source. Instead of taking vitamin C from citrus fruit, switch to other sources such as rosehip or acerola. Or use pure ascorbic acid.
Synthetic vitamins are purer, so there is a lower risk of allergic reactions, although it is not unheard of.
Minerals are said to be best absorbed when taken in an organic form, chelated to an amino acid. This is true, but there are some where the inorganic form is as well utilised, but possibly with a slightly different effect in the body. An example is Selenium, which can be in the form of selenomethionine, selenocysteine, or selenoglutathione, all organic - or as sodium selenite or sodium selenate, both inorganic. The wise course here might be to obtain from both groups. If that is too cumbersome, choose an organic variety.
Many minerals, like Calcium and Magnesium, are best utilised as salts of organic acids: as citrate (salt of citric acid), ascorbate (salt of ascorbic acid), or orotate (salt of orotic acid), etc. (which are also cheaper than chelated ones); but avoid compounds like carbonates or oxides, which can block the general absorption of several minerals.
A slow release vitamin tablet does not melt immediately after intake, but gradually while it is passing through the digestive system. This is supposed tot be good since it provides a continuous supply.
Of course this increases the price of the product and it might be a waste of money, since different nutrients are absorbed in different parts of the intestines. Some B-vitamins, for instance, are absorbed only very early in the small intestine, and if the tablet is passing there before it has released all of these vitamins, the still unreleased amount will just pass through without any benefit at all!
In my opinion, there is no real benefit in slow release vitamins at all. A supply which is THAT continuous is unnatural anyway and will not add to the efficiency of the product. Remember that vitamins and minerals are not drugs but very concentrated food. We are not made for eating at every moment!
Vitamin E is a group of compounds called tocopherols, and another related one called tocotrienols. As for the latter, the research is still in its infancy.
Most supplements consist of only d-alpha-tocopherol, with no d-beta-, d-gamma- and d-delta-tocopherol at all. Yet there is research indicating that other forms, most notably d-gamma-tocopherol, can be essential for health benefits. However that may be, they occur mixed in nature, so it is not far-fetched to suspect that a mix of them makes the most bioactive supplement. This is why one should always take a tocopherol-complex containing all of these.
Corresponding with this, I would recommend a carotene complex rather than just beta-carotene etc. when applicable.
Vitamin B3 is a special case. It exists in two forms, as nicotinic acid (niacin) and as nicotinamide. Because we should always prefer a complex that contains all forms, I would say we need both, although nicotinic acid is the really powerful one of the two, and in rather high doses it can have dramatic health effects.
All essential nutrients are needed in the right proportion for full health benefits. You cannot trade one for another. So it is not only a matter of the amount of this or that, but it is also a matter of balance. Various vitamins and minerals are co-operating, balancing or protecting one another. Let me give just two examples.
Among antioxidants, protection is essential. Each antioxidant alone is prone to oxidation in itself - while different antioxidants are protecting one another in a complex network (still insufficiently studied and mapped). So, except under temporary and special circumstances, one antioxidant should never be taken alone in high doses - but always be accompanied by many others. It is not irrelevant which ones to combine, but it is still not completely known how they are linked. Thus the best course, and probably the most reasonable anyway, is to take many.
A relationship of balance can be exemplified with Ca and Mg (Calcium and Magnesium). This balance is widely neglected, which has made Mg deficiency the most common deficiency in the world. This is mainly based on Mg being too neglected (in relation to Ca) in the fertilisation of agricultural soil, with the result that only very few foodstuffs contains Mg to match the Ca.
What adds to this is the fact that many supplements contain Ca but no (or too little) Mg. It has been understood over time that vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of Ca, but not that Ca without its corresponding amount of Mg is in many ways useless and can even be harmful. Ca without Mg will not strengthen your bones or your teeth!
There should be a Ca/Mg ratio of about 10/4. That is, for 1000mg Ca you need approximately 400mg Mg. Slightly more Mg is harmless and will be washed out through the urine. More Ca might, if you are lucky, be washed out in the same way – at least some of it - but it can also stay in the body as deposits in organs and vessels, blocking proper function or causing kidney stones. Without its corresponding Mg, it cannot bind to bone or teeth.
A commonly suggested source of Ca is cow's milk. This is a poor one though, unless you supplement with the extra Mg that is needed.
If you supplement strongly with just one nutrient (like one antioxidant, or with Ca), you can cause a relative deficiency of another. Say that you have Ca and Mg in perfect balance, you take extra Ca, but not Mg. You develop a relative (to Ca) deficiency of Mg. This is called a "therapeutic deficiency", because you actually cause it by taking something else.
This teaches us that, unless you aim at very special effects (like the treatment of an acute illness), it is not wise to take high doses of one or a few nutrients, and nothing of others. A certain balances must be kept. This is more important for minerals than for vitamins, because for minerals even a very slightly disturbed balance can have serious consequences.
Most vitamins and minerals are measured in mg (milligrams). For some, like Folic acid, B12, Selenium, or Chromium, mcg (micrograms) are sometimes used instead.
Some vitamins are sometimes stated in International units, IU. It can be useful to be able to compare that to what is stated in mg or mcg.
For vitamin A: 1 IU = bio-equivalent of 0.344 mcg retinol
For vitamin D: 1 IU = bio-equivalent of 0.025 mcg cholecalciferol
For vitamin E: 1 IU = bio-equivalent of 0.667 mg d-alpha-tocopherol
I will not discuss absolute amounts of supplements at this time, but there is one little rule of thumb that can save you money.
Assume you have chosen a product you want to buy, but there are two different "strengths" available. Say that you want to take 500mg/day of something. There is a jar with tablets containing 500mg, and there is one with tablets containing 1000mg. Which one do you choose?
You ought to take the jar with the 1000mg tablets, then break them and take a half per day. The advantage of that choice is that it is always cheaper per unit of active substance to buy "stronger" tablets - and, since the tablets are probably of the same physical size, you get less of the rubbish that is used to form and bind the tablet.
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