Vitamins and minerals are essential to human health and wellness, helping with body functions and protecting against illness. If you don't have a vitamin deficiency and eat a varied diet rich in nutrients, you probably get enough vitamins and minerals naturally. But if like many people you skimp on some of the necessary foods, you may need to take supplements or change your diet or lifestyle. eHow talked to Roxanne Sukol, the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Enterprise, about the most essential vitamins and minerals for your health -- and how you can get them.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which keeps bones strong. It also helps muscles and nerves function properly and protects against bacteria and viruses. The best way to get sufficient vitamin D is get 10 minutes of sunlight every day, Sukol says. Remember to be extra vigilant about getting sun during the winter months when people tend to stay inside more. People with darker skin tones also need to spend more time in the sun to absorb a sufficient amount of vitamin D.
Iron is an important component to most proteins and enzymes and aids in moving oxygen around your body and in cell growth. Foods rich in iron include soybeans, lentils and oysters. Cereal and oatmeal are also fortified with iron. The only people who should take a vitamin supplement with iron are women of menstruating age or those who have been diagnosed with an iron deficiency, Sukol says. If you are feeling tired and are getting sick more often, you might ask your doctor to measure your iron levels.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects the body against damage by free radicals, the molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage. Vitamin C also makes collagen, which helps wounds heal. "Vitamin C is part of our connective tissue. If there's not enough, our gums might bleed, or we might have bruises or cuts that won't heal easily," Sukol says. People who eat a diet with fruits and vegetables don't need a supplement unless they have a deficiency. But Sukol says, Vitamin C has not been proven to help in preventing colds.
Vitamin A aids vision, the immune system and cell growth and can be found in meats, fruits and vegetables. One type of vitamin A, known as beta-carotene, is found in orange vegetables such as squash, pumpkins and carrots. Since vitamin A is fat-soluble, cook your vegetables with a splash of olive oil in a pan, Sukol says. You can buy beta-carotene supplements, but Sukol does not recommend a synthetic form of vitamin A known as retinyl palmitate, which can case serious problems among certain people including smokers and those exposed to asbestos.
Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3)
Vitamins B1, B2 and B3, also known as thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, are in a group of B vitamins that help to convert carbs into sugar to fuel your body. These vitamins keep your skin, hair, eyes and liver healthy, your immune system strong and your circulation system running. You can get these vitamins in meats, grains and vegetables. Most people don't develop deficiencies in these vitamins because so many grains are enriched with them, says Sukol. But if your diet is made up of mostly white foods, it may help to eat better or take supplements.
Folate helps the body make new cells and is especially vital for infants and pregnant women who are experiencing rapid cell division. All women of childbearing age should take a folate supplement, Sukol says, especially if you would like to be pregnant within the next 10 years. Folate deficiencies have led to the birth defect known as spina bifida and can increase the chances of childhood cancer. Today, flour is fortified with folate, but you can also get it naturally by eating whole grains like lentils and leafy green vegetables.
Vitamin B12 helps to form red blood cells and assists in brain function and in making DNA. Foods rich in vitamin A include clams and liver. This vitamin needs acid in the stomach for the body to absorb it, so a number of people, such as the elderly, those who take antacids, or people on the diabetic medicine Metformin may have trouble processing it, Sukol says. If you are of that population or feel tired or cranky, you may want to have your doctor check your B12 levels. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can also cause memory loss and tingling or numbness in the feet.
Vitamin B6 aids the body in enzyme reactions, especially in the metabolizing proteins. It is also needed to synthesize certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, a mood stabilizer, and it aids in the formation of myelin, the fat sheath that insulates nerves and makes them work more smoothly, Sukol says. Someone with a vitamin B6 deficiency may experience jerky movements or numbness in the legs. You can get vitamin B6 by eating whole grains, beans, lentils, vegetables and meats.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect against cell damage caused by free radicals. It also helps prevent blood from clotting in vessels. You can get vitamin E from seeds and nuts. If you take a supplement, keep in mind that higher doses of vitamin E supplements have been associated with heart complications in men who take statin drugs to lower cholesterol, Sukol says. If you are taking a multivitamin, also look at how much vitamin E is in it. If it is more than 400 IU, stop using it, Sukol says.
Vitamin K helps the body coagulate blood which helps control bleeding. The best sources of vitamin K are dark green vegetables such as parsley, kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, swiss chard, broccoli, and mustard greens. "I would not recommend people to take a vitamin K supplement," Sukol says. "I would recommend they eat foods rich in vitamin K." Vitamin K supplements may interfere with certain drugs, especially if you are on a blood thinner.
Calcium helps maintain strong bones and helps muscle and nerve function. There is also evidence that calcium improves irritability, cravings and cramps associated with Premenstrual Syndrome. It's best to get calcium through food, but a supplement may work for those who are lactose intolerant or are not getting enough calcium in their diet, Sukol says.
Magnesium helps in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body and in maintaining muscle and nerve function. It also aids the immune system and keeps bones strong. Magnesium can also act as a relaxer at bedtime, Sukol says. You can get magnesium in coffee, tea, vegetables and cocoa and by eating green leafy vegetables and whole grains such as wheat bran. If you eat processed foods or are on a no-carb diet, your doctor may prescribe magnesium supplements. However, people with kidney function problems shouldn't take magnesium supplements, Sukol says.