Vitamins and minerals are types of micronutrients our bodies get through food.
If you are lacking in a vitamin or mineral, you can develop a nutrient deficiency.
The symptoms and causes of a nutrient deficiency depend on the vitamin or mineral that you are deficient in.
Nutrient deficiencies can be avoided by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet and can be treated using specific supplements or general multivitamin and mineral supplements.
You may have been told many times to “remember to take your vitamins,” but what’s the science behind vitamin supplementation? Our bodies function great when we eat a balanced, healthy, and varied diet. However, when we don’t eat well or our diet is lacking in food groups such as dairy or protein, we are often told to take a supplement to make up for those nutrients. There are many kinds of supplements, from energy bars to herbs to digestive enzymes. In this article, we will focus on vitamin and mineral supplements and explore the role vitamins and minerals play in managing deficiencies. (Source)
Vitamins and minerals are types of micronutrients that play important roles in our bodies.
The term “vitamin,” a mashup of “vital” (necessary for life) and “amine” (nitrogen-based chemical structure) was coined in 1912 by biochemist Casimir Funk. Funk was the first to identify individual vitamins and to understand how vitamin deficiencies can cause disease. (Source)
Vitamins are organic, or carbon-containing, micronutrients and are either water soluble or fat soluble. (Source)
Water-soluble vitamins, as the name suggests, dissolve in water, and any excess amounts that aren’t immediately used are excreted in the urine. Since these vitamins are not stored in the body, it’s important to consume them regularly. (Source)
Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, are stored by the body for long-term use and may not be needed as often as water-soluble vitamins. (Source)
Vitamins are involved in energy metabolism, the process by which cells convert food to energy. Vitamins B1 and B2, for example, do this by supporting mitochondria, important structures inside cells. The mitochondria are commonly known as the “powerhouses of the cell” because they supply the energy needed to power our cells. If your body doesn’t have enough of these vitamins, you may experience fatigue because your metabolism is hindered. (Source)
Minerals, on the other hand, are inorganic micronutrients. They generally do not contain carbon atoms, and the way their molecules are bonded makes them dissolve easily in water, affecting which minerals our bodies can use.
Minerals also play an important role in energy metabolism. Studies have found that minerals such as chromium, zinc, and magnesium help our bodies harness the energy produced by the mitochondria to work efficiently. A helpful tip to remembering which micronutrients are minerals and which are vitamins is that minerals are generally elements shown on the periodic table. (Source)
Vitamins and minerals play critical roles in many biological processes, and getting insufficient amounts of any one of them can cause symptoms ranging from minor discomfort to serious illness.
If you consume a balanced and healthy diet, your body is usually able to get all the nutrients it needs through food. However, if you have a poor diet that lacks nutrients, you are at risk of developing a deficiency. It is also possible for chronic illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease to impair your ability to absorb needed nutrients.
And certain groups of otherwise healthy people may also be at risk of developing a nutrient deficiency. For example, pregnant women, infants, and adolescents may need to take vitamin or mineral supplements to supplement for periods of growth and development. (Source, Source, Source)
There are many kinds of dietary supplements in a variety of forms, such as pills and powders. These dietary supplements can add nutrients that you may be lacking in your diet, or be taken to lower the risk of disease.
Vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble. Our bodies are mostly water, and the water-soluble B and C vitamins are easily dissolved and distributed to tissues where they are needed. Water-soluble vitamins can be ingested in massive quantities without being toxic, because any excess amounts are excreted in the urine.
Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, can be stored in body fat and in the liver, so they don’t necessarily need to be replenished as regularly as water-soluble vitamins. It is at least theoretically possible for them to build up to toxic amounts in the body, although this very rarely happens. (Source, Source)
Although there are many important water-soluble vitamins, we will focus on a few common vitamins and their deficiencies.
Vitamin B1 is also known as thiamine, and a vitamin B1 deficiency is known as a thiamine deficiency.
Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin, and a vitamin B2 deficiency is known as a riboflavin deficiency.
Vitamin B3 is also known as niacin. Niacin deficiency causes a serious condition known as pellagra.
Vitamin B6 is also known as pyridoxine.
Vitamin B12 is also known as cobalamin.
Vitamin C is also known as L-ascorbic acid.
Vitamin A is an important vitamin that helps our eyes detect light and see at night.
Our bodies are able to synthesize vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, using the sun’s UV rays. We can also get vitamin D in our diet, but usually in small amounts.
Vitamin K deficiency can cause problems with blood clotting. Vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB) may occur in newborns, who are deficient in the vitamin at birth. As a result, it is recommended that all newborns receive a dose of vitamin K.
Minerals can be divided into two categories: macrominerals, also known as major minerals, and trace minerals. We need thousands of milligrams per day of most macrominerals. On the other hand, we may need just a few micrograms per day of the trace minerals. (Source)
Although there are many macromolecules that your body needs to function properly, we will only focus on a few common macrominerals.
Calcium helps build and maintain the strength of bones and teeth.
Magnesium regulates nerve and muscle function. Magnesium deficiencies are uncommon.
Potassium maintains cell homeostasis, or equilibrium, and is important for normal cell function.
Sodium is also important in maintaining cell homeostasis. A low blood sodium level is known as hyponatremia.
As with macromolecules, there are many trace minerals but we will focus on the most common trace minerals and their deficiencies.
Copper deficiencies are uncommon, but there are steps you can take to avoid one.
An iron deficiency can cause a condition known as iron deficiency anemia, or reduced number of red blood cells.
Zinc is an important mineral needed for proper immune function and processes such as wound repair.
Although mineral and vitamin supplements can help replace important nutrients, supplements can also be harmful. Taking too much of a single-vitamin supplement, such as vitamin D, can be toxic. Individual supplements may also interfere with some medications, so if you are on any regular medications you should consult with a health care professional before starting supplements.
In general, it is important to remember that supplements don’t make up for an unhealthy diet. It’s best to get the nutrients your body needs primarily through your diet. (Source)
Multivitamin and mineral (MVM) supplements may be better tolerated than single-vitamin supplements. MVM supplements are defined as supplements containing three or more nutrients at low dosages.
There is some evidence suggesting MVM supplements can lower the risk of developing certain chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, research is limited and inconsistent.
Overall, MVM supplements have potential, but an MVM supplement should not be taken as a substitute for healthy foods. It is helpful to consult a health care professional before taking a MVM supplement to take into consideration your medical history, use of medications, and diet. (Source)
A balanced, nutritious diet is the first step to avoiding a nutritional deficiency. Consider incorporating more healthy fats, proteins, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains into your diet. These food groups will ensure your body is given the vitamins and minerals it needs to function and will save you the hassle of taking MVM supplements. Your diet also plays a large role in preventing chronic diseases. (Source)
In addition to eating well, it may be possible to get nutrients from other sources. For example, vitamin D is commonly known as the sunshine vitamin because a safe level of sun exposure may fuel your body with all the vitamin D it needs. (Source)
It is helpful to see a doctor about supplements when:
Outside of WellTheory’s Ultimate Guide to Vitamins and Minerals, we recommend looking at:
Mineral and vitamin supplements can be great solutions if you have dietary restrictions, are at risk for a nutrient deficiency, or are part of a group that requires additional nutrients. However, it’s important to consult a health care professional before taking a supplement. For single-vitamin supplements, it’s important to check toxicity guidelines to ensure you are consuming a safe amount of that vitamin. MVM supplements, however, may be a safer supplement alternative. Overall, a healthy and balanced diet is critical to fueling your body with nutrients and is a great way to lower your risk of a nutrient deficiency.