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Multivitamins - should you be popping these pills?

With so many vitamins and supplements on the pharmacy shelves these days, it's pretty easy to get flustered. One of the areas that I personally have found to be pretty confusing over the years is the subject of MULTIVITAMINS. Should I take a multivitamin? Is it safe? Have no fear, your questions are about to get answered....

1. What is the purpose of taking a multivitamin?

Multivitamins contain most of the essential vitamins and minerals needed to meet your daily requirements. They are intended to make up for the potential gaps in a person's diet and make sure they are getting all the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy. So multivitamins CAN be a good nutritional insurance policy...IF you aren't eating a very balanced diet. It can also be helpful to those that are on very restrictive diets, such as vegans. Many sources of essential nutrients come from animal products, so it is important that vegetarians and vegans take a daily multivitamin to ensure that they don't become deficient in vitamins like B12.

2. Are multivitamins safe?

Sometimes you can get TOO much of a good thing. If you are eating a balanced diet, which most of us are (and this CDC survey proves it), getting additional vitamins and minerals on top of what we are already ingesting, could lead to toxicity. Especially considering how many foods are being fortified with nutrients these days (milk with vitamin D, eggs with omega-3s, grains and breads with folate), you could be getting much more than you even realize. Getting way too much of a vitamin like Folate, has been linked to certain cancers such as colon, breast and prostate. One article on this subject states, "Getting enough folate from natural foods may keep tumors from starting by repairing errors in DNA, but synthetic folic acid may feed tumor development and promote carcinogenesis." The jury is still out on that one, but excess folate is definitely not a good thing.

3. So are there any vitamins/minerals I should be taking?

Yes! I feel VERY strongly that everyone should be taking PROBIOTICS. Probiotics increase the amount of healthy bacteria in your gut (not all germs are bad!). Studies have demonstrated that probiotics can improve digestive health, immune function and may even help with diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis. But be careful about which probiotics you take, because not all are created equal. I take Culturelle, which is the probiotic that most hospitals provide, and it's worked pretty well for me. Probiotics available at most large pharmacies and Whole Foods/Trader Joe's are reliable as well. You can also get a good boost of probiotics from foods like kefir, yogurt and other fermented foods like sauerkraut! Pretty sweet.

As far as other supplementation, it really depend on your diet and lifestyle. One vitamin that is being increasingly linked to cancer-prevention and improved immune function is vitamin D. Unfortunately, vitamin D isn't present in many foods (food sources are egg yolks, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and fortified milk or cereals). If you haven't been getting a lot of sunlight lately, and you've been skimping on these foods, you may want to get your vitamin D levels checked out.

Another supplement that I recommend is omega-3 fatty acids. We all know that they have a host of heart-healthy benefits, but they also can give you stronger nails and shinier hair, which is fine by me! If you already eat a lot of fish, walnuts or avocados, you may want to skip this supplement. While omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, sometimes inflammation is a good thing - like when your body is fighting a cold, so too many omega-3s may dampen you immune system. See? Everything in moderation!

If you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, most obgyns would agree that taking a prenatal vitamin with 100% of your daily requirements for folate (which may also be called folic acid on the label) is crucial. Folate plays an important role in the development of the baby's central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) - but the catch here is that most of this development takes place within the first 6 weeks of pregnance, often before women know they're even pregnant!

Of course if you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral, you should be taking a supplement if you can't get to optimal levels with food alone. This goes without saying, but DO NOT self-prescribe. If you are going to start taking a supplement, do so under the advice of your doc! Be smart people!

Bottom line: Pills are NO SUBSTITUTE for having a balanced, varied diet. That's really the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs!

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