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Vitamins, Supplements and Probiotics: The Basics

Here's everything you need to know about vitamins, supplements and probiotics, with insight from Rhianon Condello, RD, a bariatric nutritionist at Rochester Regional Health.

July 7, 2020

People with healthy vitamins and minerals

Summer is here, bringing warm weather, more time outdoors, and delicious fruits and vegetables. As we balance seeing friends and family with a global pandemic, it is more important than ever to stay healthy and boost our immune systems. And while beautiful veggies and fruits are easy to find, sometimes your body needs more. Let's talk about vitamins, supplements, and probiotics so you can head into summer happy and healthy.

Vitamins

Vitamins are essential nutrients that the body cannot produce enough of on its own. They help with the production of bone, muscle, and skin, as well as strengthening our immune systems and converting food into energy. Most people can get all their vitamins from eating a well-balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods. For those who don't - including women who are or who are trying to become pregnant, women who are breastfeeding, and people aged 50+ - taking additional vitamins may prove beneficial.

Different types of vitamins

13 vitamins are essential for the body to function properly: 

A list of vitamins and how they can help your body
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid, Folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)

There are two categories of vitamins - water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins.

Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body. Instead, any excess leaves the body through your urine. Examples of water-soluble vitamins include Vitamin C and all B vitamins, and they should be consumed regularly to prevent any shortages in your body.

Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed more easily by the body and can be stored for long periods. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble.

"Fat-soluble vitamins can become toxic if too much of any one is consumed," said Rhianon Condello, RD, a bariatric nutritionist at Rochester Regional Health. "It's important to be careful, especially with gummy vitamins that can be dangerous to kids."

What vitamins should you take?

To find out which vitamins will benefit you, talk to your doctor. With a healthy diet, most people don't need to take vitamin capsules.

"The only way to know if you really need a vitamin is through blood testing," says Condello. "After blood tests are conducted we can identify deficiencies and direct patients towards the vitamins they need."

It's important to be cautious about taking vitamins without the help of a doctor. Large amounts of vitamins are not safe for everybody.

"If you have a good diet, you don't really need vitamins," Condello explained. If your body has a surplus of water-soluble vitamins, they may pass through your digestive tract without a chance of proper absorption. 

Dietary Supplements

Eating a diet rich in a variety of healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients your body needs. If, however, your diet is lacking, a dietary supplement can be used to add nutrients, or to lower your risk of certain health problems like arthritis and osteoporosis. If you're wondering if you need a dietary supplement, talk to your doctor or dietician first.

What's the difference between a vitamin and a supplement?

Dietary supplements are taken to complement a healthy diet. They are not medicine or vitamins and are not a substitute for any food. They often contain a combination of minerals, nutrients, concentrates, or vitamins.

Supplements can include herbal remedies like Echinacea or St. John's Wort. Many supplements combine herbs with vitamins or minerals, and because of this, supplements can have more of a health risk.

"Vitamins alone don't usually interact with pharmaceutical medications, but supplements definitely can."

Different types of supplements

Dietary supplements often include vitamins, minerals, botanicals, enzymes, herbs, and amino acids. Supplements can be used for a variety of reasons, ranging from digestive issues to acid reflux, to hair and nail growth.

Supplements come in many different forms, such as capsules, powders, and topical oils. To determine the best type of supplement for your health, speak to your doctor, and discuss your diet and health needs.

Finding the right supplements for you

As with vitamins, determining what supplements you should take requires talking to your doctor.

"There is no FDA backing when it comes to supplements. There is no governing body checking them to make sure they're safe and that they have the levels of ingredients they claim to have."

Without government regulations, supplements that seem beneficial can be harmful or ineffective. That's why it's extremely important to get a recommendation from a doctor before consuming supplements.

Additionally, many pharmaceuticals come from herbal supplements. "For example, aspirin is highly concentrated white willow bark. So, if you take aspirin and you're taking white willow bark supplements, you're just doubling up," explains Condello. 

Probiotics

Probiotics are living microorganisms that function as healthy bacteria in your gut. Taking probiotics adds to the healthy bacteria in your digestive system, and can help overpower any bad bacteria. They're often confused with prebiotics, which are carbohydrates that help sustain the healthy bacteria found naturally in your gut.

"Probiotics add more healthy bacteria and prebiotics feed the already existing bacteria," explains Condello. "In reality, most of don't need to take probiotics. If you have a healthy diet, it's not necessary. However, there are conditions that probiotics are good for, like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or C. Diff (Clostridium Difficile)."

Foods with probiotics

"It's better to eat food with probiotics than to take capsules. When you eat food high in probiotics, it's more likely that the probiotic will live longer and help your digestive system. If you take a capsule, it's very likely that the probiotic will get killed in your stomach acid."

Foods that have probiotics:

  • Yogurt
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Sauerkraut 
Foods that naturally contain probiotics

Finding the right probiotics

As with vitamins and supplements, it's important to discuss with your doctor before taking probiotic capsules. Talking through your diet with a nutritionist or dietician will give you the answers necessary to determine what's best for you.

General Tips

  • Don't chase the latest headline. Sound health advice is based on research over time. Don't listen to the media's recommendations that are based on one study or home trial. Be cautious when you see articles about "quick fixes," and those that stray from science, research, and established medical guidance from doctors or specialists.
  • More is not always better. Some products are harmful in excess or in combination with other substances. Talk to your doctor before combining multiple products to be sure it is safe.
  • Keep an eye out for false claims. If something seems too good to be true, it's likely false. Look out for products labeled, "cure-all," "all-natural," or "totally safe." Remember, there is no governing body that regulates supplements.
  • A healthy diet is the best answer. Vitamins, supplements, and probiotics are not substitutes for a well-rounded diet. The best way to get the nutrients you need is to eat healthily.

As we embrace summer, it's important to remember that our bodies function best with a well-rounded, healthy diet. For some, vitamins, supplements, and probiotics are necessary to boost immune systems, especially during a public health crisis. Whatever the case may be, check with your Rochester Regional Health provider first to find the right combination of vitamins and supplements for you.

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