Yes, You Really Do Need a Multivitamin

Whether you grew up in a health-conscious home or not, chances are, there was a bottle of multivitamins sitting out on the kitchen counter. The elders would choke one down with their morning O.J. (‘Horse pills!’ as mom used to say). While these days I would certainly advise against the orange juice sugar-bomb to wash one down, I do highly recommend taking a daily multivitamin, albeit one with higher quality ingredients.

Why am I such a fan? Because a good quality multivitamin is an excellent, no-brainer way to quickly step up your health game. Think of them as a little insurance policy to help protect against occasional vitamin and mineral shortfalls. While they won’t reverse the negative effects of a chronically lousy diet, when taken to support a healthy one, a high-quality multivitamin is the organic cherry on top of a nutritionally-rich diet. Here are a few reasons why I believe multivitamins matter and how to do multi’s right:

Multivitamins come with multi-benefits.

OK, first things first: Taking a multivitamin is essential for sustaining your health and improving the quality of cell functioning. Most vitamins serve as catalysts to reactions occurring in our body, like the spark plugs in an automobile. Your body on the other hand is like a factory, with a hundred trillion cells working to keep you healthy. These cells need raw materials, the 13 essential vitamins, to roll down the assembly line. Without these raw materials, your body needs to scavenge from your bones or your liver, or the assembly line shuts down. This causes energy loss, pain, disease, depression and aging. Multivitamin supplements prevent vitamin deficiencies and play a crucial role in all metabolic process of the body. They assist in energy generation, growth, reproduction and optimal cellular function.  

Conventionally grown foods are nutritionally dead.

Why else should you join the multivitamin brigade? Because these days, it’s a challenge to get enough of the necessary nutrients from just food alone. If you’re eating lots of conventionally-grown produce, here’s a hot take: much of it is nutritionally dead. Why? Because most, if not all, conventionally grown foods are raised in soil that’s been largely depleted of nutrients. According to Scientific American, each successive generation of conventionally grown stuff is less nutritious than the one before. In fact, one study from the University of Texas (UT) looked at 43 different types of fruits and veggies, and found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Why the slide? Researchers chalk up much of the soil nutrient drain as being an unfortunate side-effect of the earth-abusing industrial farming practices used to grow crops bigger, faster, tougher and more pest-resistant.

Your food’s also been around the block – and it’s exhausted.

So, if most of your meals consist of foods that have been grown in nutrient-depleted soil, sprayed with pesticides and maybe even genetically modified, that is definitely not good news for your health. Add to that the likelihood that your food was harvested weeks or even months ago in a far-away land and has been flown/shipped/trucked thousands of miles, then buried in piles of produce at the supermarket, then hidden in your fridge, a LOT of the nutrition has long since drained out by the time it hits your plate. In fact, one study found that broccoli bought out of season in the spring (i.e. shipped in from elsewhere) had about half the Vitamin C as local broccoli bought in the fall, while another study found that spinach that was tested 8 days after it was harvested had lost about half of its folate.

What all this means is that even if you’re feeding your body plenty of vegetables and low-sugar fruits – cornerstones of a healthy diet – your body is still likely to be nutritionally starving. We owe it to ourselves, and our health, to supplement and multivitamins are a great way to help fill the gap.  

Multivitamins help pack more nutrients into your day.

So, how to maximize your daily nutrient dose? Start by avoiding conventionally grown ‘dead’ food, and of course, processed foods as well. Instead, choose organic and farmers’ market options to get the good stuff – as in, produce from local farms, raised in healthier soil, and without trouble-makers like chemical pesticides and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Next, add a multivitamin to top off the tank or, to switch metaphors, to take out a nutritional insurance policy. A multi covers, if not the whole waterfront, a large swath of it, in a single (or two) pill/capsule. We’re striving for a balance between all the nutrients that fuel the enzymes and hormones that keep us healthy. Our bodies are like an orchestra and the multi helps keep it in tune. Note that when it comes to many common vitamins and minerals, we don’t need a big extra dose. In fact, in some cases, overdoing it can actually increase the risk of disease. A multi gives you excellent nutrient coverage without the overkill.

RDAs are inadequate – but with a multi, you won’t be.

Some people are skeptical of multi’s because, they argue, a good diet should provide us with the gov-recommended amounts of necessary vitamins and minerals. In theory perhaps, but this is outdated thinking. Those recommended levels, enshrined in the gov’s RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances), were first devised in the WWII era. Back then the idea was to prevent nutritional deficiency diseases like scurvy, rickets and pellagra. In our era, however, that’s the least we can do! Instead, we should be shooting for optimal health, rather than avoiding retro ills and trying to hit the mostly inadequate RDA numbers, which, by the way, were last updated in 1997.

What’s more, Americans weigh, on average, a good bit more than they did in the ‘90s when the RDAs were last updated, and not surprisingly, larger bodies require more nutritional support, as do aging and stressed out ones. When we’re under more strain, be it high-levels of everyday stress or a chronic health condition, we often need more nutritional allies in our corner – and just one more reason to put a multi should there.

But Doc, my diet is spectacular!

Bravo! That’s great — and keep up the good work by continuing to eat fresh, unprocessed, organic and farmers’ market foods as much as possible. Keep in mind though, even if you are eating plenty of the good stuff, I still recommend taking a multivitamin to insure you’re getting all the nutrients needed for optimal health and cellular function. We live in an unnaturally polluted and stressful world, which makes our need for nutrients much greater. Granted with your super healthy diet you’ve got far fewer bad dietary habits to compensate for but regardless, extra nutrients from a multivitamin will help protect your body against a less-than-ideal external forces and environments, while also optimizing your internal functioning.

Multivitamins: How and when to take them.

Multivitamins  should be taken with food to enhance absorption and ideally with some protein to further assist with mineral absorption. This doesn't mean you always need to have a full meal with your multivitamin – a small healthy snack will do the trick. On meds? Review your multivitamin’s ingredients with your doctor first to ensure there are no contraindications.

What’s on a good multi’s menu.

A good multivitamin contains vitamin D, B vitamins, and magnesium, but also look for multi’s that contain methylated forms of vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) and folic acid (as L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate) as many people have minor genetic defects that interfere with optimal methylation, a process central to detoxification, inflammation control, immune function, and more. I also recommend looking for easily absorbed multi’s in capsule form with an enteric coating versus harder-to-digest tablet versions.

A good multi may cost a little more –  but buy it anyway.

As with most things, buyer beware. Go for the bargain brand and you’ll likely wind up with a product filled with cheap synthetic ingredients. A multi made with cheap binders or ‘excipients’, the non-nutritional substance that holds tablets together and can be allergenic, so remember that what’s in your multivitamin is just as important as what is not in it.  

You’ll want to go for a multi that uses the best ingredients and is free of harmful preservatives, fillers, anticaking agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast, and lactose and other allergens. Also be on the lookout for sugar, lactose, artificial colors, flavors and give ‘synthetic’ multi’s a wide berth as they deliver fewer benefits than those with naturally-occurring ingredients.  The problem with multi’s made with synthetics is that some of them are derived from petrochemicals – certainly a must to avoid.

Poorer quality brands will often include sub-par minerals like magnesium oxide, the cheapest form of magnesium, so if you find magnesium oxide in your multi, that’s a quality red flag, so keep looking. A good rule of thumb when it comes to multi’s? Be “pound wise” and willing pay a bit more to get more the good stuff your body needs (and none of the crappy stuff).

Multivitamin brands that do multi’s right.

There are hundreds if not thousands of multivitamin brands to choose from, but I have a few favorites that I recommend most often to my patients, among them, top tier brands, like Thorne Research, Ortho Molecular Products, Designs for Health, Metagenics, LifeExtension, and Pure Encapsulations.

The next tier down, a little less potent but still safe and widely available, includes Jarrow Formulas, Garden of Life, Bluebonnet, Source Naturals, Solaray, and Renew Life.

If you’re looking for additional recommendations, the website evaluates supplements for safety, efficiency, and purity, and offers useful snapshots on mainstream brands.

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