Supplements Vitamins Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients: substances required in small amounts that are nevertheless vital for normal growth, body function, and health. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can produce serious health problems, which can often be avoided by taking supplements.

A Brief History of Vitamins and Health

Although vitamins are perhaps the best known health supplements, medical science did not begin to categorize vitamins until the early twentieth century. Here’s a brief timeline showing how medical knowledge of vitamins evolved.

1747: Although he was not aware of it, Scottish naval surgeon James Linden discovered vitamin C when he realized that something in citrus fruits prevented scurvy in British sailors. Linden’s discovery led to the British navy insisting sailors eat lemons while at sea.

1905: Englishman William Fletcher discovered that eating unpolished (brown) rice could prevent beriberi disease (body deficiency of vitamin B1). He was able to demonstrate that some unknown nutrient in rice husks was vital for good health.

1906: Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins concluded that certain elements in food are essential for proper health.

1911: Cashmir Funk, a Polish scientist, coins the term “vitamine” to describe substances required for good health.

1912 to 1937: Vitamins A, B, B1, B2, C, D, E, and niacin are all isolated.

Sources of Vitamins and Minerals: Food and Supplements

Both vitamins and minerals can be found in food and work best when combined with food compounds. A healthy diet should provide all the vitamins and minerals needed for health without the need for supplements. However, eating a diet that contains all necessary nutrients is often difficult, especially as current agricultural techniques have resulted in less nutritional fruits and vegetables.

As a general rule, supplements of vitamins and minerals are generally only required for people whose diet lacks these essential substances. Older individuals may find it difficult to eat enough to get required amounts of vitamins and minerals. Younger people’s careers and families may make healthy eating difficult. Supplements may also be required to counteract the effects of certain health problems, including:

  • anorexia
  • bulimia
  • cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • endocrine disorders
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • malnutrition.

Pregnant women need to ingest enough vitamins and minerals to ensure their own health, and the health of their developing babies. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as iron and folic acid may cause pregnancy complications and birth defects. Doctors may prescribe supplements during pregnancy, but a pregnant woman should not take extra vitamins and minerals without first consulting with her doctor.

Types of Vitamins

Vitamins are organic compounds found in food. Vitamins are generally classified as either water-soluble vitamins (the B vitamins and vitamin C) or fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Common vitamin supplements include:

Vitamin Food Sources Treats RDA*
Vitamin A
  • Butter
  • Egg yolks
  • Fish
  • Fortified milk
  • Liver
  • Allergies
  • Colds and flu
  • Diabetes
  • Eye infections
  • Immune system booster
  • Night vision
  • Skin disorders
  • Vaginal infections
Male: 900 µg
Female: 700 µg
Thiamin (B1)
  • Pork
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Heartburn
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Heart disease
Male: 1.2 mg
Female: 1.1 mg
Riboflavin (B2)
  • Dairy products
  • Liver
  • Beef
  • Eggs
  • Avocados
  • May prevent cataracts
  • Migraines
  • Skin disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
Male: 1.3 mg
Female: 1.1 mg
Niacin (B3)
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Pasta and cereal
  • Heart disease
  • Circulatory problems
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
Male: 16 mg
Female: 14 mg
Vitamin B6
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Potatoes
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Asthma
  • Premenstrual symptoms
  • Depression
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Heart disease
  • Morning sickness
Male: 100 mg
Female: 80 mg
Folic Acid (B9)
  • Green vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Orange juice
  • Reduces birth defect risk
  • Heart disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • May help depression
Male: 400 µg
Female: 400 µg
Vitamin B12
  • Animal meats
  • Eggs
  • Brewers yeast
  • Dairy products
  • Rosacea
  • Anemia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Immune system booster
Male: 2.4 µg
Female: 2.4 µg
Vitamin C
  • Citrus fruit
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Cold symptoms
  • Allergies
  • Cancer prevention
  • Heart attack prevention
  • Immune system booster
Male: 90 mg
Female: 75 mg
Vitamin D
  • Fortified milk
  • Tuna and salmon
  • Osteoporosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Helps prevent some cancers
Male: 5 µg
Female: 5 µg
Vitamin E
  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • May prevent heart disease and stroke
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cancer prevention
  • Immune system booster
  • Parkinson’s disease
Male: 15 mg
Female: 15 mg
Vitamin K
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Plant oils
  • Meats
  • Pistachios
  • Dairy products
  • Reduces bleeding
  • May slow cholesterol build up
  • Osteoporosis
Male: 120 µg
Female: 75 µg

Mineral Supplements and Health

Minerals are inorganic compounds necessary for good health. Depending on the amount required by the body, minerals are classified as macrominerals or trace minerals.

Macrominerals are minerals required in large amounts by the body and include calcium, chloride, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulfur.

Trace minerals are only required in tiny amounts, but are nevertheless vital for health. Trace minerals include copper, cobalt, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium, and zinc.

Mineral Food Sources Treats RDA*
Calcium
  • Dairy products
  • Almonds
  • Canned salmon
  • Meats
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Osteoporosis
  • Hypertension
  • May reduce colon cancer risk
  • Premenstrual symptoms
Male: 1,000 mg
Female: 1,000 mg
Chromium
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Meats
  • Seafood
  • Brewers yeast
  • May reduce risk of diabetes and high cholesterol
Male: 30 µg
Female: 25 µg
Copper
  • Shellfish
  • Organ meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Potatoes
  • Bananas
    Wheat bran
  • Cocoa products
  • Produces antioxidants
  • May prevent arrhythmias, hypertension, and osteoporosis
Male: 900 µg
Female: 900 µg
Iodine
  • Iodized table salt
  • Sea fish and seaweed
  • Reduced risk of mental retardation in a developing fetus
  • Thyroid health
Male: 150 µg
Female: 150 µg
Iron
  • Lamb, beef, liver
  • Clams and oysters
  • Beans and peas
  • Leafy greens
  • Dried raisins and apricots
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
Male: 8 mg
Female: 18 mg

Magnesium

  • Shellfish
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Lowers risk of heart disease.
  • Improves blood clotting
  • Migraines
Male: 400 mg
Female: 320 mg
Phosphorous
  • Dairy products
  • Meat, fish, poultry
  • Cola drinks
  • Dental health
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
Male: 1,000 mg
Female: 1,000 mg
Potassium
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Potatoes
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Meat and poultry
  • Hypertension
  • May reduce risk of stroke and heart disease
No RDA, but suggested that adults get at least 2,000 mg a day
Selenium
  • Seafood
  • Poultry and meats
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Reduces risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke
Male: 55 µg
Female: 55 µg
Zinc
  • Meats
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Beans
  • Protects against colds and flu
  • Slows vision loss
  • Acne
Male: 11 mg
Female: 8 mg

*Recommended Dietary Allowance. RDAs in these charts are for adults between the ages of 19 and 50. RDAs change with age, and pregnant or breastfeeding women often have higher RDAs.

Note: 1 milligram (mg) = 1,000 micrograms (µg). Use caution to distinguish between the two.

Vitamins, Minerals and Safety

Like other nutritional supplements, the FDA does not directly regulate them. This results in supplements of varying qualities and purities. Ask a medical professional to recommend a good quality brand.

When selecting supplements, pay attention to the supplement’s expiration date. Expired vitamins and minerals will do little to help your health. Avoid supplements that provide “megadoses.” Excessive amounts of vitamins and minerals can be toxic and harmful to your health. Again, ask your doctor for the dose that is right for you.

Like many other health products, vitamins and minerals should be stored safely out of the way of children. A bottle of supplements contains enough vitamins and minerals to poison a child.