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Integrated Medicine

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

A Comon Sense approach to Vitamins and Mineral Supplements

Vitamins and minerals are essential for all human beings. These nutrients play many important roles: for example, vitamins and minerals help to boost the immune system, they keep the body strong and they fuel growth. So it stands to reason that taking a vitamin or mineral supplement takes care of all the body’s nutritional requirements each day, right? Not exactly.

While some people may benefit from taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that’s endorsed by doctors and dieticians. What’s more, vitamin and mineral supplements don’t pack the same nutritional punch that a balanced meal does.

“Nutrition doesn’t come in a pill,” said Betsy Blazek-O’Neill, MD, medical director, Allegheny General Hospital Integrated Medicine Program, West Penn Allegheny Health System. “Most people can better metabolize vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from a diet that includes lean meats and fish, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains. Wholesome meals also provide dietary fiber, which helps the body to stabilize bowel movements, keeps cholesterol low and controls blood sugar levels. By contrast, vitamin and mineral supplements may not be absorbed as well by the body. In addition, some supplements can cause adverse reactions with prescription medicines and they can even be harmful if used improperly.”

Although vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet, they can be helpful for certain people, Dr. O’Neill pointed out. “A multivitamin can provide a health benefit for people who don’t have access to a healthy diet, such as senior citizens or kids who are fussy eaters,” she said.

In addition, certain vitamin and mineral supplements may be beneficial for specific groups of people:

  • Pregnant women often need folic acid each day to reduce the chance of delivering a baby with a birth defect.
  • People who have osteoporosis or other bone problems may need to take a calcium or vitamin D supplement.
  • Individuals who don’t get enough sunlight or who have darker skin might need a vitamin D supplement.
  • Vegetarians or persons who are lactose intolerant may need to take a calcium supplement if they are not drinking milk or consuming dairy products.

If you are unsure if you need a vitamin or mineral supplement, talk to your doctor. In some instances, you may need a blood test to determine if your body has enough of key nutrients like iron or vitamin D. Your doctor can help tailor a supplementation approach that meets your individualized needs.

The best approach to taking a vitamin or mineral supplement is common sense. “Just because a product is labeled ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it is helpful or safe,” said Dr. O’Neill. “Try to meet your nutritional needs by following a balanced diet and take a supplement only when it is necessary.”


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