Vitamin supplements: Do we need them?

Mai Chun Wai
BPharm (Hons), PhD, RPh

Article 1 feature image (Vitamin supplements)

Vitamins are a group of compounds that are needed in small quantities for normal daily functions. In general, with the exception to vitamin D, human body cannot produce vitamins. We therefore have to rely on our diet and/or supplements as sources for our vitamins.

Vitamin deficiency is uncommon in adults with a balanced diet. However, due to our hectic and stressful lifestyles, many of us may not achieve a balanced diet in every meal. The understanding of a balanced diet is of utmost importance to determine whether or not an individual requires supplements. Certain populations are more prone to vitamin deficiency due to their dietary preferences, socioeconomic status, alcohol consumption, age, genetic abnormalities or pregnancy. Patients with severe vitamin deficiency may have impaired health status. For example, vitamin C deficiency will cause scurvy, a condition with bleeding gums, dry skin, and impaired wound healing. In 1497, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer set sail with 160 men to discover new sea routes to the East. Many of his men suffered from scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C during their voyage.  Fortunately, they recovered as they traded for fresh oranges, which are a natural source of vitamin C.

Nonetheless, too high a dose of vitamins may be harmful to some people. The modern generation tends to over-supplement themselves. Some companies may have over-emphasized the need of supplements, and are even recommending higher-than-required doses of vitamins to consumers.  Consumers may be attracted to buy vitamin supplements which contain higher quantities of vitamins than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). It may be harmful to the consumer and it certainly causes the consumer to incur unnecessary costs.

Most vitamins are present in balanced diet with a variety of fresh vegetables, grains, fruits and proteins. The portions will also have to be consistent and well balanced. If you are unable to achieve a balanced diet, the right amount of supplementation could be essential to ensure you meet your daily vitamin needs. Patients who have a medical condition will need special adjustments in their supplement regimen under the close supervision of healthcare professionals with supplement expertise. These patients may not need a higher dose, but they would need the right doses to ensure the best effect from supplementation. The important take home message is “know your vitamins and take them right!”.

References:

  • Carpenter KJ (1986) The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Tulchinsky TH. Micronutrient deficiency conditions: global health issues. Public Health Reviews. 2017 Apr 12;32(1):243.
  • NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Statement on Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements and Chronic Disease Prevention. NIH Consensus State Sci Statements 2006; 23:1.
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