In today's modern society, you would think we have nutrition figured out. Centuries, if not millennia, of study has gone into food from every possible angle. People all around the world can survive and thrive on a wide variety of different diets.
And yet, here we are, with thousands of possible nutrients that must all be kept in careful balance. Because diets vary so wildly, and because two people in the same area can be eating very different sets of nutrients, it's very difficult to identify specific dietary changes anyone needs.
Add onto this the fact that your nutritional needs vary as you age, and you can see how complex this topic can get. It's difficult to recommend a single nutrient to everyone and assume it's going to help them. Some might; some might be largely a placebo effect, and others might not help in excess at all.
That said, what we've compiled below is a list of nutrients and supplements that your body can almost definitely make good use of if you take more of them. First, though, a few general tips.
Tip #1: If you're concerned about an actual nutritional deficiency, see a nutritionist or a doctor. There are a lot of cases where an individual might have a little under the recommended daily allowance of a given nutrient, but not enough to cause any ill effects; these are cases where something like a multivitamin or a supplement can help. If you're experiencing any actual severe symptoms, like hair loss, tremors, or thyroid problems, see an actual specialist so they can identify what specifically you need to get healthy.
Tip #2: Cut back on the processed foods and inorganic preservatives. Processed sugars, white flours, and other sorts of heavily-processed ingredients – not to mention fast food and TV dinners – may be filling, but they're far from healthy. Your body will feel better and your health will improve when you manage to lean away from the processed foods and eat more whole, organic foods.
Tip #3: Carefully monitor your health. Keep a health journal if you have to. As you start taking a supplement, monitor how it affects your health over the following days, weeks, and months. Some supplements won't have an immediate effect, and might take weeks before you notice any improvement. Others might have an initial negative effect, but will improve over the subsequent weeks. Additionally, it's generally better to take one supplement at a time and let your body stabilize using it before you add in another.
And, of course, discontinue the use of any supplement if you experience dramatic negative effects, or if a doctor tells you to discontinue it. Some nutrients can be detrimental in excess, or might have a negative reaction with a medication you're taking. For example, if you're having kidney issues, avoid any supplements with potassium.
Now, on with the supplements that are most likely going to be beneficial if you take them.
Supplement 1: Vitamin D
First up on the list is Vitamin D. This is a critical vitamin that your body needs to function, and it's essential to allow your body to absorb calcium. If you lack vitamin D, you might find that you get sick more often. You may also experience bone pain and back pain. Critically low levels of vitamin D can be a contributing factor for osteoporosis and bone loss, as well as hair loss.
Your body is generally capable of synthesizing vitamin D naturally; all you need is exposure to sunlight. However, weather means it's not always possible to get that necessary exposure. If you're a third shift worker, or a day shift worker in an office environment, or you just aren't able to get outdoors very often, you might lack the vitamin D you need. As much as 40% of adults in the United States don't get enough sunlight to synthesize enough vitamin D naturally.
Fun fact: sunscreen, while it blocks harmful UV rays that can cause skin damage and skin cancer, also blocks vitamin D synthesis. As such, it's a good idea to get enough vitamin D in other ways.
The National Institute of Health recommends the average adult get at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day. Adults over the age of 60 should bump that level up to 800.
You can get vitamin D through dietary sources; it's found in fatty fish, egg yolks, and milk, as well as fortified foods like many cereals and juice.
What happens if you get too much vitamin D? Well, it depends on what "too much" is. A normal vitamin D supplement will have in the range of 2,000 IU of the vitamin, more than double the recommended amount. However, vitamin D toxicity tends to occur at much higher levels, such as 60,000 IU daily. These extreme megadoses can cause hypercalcemia and kidney problems. However, you're very unlikely to reach this level without extreme supplement intake.
Supplement 2: Magnesium
Magnesium is another essential mineral that your body requires to function. Magnesium is used throughout the body in over 600 different chemical reactions, from the conversion of food into energy to the basic function of your muscles to regulation of your nervous system. Magnesium has a variety of health benefits, ranging from fighting depression to helping combat diabetes, and more.
Unfortunately, most people don't get enough magnesium. The recommended daily intake is around 400 IU for men and around 300 IU for women.
The traditional way of getting more magnesium is through dietary changes. You can get more magnesium through eating it in foods such as pumpkin seeds, spinach, dark chocolate, quinoa, almonds, salmon, and avocado. However, you can also get magnesium through dedicated magnesium supplements or through a multivitamin that includes it.
It's possible to overdose on magnesium, though you will likely experience certain negative symptoms prior to anything more dangerous. In large concentrations, magnesium is used to relieve constipation, so taking too much of it will have very obvious repercussions. If you continue to take too much, you may encounter symptoms like depression, vomiting, stomach cramps, an irregular heartbeat, and low blood pressure.
That said, a typical magnesium supplement is going to be around 300 mg, while the level needed to experience these negative symptoms is closer to 5,000 mg per day. It will be very obvious if you're getting too much.
Supplement 3: Calcium
Calcium and vitamin D are linked; remember up above where we mentioned that vitamin D is essential so your body can absorb calcium? Often, if you're low on one, you'll be low on both. Over 40% of the United States population lacks the appropriate levels of calcium necessary for strong bones, strong teeth, and a strong heart.
The recommended daily intake of calcium is around 1,000 mg for most adults. However, as you age, your risk of osteoporosis and other bone issues increases, so it's better to take more calcium as you get older. Women are more at risk than men for this condition, so should take more calcium sooner.
Dietary sources of calcium include fortified cereals, dairy products including milk, cheese, and yogurt, salty fish, vegetables like broccoli and kale, nuts, beans, and lentils. However, you're not likely to get your full allowance of calcium without going out of your way to change your diet to do it. Therefore, it's generally a good idea to get a calcium supplement, either on its own or as part of a multivitamin.
If you're looking for a calcium supplement, try to find one that uses calcium citrate. This is the most bioavailable form of calcium, meaning the body can absorb it most readily, especially if you also have issues with vitamin D.
As with any nutrient, overdosing on calcium can have negative effects. Symptoms of hypercalcemia include kidney issues that lead to excessive thirst, issues with your stomach such as nausea and vomiting, bone issues, and some mental issues such as fatigue, confusion, and depression. Unless you're taking extreme doses of both calcium and vitamin D, while also living a sedentary lifestyle, you're not likely to experience calcium toxicity.
Supplement 4: Probiotics
Probiotics isn't really a single nutrient. Rather, it's a broad category of various bacteria that are helpful to the body. Your small intestine is packed full of bacteria that live in a symbiotic relationship with you. They help break down, process, and absorb foods.
There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that your gut health and gut flora play an extremely important role in your overall health. For example, recent studies have indicated there may be a link between healthy gut flora and a reduced risk of alzheimer's disease later in life. Other studies suggest that gut flora can have an impact on mood, and that a healthy gut can reduce the risk of depression.
Now, there is still a lot of study to be done on the effects of gut bacteria, both positively and negatively. Don't stop taking an antibiotic, for example; to as your doctor instructs to fight infection, and worry about restoring your gut flora afterwards.
Probiotics can be found in supplements, but it can be risky business to do so, since these supplements aren't very well regulated. It's one thing for a relatively simple chemical like a vitamin, but it's quite another for something as complex as a selection of healthy bacteria. You don't want to take a contaminated bacteria supplement.
Instead, it's best to get your probiotics from food sources. Probiotics in food come from various forms of "spoiled" foods that we still eat. For example, fermented cabbage in the form of kimchi or sauerkraut is a great source. Dairy products that have fermented themselves, such as yogurt and kefir, are also good options. Kombucha, a type of fermented tea, can be great as well.
Supplement 5: Zinc
You may have seen Zinc as the new generation's version of vitamin C. Zinc is a common supplement recommended to take to help prevent and reduce the duration of illnesses, particularly the common cold. Does it work? Well, as with most supplements, there haven't been a lot of very detailed studies about it. When there are, we'll let you know.
One thing we do know is that Zinc is an important mineral for the proper function of the immune system, as well as the way in which our bodies make use of nutrients for energy. All of those carbs, fats, and proteins we eat? Zinc is part of the processes that break those down and turn them into energy.
Zinc is found in high concentrations in organ meat and red meats, particularly grass-fed beef. It's also found in oysters, sardines, and some other seafoods. Unfortunately, this kind of leaves the vegans and vegetarians high and dry. That said, Zinc can also be found in spinach, pumpkin seeds, brown rice, and wheat germ.
On the plus side, it's very easy to get a zinc supplement these days. Not only can you find zinc in your cold remedies or your supplement aisles, it's in multivitamins and in fortified foods as well. It's all over the place, really.
You also don't need a lot of it to be healthy. The recommended daily intake for Zinc is somewhere around 8-10 mg, with 8 for women and 10-11 for men. Pregnant and lactating women should bump up their intake to 11-12 mg per day.
Like many other supplements, it's possible to take too much Zinc. The tolerable upper limit tends to be around 40mg, Zinc overdoses can lead to nausea, vomiting, and headaches, as well as other digestive issues. It comes on fast, though, so you'll know if you take too much.
What other supplements do you consider essential? Let us know in the comments below!