There are dozens of nutrients that “they” say you should take to be healthy. There seems to be a new one every week. You may be afraid you are turning into That Person with a counter full of supplement bottles. Perhaps you ARE That Person. You may simple be trying to make sense of the madness and finally answer the million dollar question: which ones do you really need? I may not have an answer to that question (or I’d go and get the million dollars and leave you scratching your head!) but I thought I’d help by giving you a list of what I think is the top ten nutrients we all need.
- Iron. What can I say other than – it reigns supreme! Okay, I’ll toss you a nugget. If you are relying on plant sources for your iron, always eat them with something acidic such as lemon juice as this will improve the bioavailability (fancy word for “what you actually digest”) of the iron in the plant food. In other words, Popeye, eat your spinach with a squeeze of lemon!
- Vitamin A—both the preformed vitamin As (retinoids: retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, etc) and the provitamin A’s (carotenoids: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, etc.) are used by the body as vitamin A. You are probably aware that vitamin A is good for your vision. One of the first physical signs of lack of vitamin A is poor night vision. Vitamin A does more than just keep our peepers working. It regulates gene expression (read: prevent cancer), helps our immunity, prevents birth defects, and is necessary for red blood cell production. If you have iron deficiency anemia, you need to supplement vitamin A as it will help you assimilate the iron supplements better. It is possible to develop Vitamin A toxicity with preformed vitamin A but not with the carotenoids. For this reason, do not take high potency vitamin A supplements without medical supervision.
- Vitamin C—You would have to be a hermit living in a dark jungle somewhere not to know that Vitamin C is an important antioxidant. Did you know that it also is important for producing collagen for the structural integrity of our blood vessels, tendons, bone, etc? Did you know it also is required for the production of norepinephrine (that's an important neurotransmitter)? Or that it is required for the making of carnitine (needed for transporting fat to the mitochondria where it becomes energy)? Or, that Vitamin C may help you reduce your cholesterol? It does all that and protects our bodies against free radicals! The RDA for vitamin C is considered sufficient to prevent scurvy. Research shows that levels higher than this minimum can actually prevent diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, cataracts, and gout.
- Vitamin E—You may or may not have heard of the tocopherols and tocotrienols, four of each, that make up the family we know as Vitamin E. Of those, the star of the show in the human body is Alpha-Tocopherol. Alpha-tocopherol is focused on one job: antioxidant extraordinaire. It does this job very well. Studies show it also helps in preventing cancer, heart disease, and cataracts. Toxicity from taking high levels of Vitamin E are rare but it can cause blood thinning so discontinue a month prior to elective surgery.
- B12—or cobalamin is required for a number of biochemical processes including those related to RNA and DNA. You may have been lead to believe that only vegans are at risk of a deficiency in B12, this is not true. There are other causes of this deficiency all related to digestive issues you may or may not be aware you have. Anemia may actually be a B12 rather than iron deficiency so it is important to know, if you are anemic, which nutrient you are deficient in. Symptoms of deficiency include numbness and tingling of the arms and/or legs, difficulty walking, memory loss, disorientation, dementia, and other neurological damage.
- Vitamin D—Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is made by the skin when exposed to UVB rays of the sun. D3 can also be obtained from the diet. D3 must be converted by the liver into calcidiol (aka 25-hydroxyvitamin D) which is the active form of Vitamin D and what your doctor tests for when checking serum levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is required for calcium balance in the body (which affects your heart as well as your bones), cell differentiation (read: prevent cancer), immune function, insulin secretion, blood pressure regulation, and more. While everyone is taught in elementary school that a lack of Vitamin D leads to rickets, that is not the only consequence of a D deficiency. Other potential problems are osteomalacia and muscle weakness and pain. Even if you think you are getting enough sun exposure to produce your own Vitamin D, you should consider including food sources and/or supplements.
- Folic Acid—Both folic acid and folate are terms used to refer to the same “B” vitamin. Folic acid is rarely found in foods or in the human body but is the form most often used in supplements and fortified foods because it is more stable than folate. Folate is essential for DNA metabolism and the prevention of excess levels of homocysteine (which leads to heart disease). Deficiencies lead to megaloblastic or macrocytic anemia (enlarged, immature red blood cells). If you are planning on getting pregnant, you should consider taking high potency folic acid supplements for two years prior to getting pregnant because your folate stores will be seriously tapped by the developing fetus. Whether you are “planning” a pregnancy or not, if you are of childbearing age it is wise to take folic acid supplements—the best insurance you can have for a healthy baby.
- Magnesium—Its the oft forgotten wonder child of the nutrient world. Magnesium is involved in over 300 different biochemical functions in the human body. If you have aches and pains, take magnesium. If you are having trouble sleeping, take magnesium. You may have heard that magnesium deficiency is rare. I say “hogwash”! Magnesium deficiency is difficult to test for because only 1% of the body’s store is in the blood and that is what doctors test. Doctors cannot see whether your bone and cell stores are empty.
- Zinc—another oft forgotten mineral with more significance than is often acknowledge. Zinc is key to a number of cellular metabolic functions and also is critical for growth and development, immune function, neurological function and reproduction. Zinc deficiency inhibits vitamin A function and affects immune function. If you have skin problems such as acne or rosacea, you can benefit from taking more zinc.
- Niacin—the energy vitamin. Niacin is a “B” vitamin that is important in the biochemical pathways that generate energy for the cells of the body and for our daily activities. Niacin prevents cancer and type-1 diabetes. Niacin in the form nicotinic acid (the “flushing” type) is used at “pharmaceutical doses” to treat high cholesterol and heart disease. Nicotinic acid can also help improve circulation to the skin and extremities. The “flushing” is a result of this increased circulation and can be uncomfortable but does not last long. Studies have shown that the “non-flushing” form of niacin is not as effective at treating cholesterol or heart disease.
So, there you have it, the top ten nutrients for good health.