Vitamin supplements: essential guide for older people

Mays Al-Ali explains why vitamin supplements are a good thing but should not be seen as a magic bullet for a poor diet and lifestyle choices.
vitamin supplements

Why are vitamin supplements needed? Well, did you know 90% of people in the UK fail to get the recommended amounts of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients their bodies need from food alone?

Our nutritional needs are often changing; add in strict dieting in some or poor appetite in others and a high percentage of our dietary recommendations don’t end up being fulfilled. The standard Western diet is filled with heavily processed foods and junk foods alongside stress which contributes to poor gut health; makes it more difficult for our bodies to extract all the nutrients it needs from our foods and in turn reduces mineral and vitamin absorption as we digest.

Whilst vitamin supplements cannot or should not replace a poor diet, they can help prevent the damage poor eating habits cause therapeutically whilst the diet is improved. Vitamin supplements are intended to bridge the nutritional gap, enhancing nutrient density and when I work with clients 1-1 in nutritional therapy, I often give them therapeutic larger doses to help them feel better initially, but this is always alongside improvements in diet and lifestyle and not a permanent measure.

Magnesium and B-vitamins are one of the most popular recommendations to use in supplement form – most people don’t eat enough or even any dark green leafy veggies, which are the main source of these essential nutrients.

If B-vits and magnesium are low this can affect our energy metabolism causing fatigue and also muscle cramps. So, increasing these both in food form and supplements is a good idea. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is another one. Not having enough of these can create excess inflammation in the body leading to chronic diseases and antioxidant depletion – as well as eating oily fish, algae, chia, flax and hemp seeds, taking a good quality clean fish oil supplement is often a good idea for most people.

In some people malabsorption may increase as we age so our bodies have reduced capacity for breaking down and absorbing nutrients leading to chronic lifestyle conditions. Alongside that the production of digestive enzymes (which help us to effectively digest our foods that we eat) naturally begins to decline as we age. I also often see older clients on a whole host of medications in my clinic, however, most modern meds actually deplete essential nutrients.

Even in younger people who are taking the oral contraceptive pill, it’s quite common to see nutrient depletion. Vitamin supplements can therefore help restore this imbalance.

Athletes or those who train intensively will always require more energy and nutrients as they are using up more than the standard person. Promoting recovery after intense workouts is super important to replenish essential nutrients and fuel energy levels. Eating a rainbow-coloured antioxidant filled diet is essential for these types but supplementation is especially useful for those who like to train hard.

Why vitamin supplements are necessary

But why is supplementation needed? Well… a lot of modern farming techniques use fertilisers that deplete the soils of essential vitamins and minerals, robbing the plants of nutrients.

Fertile soil is crucial for fruits and veggies to grow with the proper amount of minerals in them. Without this, plants are not as nutrient dense as they should be and sadly in current times a lot of our soils are heavily depleted from over-farming.

Even the organic ones are not as nutrient dense as in our parent’s or grandparents’ lifetimes. However organic fruits and veggies always have more nutrients than non-organic so, where possible, do try to buy organic.

As well as pesticides and herbicides used to farm our foods, sadly our water supplies are polluted with more chemicals than ever before and external environmental pollution means toxicity is all around us in the air we breathe and the products we put in and on our bodies.

These harmful chemicals create free radicals that deplete our antioxidants, weakening our immune system and triggering leaky gut issues. All this toxicity drastically increases our need for extra vitamins and minerals, and especially the need for more antioxidants to help fight those free radicals, so this is where supplementations comes in extra handy.

Choosing the right vitamin supplements

Whilst it’s very easy for most people to self-medicate with supplements, there is a word of caution. A lot of vitamin supplements can do more harm than good if taken when not necessary, plus can also be very expensive for little or no relief.

For instance, taking iron if you don’t need it can work as a pro-oxidant. This is the opposite of an antioxidant, which means it can cause inflammation in the body by feeding unhealthy bacteria. So only ever take iron if you have had a blood test that shows it is low. As well as that, did you know that taking a multi-vitamin containing beta-carotene has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers? Most people don’t but its very important to take note of. So, my advice is to always work 1-1 with a nutritionist before taking a large amount of self-prescribed vitamin supplements.

Also, did you know that taking minerals together is not a good idea?

Mineral supplements actually compete against each other for absorption – so avoid taking zinc, calcium, iron or magnesium all at once (unless in a pre-made multi-vitamin, as the percentages will be low enough not to cause competition).

Taking amino acids together is also not a good idea since they too compete with each other for absorption. N Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is an amazing supplement to take for liver detox for instance as it is a precursor to glutathione, our master antioxidant in the body which helps supports liver function. The best way to take it is away from meals since if a meal is protein rich, the amino acids will compete for absorption with the NAC.

Similarly, for lysine which is a great amino acid to supplement to reduce viral load – again taking this on an empty stomach is recommended. My best advice. Always ask for help from a registered professional nutritionist.

For more content on healthy eating and vitamin supplements visit our Nutrition channel.

Last modified: June 29, 2021

Written by 3:23 pm Nutrition