How To Make The Most Of Your Vitamins & Supplements
There are so many supplements on the market—multivitamins, omegas, vitamin D, and B vitamins, just to name a few—that it can be overwhelming to know what the uses and benefits are and which ones are right for you. As a functional medicine practitioner, I typically see a wide range of well-intentioned but unnecessary supplements. Oftentimes there are only really a handful of vitamins and supplements that need to be considered to optimize your overall health. So let's cut through the confusion! Here is your essential guide to vitamins, their uses and benefits, and how to incorporate them into your existing routine.
No other vitamin can hold a candle to vitamin D and its importance. Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, it acts more like a hormone than a vitamin by regulating hundreds of über-important pathways in your body. Besides your thyroid hormones, this vitamin is the only other thing every single cell of your body needs in order to function properly. Also known as the sunshine vitamin, your body actually makes vitamin D by absorbing sunlight and then converting it to a usable form. We can’t get the amount we truly need from food alone, so supplementing is key so that we don’t become deficient, especially if you live far from the equator or in a place where sunny days aren’t always the norm.
Dosage: While the standard reference range for vitamin D levels falls between 50 to 60 ng/mL, in functional medicine we aim for an optimal range between 60 to 80 ng/mL. Depending on where your starting levels are, anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 IU is an adequate amount per day. Make sure to test your vitamin D levels to find out your starting point, and retest to gauge how your vitamin D level optimization is going.
How to incorporate: Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, take advantage of vitamin synergy by combining it with other fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and K2. This will help make it more bioavailable and balanced. It's also a great idea to take them with fatty foods like avocado, olive oil, wild-caught fish, and coconut to increase their bioavailability.
This mineral is needed for over 300 crucial biochemical reactions in your body, including the regulation of neurotransmitter functions. Up to 80 percent of the population is deficient in this nutrient, leading to problems with sleep, anxiety, migraines, and brain fog. Most deficiencies come from a poor diet or gut problems, making magnesium absorption difficult.
There are many different forms of magnesium, so let's break down the best. Magnesium citrate is the most commonly found in supplement-form and is a good option. Magnesium glycinate is more easily absorbed by the body, and magnesium Threonate seems promising for more neurological support. Magnesium oil is another great way to boost this vital nutrient.
Dosage: 350 mg per day.
How to incorporate: Taking magnesium right before bed is often best as it promotes better sleep by relaxing muscles and helping the calming neurotransmitter, GABA, in your brain.
As Hippocrates said, "All disease begins in the gut." Science is finally catching up, with research showing that the gut is the foundation for almost all aspects of your health—regardless of whether you are having digestive symptoms or not. Your gut microbiome contains trillions of bacteria, and without a proper balance of good bacteria, it can affect everything from your weight to your hormones. While it is important to be including probiotic-rich foods into your diet such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha, depending on your level of gut permeability, you may need an additional boost from a probiotic supplement.
Dosage: At least 10 billion CFU per day.
How to incorporate: To really amp up the effects of your probiotics, make sure to include enough prebiotic foods, such as garlic, asparagus, and onions into your diet. These fibrous foods act as fuel for your probiotics by helping facilitate the growth of good gut bacteria. When choosing a probiotic, make sure to take one that includes strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. These two specific strains are shown to reduce inflammation. I am also a fan of soil-based probiotics (SBO) to further support rich bacterial diversity.
Omega-3 fish oil.
Healthy fat is essential for optimal brain health, as your brain itself is comprised of about 60 percent fat, so depriving your body of fat can contribute to anything from brain fog and fatigue to depression and anxiety. So if you're not getting enough healthy fats, specifically enough from wild-caught seafood, you might want to consider an omega-3 fish oil supplement. Omega fats can be found in plant sources such as flax, but it’s not easily used by our bodies because it must be converted into DHA or EPA, which is an inefficient process. Because of this, I suggest getting your omega fats from fish oil from salmon, cod liver, or sardines.
Dosage: 2250mg EPA / 750mg DHA per day.
How to incorporate: If you're eating more omega-6 fatty acids (like those found in certain oils like safflower oil)—which can increase inflammation throughout the body—try taking fish oil to reduce the inflammatory effects.
Think of this blue-green algae as your superfood of the sea. Spirulina is a great source of iron, phytonutrients, and iodine, all commonly lacking in the modern Western diet.
Dosage: 3 grams per day.
How to incorporate: Spirulina is most commonly available in powder form, which makes it perfect to just stir into your tea or add to your daily smoothie!
Inflammation is at the center of every chronic health problem today. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory tool to have in your health arsenal. Whether you are taking turmeric or curcumin (the powerful antioxidant found within turmeric), you can begin to win the battle against inflammation.
Dosage: For those looking for inflammation maintenance, 2 grams per day is a good start, but as much as 10 grams per day may be needed to drive down higher levels of inflammation.
How to incorporate: Unless you know that you are currently struggling with chronic high levels of inflammation, this is not necessarily something you need to be including in your routine every single day. For the average person eating a healthy diet, cooking with this spice is more than enough to reap the benefits. Piperine, the compound found in black pepper, increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2,000 percent, so find a supplement that includes this compound.
This vitamin is most commonly associated with the common cold as it's a powerful immune booster found to reduce symptoms by up to 30 percent. And typically, people have no trouble getting in the daily recommendation of vitamin C (65 to 90 mg per day) since a lot of foods contain it.
Dosage: 1,000 to 4,000 mg per day to boost your immune system and promote healthy skin.
How to incorporate: Combining with zinc can increase its immune-boosting properties. You can easily find powdered supplements that you can mix with water to take with you for when you start to feel a little less than 100 percent.
Your body has no way to store this important mineral, so it is important to make sure you're getting this through your diet or supplementation. Its main role is to help your body increase white blood cells and fight off infection, and it also assists with the release of antibodies. Deficiency has been linked to increased instances of sickness, so it is no wonder you often find zinc as a common ingredient in the cold and flu aisle of your pharmacy.
Dosage: 15 to 30 mg per day. Pregnant women should aim for 12 mg per day since it's essential for normal fetal development.
How to incorporate: If you're eating a healthy well-rounded diet, you should be getting in the proper amount of zinc per day without needing a supplement. But if getting over a cold quickly is your goal, supplementing at least 75 mg per day has been shown to greatly reduce cold duration and symptoms so you can get back to optimal health.
Methylated B complex.
B vitamins are the fuel behind methylation. What is methylation, you ask? Well, this biochemical process happens more than 1 billion times every single second inside your body. It helps keep you alive and healthy by assisting in your body’s ability to properly detox. There are so many different types of B vitamins, so it’s important to get in a well-rounded amount of each.
Dosage: 400 to 800 mcg methylfolate (B9), 1,000 mcg methylcobalamin (B12) per day.
How to incorporate: The best B-vitamin supplement would be a B-complex vitamin containing methylated B vitamins, especially if you have methylation impairments like the MTHFR gene mutation. Look for activated B vitamins like B9 L-Methylfolate (L-5-MTHF), B6 Pyridoxyl-5-Phosphate (P5P), and B12 versions (such as Adenosyl B12, Cyano B12, Hydroxycobalamin B12, or Methyl B12).
Vitamin A is essential for equipping you with a strong immune system. And vitamin A deficiency has also been linked to autoimmune diseases, which are on the rise in a major way. Why? Researchers seem to think it has to do with our dendritic cells; these alarm cells of the immune system can send out a "red alert" to stimulate immunity or a "calm down" message that tones down excessive immune reactions that can damage the body. The "calm down" message makes use of vitamin A.
Plant beta-carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots but the conversion rate to the usable retinol is very weak. In fact, research suggests that just 3 percent of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult. Because of this, look for vitamin A sources from either whole-food sources like fish liver oil or retinyl palmitate.
Dosage: 2,000 to 10,000 IU per day.
One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune system in rats that had multiple sclerosis symptoms. Unfortunately, K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the Western diet. There are several types of K2, but I suggest looking for the MK-4 version. MK-4 regulates gene expression in specific ways that no other form of vitamin K does. MK-4 plays an exclusive role in cancer protection and sexual health.
Dosage: 100 to 200 mcg per day.
How to incorporate: Taking these fat-soluble vitamins together with vitamin D will help keep your levels from going too high as well as making vitamin D more bioavailable to your body! Because these are fat-soluble, they are absorbed best by taking them with a fat-containing meal such as avocado, salmon, or just a bit of butter or coconut oil added to whatever you're cooking.
This protein is found in our tendons, skin, cartilage, bones, blood vessels, ligaments, and more and is responsible for healthy metabolism and our own collagen production. Made up of three amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline), each one is produced in our body but not at high enough levels to be beneficial. We require around 15 grams of glycine per day, but most of us only get 3 grams per day from our modern diet.
Dosage: 8 grams per day.
How to incorporate: Powdered collagen peptides are fantastic because these are easy to add to smoothies or any other liquid. Look for brands that derive their collagen from grass-fed and pasture-raised protein sources or use marine collagen.
In summary, you can take many of these nutrients in a multivitamin, and some you will need to separately get the dosage that you need. Remember, food is your best medicine. You can't supplement your way out of a poor diet.
Of course, not everyone needs to or should incorporate each of these vitamins and supplements into their wellness routine. It’s always important to take your individual needs and health case into consideration. Working with a functional medicine practitioner can help you determine what exactly you are lacking to determine what you should be supplementing with.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.