There are many important nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy. These include vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and protein.
But when do we know which of these our bodies are in short supply of, and for those who take vitamins religiously - is there ever such a thing as taking too much?
Or is it a delicate balance?
“We need to get in a variety of nutrients to keep our bodies in top shape. Vitamins are available in supplement form - the name should give a very important clue as to how these should be viewed: as supplements to a healthy diet. There are certain people who will benefit from a supplement, but we should all aim to get most of our nutrients from food,” registered dietitian and Association for Dietetics in South Africa spokesperson Nathalie Mat ventured to explain.
In light of this, we asked Mat to further expand on the role of vitamins - which locally boast a multibillion-rand industry - and the dangers of taking too many vitamins at a time.
VM: What are some of the signs that you have a vitamin deficiency?
NM: Because vitamins are involved in every system of the body, there are many signs that can indicate a deficiency. Typical symptoms include low energy levels, poor mood and decreased resistance to infection.
VM: Do you have to have a deficiency of a particular vitamin in your body to start taking vitamins?
NM: It is important to differentiate between two classes of vitamins: fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. The body has a limited ability to store large amounts of water-soluble vitamins. This means we need to take them in consistently from our food. Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, can be stored in the body and can build up to toxic levels if we supplement too much.
If you want to take supplements, you may ask your doctor or dietitian to help you match the right supplement rather than guessing which nutrients you need. Y
ou can do tests for many nutrients, and you’re advised to test your levels of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A or vitamin D if you want to take high doses.
Supplementation when you don’t need it can lead to toxic levels of nutrients in your body, which can be just as damaging as a deficiency.
VM: What is the adequate amount of vitamins one can take in general?
NM: If you do want to take a supplement and have not been to see a health professional about supplementation, you would do well to stay near 100% of the recommended daily allowance for nutrients, especially the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.
VM: When does it become “too much” - is there such a thing as taking too many vitamins?
NM: Yes, anything in excess can cause issues. Too much vitamin C can damage the kidneys if too high doses are taken without enough water. All the fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate and cause toxicity symptoms if taken in excess. One should avoid taking single nutrient supplements in the long term unless you have discussed their safety with your health professional.
VM: What are the dangers of taking too many vitamins?
NM: All nutrients are absorbed at specific receptors. Sometimes several nutrients are absorbed by one receptor. Taking too much of a single nutrient, for example copper, can block the absorption of other minerals by the body. Taking too many nutrients may have unknown effects within your body. Rely on food for nutrients as your first priority - vitamin supplements are only there to supplement your diet.