4 Things You Need To Know Before Taking Vitamins and Supplements

It’s time to increase your supplement savvy.

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How to Take Vitamins Safely

It’s all too easy to start popping supplements you’ve spotted on social media or heard about from friends. But just because you can get them without a doctor’s note doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Here’s what you need to know to increase your supplement savvy.

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Do You Really Need a Supplement?

Many Canadians are going the supplement route, with a 2010 Ipsos poll finding that 36 percent of people surveyed had taken supplements in the previous year.

The accessibility of supplementation has come a cavalier approach to the whole situation. Dr. Rahima Hirji, a naturopathic doctor with offices in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, says it’s all too easy for Canadians to walk into health food stores and pick up a supplement – regardless of whether they need it and regardless of the dose.“We try to dissuade people who are looking for a quick fix,” she says.

So what’s driving the supplement trend? Experts believe that more media coverage of health issues (the Dr. Oz effect), longer lifespans and a busy pace of life are contributing to a greater interest in supplements that promise better health and protection against disease. “People are overworked, overstressed and overburdened, so they’re looking for ways to mitigate that,” says Dr. Hirji. “People are also living longer, and they want to be in their best health. When they get to retirement, they want to enjoy it.”

Danielle Van Schaick, a registered dietitian based in Victoria, BC,  believes supplements are a way of patching nutritional holes brought on by busy lifestyles, with people supplementing to replace things that are missing from their diets.

However, it’s important to remember that experts concur that supplementation should only be undertaken if you’ve been identified as needing the supplement. This can come from a blood test that reveals a deficiency or through a carefully detailed list of symptoms reviewed by a healthcare professional, such as a general practitioner, registered dietitian, naturopath  or nutritionist.

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Know Your Vitamin D Status

One supplement Andrea D’Ambrosio, a registered dietitian based in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, favours for almost all Canadians is vitamin D because our bodies can’t make enough of it during the winter. Not sure of your vitamin D status? Your doctor can request a blood test that will measure it, she says.

Recent research suggested that higher levels of vitamin D may lower the risk of certain cancers. Van Schaick has seen an increase in the amount of vitamin D that people are taking in the past 10 years. “I used to see people take 400 IUs per day,” she says. “Now I see people taking 3,000, 4,000 or even 5,000 IUs.”

As for vitamin D, taking extreme amounts can lead to a buildup of calcium in the blood, leading to lowered appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness or kidney problems (although this is very uncommon).

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Take Vitamins For Aging

If you’re over 50, I would emphasize vitamin B12 and iron [supplements],” says D’Ambrosio, “particularly if you are vegetarian or vegan because vitamin B12 sources are found in animal products.”

Health Canada recommends that everyone over 50 take a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IUs and advises everyone to ramp up their calcium intake through dietary sources. The agency finds that many Canadians are also deficient in magnesium, a mineral that protects against heart disease.

D’Ambrosio agrees that Canadians don’t get enough magnesium in their diets but cautions that taking more than 350 milligrams per day can cause stomach upset and diarrhea.

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Ask Yourself These Questions Before Taking a New Supplement

  1.  Are you following a reliable source of information, not a marketing scheme?
  2.  Have you told your pharmacist about your new supplement? This expert opinion can decide whether a supplement has the potential to interact with a drug or anything else that you’re taking.
  3.  Have you tried eating a more balanced, nutrient rich diet? After all, supplements will never be as good as real food, says Van Schaick.

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