"In an ideal world we would get all the nutrients we need from a healthy diet, we would exercise regularly and get at least eight hours sleep a night; we wouldn't smoke, drink or get stressed out. Back in the real world, however, things are very different," says Healthspan's Dr Sarah Brewer.

"But, with as many different dietary supplements available as there are conflicting messages about them, it can be hard to know what is best for you. There are also questions of how best to take them, when to take them, how much is too much and other important considerations," she says.

With this in mind, with the help of Dr Sarah we've put together a comprehensive guide on how to make the most of your vitamins and supplements.

Blue alarm clock

First things first: find a routine

So that your body can make the most of the supplements you take, it's important to take them regularly and at the right time of day. It's so important, in fact, that we've dedicated an article to supplement routines.

See When's the best time to take my supplements? for more information.

What's the difference between vitamins and supplements?

The first part of 'vitamin' is 'vita', meaning 'life'. The second part, 'min', is derived from the longer word 'Amine', which is the name of a class of compounds to which vitamins were originally thought to belong.

If we look at the definition of supplement, it means "something that completes or enhances something else when added to it."

In effect a health supplement, such as a vitamin D supplement, is a method of aiding, enhancing or simply supporting your health.

Contained within a supplement is the actual vitamin, which in the case of vitamin D can only be obtained naturally by your body through sunlight.

There are vitamins called A, B, C, D, E, and K...
...But what happened to vitamins F, G, H, I, and J?

Now that's a good question.

Hint… a lot of them got re-identified as part of the vitamin B complex.

The 'missing' vitamins

Vitamin F

Reissued as an Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) a long time ago – think omega 3 and omega 6.

Vitamin G

Previously this was the American name for what the British called B2. Now both know it as 'riboflavin'.

Vitamins H and I

You'll probably know vitamin I from its colloquial name 'ibuprofen'. Vitamin H, more commonly known as biotin, is part of the B complex group of vitamins.

Vitamin J

Vitamin J was once identified as choline, which was also formerly considered to be a B vitamin (vitamin B4). Choline is one of the missing B numbers, along with inositol (vitamin B8) and para amino benzoic acid (PABA), which is sometimes referred to as vitamin B10.

Supplement Safety

What are NRVs?

NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values) are an EU measure of the levels of intake of essential nutrients that are considered to meet the known needs of most healthy people. These are expressed as a percentage of the NRV that a certain food or supplement meets. For example, if a daily dose of a vitamin C supplement contains 100% NRV, then the EU considers the supplement to contain a sufficient amount of vitamin C for a healthy person for that day.

Upper safe levels

Nutritional scientists have identified upper tolerable levels for the long-term use of vitamin and mineral supplements. These reflect the doses that most people can take every day without experiencing side effects.

In many cases, these doses are a lot higher than the NRV in your supplement. For a few supplements, however, the upper safe level is close to the recommended daily NRV amount (e.g. for iron and magnesium).

Red telephone

Top supplement safety tips

● If you order from Healthspan's call centre, their Nutritional Advisors will automatically let you know if you are likely to go above upper safe limits based on the supplements you purchase.

● If you have a medical condition and are thinking about taking supplements always check with your doctor or pharmacist first.

This is especially important if you are taking prescribed medicines or over-the-counter remedies. Many drugs are known to interact with foods or supplements, so always check for potential interactions before you take them.

Combining supplements

If you are combining supplements that might contain the same vitamins or minerals, check the combined doses carefully to ensure you do not breach upper safe levels except under medical advice (e.g. to treat iron-deficiency anaemia).

What about supplements that already combine vitamins and minerals?

Some supplements have a synergistic effect when used together, which is why glucosamine and chondroitin is one of the most popular combined supplements. Calcium and vitamin D are also often used together, as vitamin D enhances the absorption of calcium from the intestines. Similarly, vitamin C boosts the uptake of dietary iron. One of the most popular combinations for many people is a multivitamin and mineral plus an omega-3 fish oil, as this provides a good foundation for nutritional health.

Water-soluble versus fat-soluble

Vitamins fall into one of two categories based on their solubility. Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and are readily lost from the body via the kidneys. A regular, daily intake is therefore important to avoid deficiencies. By contrast, fat-soluble vitamins are more readily stored in liver and fat cells, so it takes longer for low dietary intakes to lead to a deficiency. It is important not to exceed recommended doses of fat-soluble vitamins, as excess could build up in the body to cause toxicity.

Examples of water-soluble vitamins

  • Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate, biotin, C.
  • Vitamin B12 is unusual as, although it is water-soluble, the liver can store significant amounts.

Examples of fat-soluble vitamins

  • Vitamins A, D, E and K

Aren't all supplements the same?

At Healthspan, we believe that quality is as important as price. We work hard to ensure that our products are ethically sourced and manufactured to the highest standards. Our suppliers follow Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) standards, to ensure that our supplements are safe, pure and effective.

We are equally careful when it comes to sourcing our products; for example, all our fish oil capsules are made with Friend of the Sea-certified fish oils, showing that the products are sourced using methods that do not over-exploit fish stocks, threaten the marine food chain, or harm the seabed or coral reefs.

Here's more about how we ensure the quality of our supplements.

Why don't you always say what your supplements can do?

We operate in a heavily regulated industry. These regulations govern the claims we can or can't make about the products we sell. Although many products have approved health claims, many don't, and in these cases, we can't tell you what they are for or what they do. Find out more about health claims and why we wish we could tell you more.

Related Articles

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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