If you’re health conscious, you’re likely familiar with—if not already benefitting from—the power of supplements. However, there’s a good chance you’re not using them as optimally as possible. If you’re taking vitamins to enhance your health, it’s important to understand how they’re processed and absorbed by the body, and if supplementation is even necessary based on your diet, lifestyle, and health conditions. By understanding whether a vitamin is water- or fat-soluble, and whether it is best obtained through diet or supplementation, will not only save you money but will vastly improve your overall health.
The Water-Soluble Vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins occur naturally in the food and excess amounts aren’t stored—they’re instead flushed out in urine. Because they aren’t stored you need to get them daily through the food you eat and by supplementation if necessary. It’s also highly unlikely you can take too much and risk vitamin toxicity, though even some water-soluble vitamins can cause problems if taken in excess. For example, consistent overconsumption of high doses of B6 can lead to irreversible nerve damage and too much B3 can cause liver damage over time. Vitamin C, on the other hand, has relatively low toxicity but taking too much can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting—and even migraines at 6 grams per day. Typically though, overconsumption is just a waste of money.
The B vitamins, also known collectively as B-complex, consist of thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), and cobalamin (B12). While food is your primary source of B vitamins, some are actually produced by a healthy gut microbiome.
B vitamins are essential building blocks of many important bodily functions. They support everything from a healthy metabolism to brain and heart health; healthy skin, hair and nails; stress response, wound healing, and mitochondrial health. They also help produce neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin) and antioxidants (like glutathione). They’re also key in reducing arterial plaque and in maintaining your nerves’ protective myelin sheath.
B vitamins are easy to obtain through both animal and plant sources. Fatty fish, shellfish, egg yolks, and yogurt are rich animal sources while avocadoes, nuts and seeds, leafy green veggies, and cruciferous ones like cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy are excellent plant-based ones.
Total B vitamin deficiency is relatively uncommon in the United States, but pregnant women and the elderly are more at risk, as are those suffering from conditions like Crohn’s, Celiac, HIV, and alcohol use disorder. Symptoms vary depending on which B vitamin deficiency you have but can include fatigue, lethargy, anemia, and/or a compromised immune system. The most common B vitamin deficiency is B12. Despite its abundancy, certain conditions and medications can cause malabsorption or depletion. Pregnant women are also at risk of B9, or folate, deficiency which requires supplementation to prevent birth defects like spina bifida.
Vitamin C is probably the most well-known vitamin as it’s considered an immune booster and many of us take more when we get sick to speed up recovery (it should be noted, however, that vitamin C doesn’t prevent illness, but shortens duration and reduces severity). However, it’s essential to more than just immune health. It helps build and repair tendons, ligaments, bones, and teeth; supports collagen production and healthy skin, and is rich in disease-preventing and anti-aging antioxidant power. All fruit and veggies contain vitamin C, but some of the richest sources include citrus fruit, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cruciferous veggies, and dark leafy greens. Eating a rainbow variety of fruits and veggies—and a lot of them—is the best way to up your intake of this extremely valuable vitamin.
The Fat-Soluble Vitamins
Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins can be stored by the body. They dissolve in fat and must be paired with healthy fats in order to make them bioavailable. Fat-soluble vitamins are key to brain, hormone, and immune health. Because these vitamins can accumulate, it is possible for them to become toxic if taken in excess. However, vitamin toxicity is rare and cannot occur through diet alone, which is why it’s important to have periodic blood work and to discuss any supplementation with your healthcare provider first.
Vitamin A can be found in foods such as fish and shellfish, cod liver oil, and butter or ghee. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin A also plays an essential role in maintaining vision, cell growth, immunity, and reproductive health. Vitamin A deficiency is quite rare in the United States, though vegans must be conscious about it as there are no naturally occurring plant-based sources. However, it can be found in fortified foods like plant-based milks. Although beta carotene is found in plenty of fruit and veggies and is converted by the liver into vitamin A, the conversion rate is quite low, so a high-quality supplement may be necessary for those on a strict plant-based diet.
Vitamin D is essential to bone health as calcium cannot be absorbed and used by the body without it, but it also supports immune function and may be helpful in regulating mood and preventing depression. Vitamin D is found in egg yolks, fatty fish, and seafood like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and oysters; and fortified dairy or nut milks. One of the best ways to get vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is through sun exposure. Aim for 20 to 60 minutes per day depending on your complexion—and without sunscreen protection. Vitamin D deficiency is relatively common, as absorption can be impacted by factors such as living in a high pollution environment, spending most of your time indoors, using sunscreen, or having a darker complexion. Symptoms include fatigue and aches and pains, and more severely, stress fractures and severe muscle weakness. A simple blood test can help you determine if you need to diversify your diet and/or supplement to reach optimum levels.
What we refer to as vitamin E is actually a combination of nutrients called tocopherols that work together. Like vitamin A, vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage, calms inflammation, and supports hormonal, immune, and reproductive health as well as skin, heart, and brain health. Research even suggests vitamin E therapy may be beneficial to people with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease as it may slow disease progression. There is also evidence that vitamin E prevents clots from forming in heart arteries, reducing the risk of heart disease. Vitamin E is found in wheat germ and flaxseed oils, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts and peanut butter, wild salmon, avocados, pumpkin, red bell pepper, asparagus, mango and leafy greens such as beet, collard, and spinach. Deficiency is rare, though people with digestive problems, or who cannot absorb fat properly because of pancreatitis, celiac disease, or cystic fibrosis, are at an increased risk.
Of all the vitamins, K2 is the one you’re likely lacking as its primary food sources are not common in the average Western diet. Vitamin K is composed of vitamins K1 and K2, and together they activate proteins that clot blood, metabolize calcium, and support a healthy heart. K2 is particularly important in the prevention of calcium buildup in the arteries which is a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a long-term study found that those with the highest intake of vitamin K2 were 52% less likely to develop artery calcification and 57% less likely to die from heart disease.
The number one food source of K2 is natto, a Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans. Eel is a close second, with more common, but far less rich, sources including high-fat dairy products from grass-fed cows (like cheese and butter), as well as high-quality egg yolks. Other fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso contain also contain K2. While K1 is much more common, and can be converted by the body into K2, research suggests the process is inefficient and a quality K2 supplement may be far more beneficial. Apart from a lack of dietary sources, there is speculation that broad-spectrum antibiotics, which kill off good and bad gut bacteria, may contribute to deficiency as K2 is produced by healthy gut bacteria in the large intestine.
The Bottom Line
The best way to get all of your vitamins of course, is through a healthy balanced diet. Routine lab work is also key in maintaining proper levels. I can help you do the heavy lifting by pinpointing vitamin “gaps” in your diet and determining if supplementation is right for you. Contact me if you’d like to schedule an appointment to discuss.