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When More Vitamins and Minerals Are Needed

Although our knowledge about nutrition has grown tremendously over the past few decades, there is still some disagreement among the experts on the exact amount of vitamins and minerals the average person needs. The standard recommended dietary allowances may be fine for a typical adult, but they are often too low (or in some cases too high), for individuals in special circumstances, such as pregnancy or advancing age. Therefore, some people may need to consider adjustments such as those described below.

Special Nutritional Needs of Older People

Elderly people often neglect cooking and eat inadequately, thus missing out on essential nutrients that a multivitamin or multimineral supplement can provide. Moreover, people in their later years have less water in their bodies and, as a result, their level of water-soluble vitamins is lower than normal. Since the absorption of other nutrients declines accordingly, they may also have reduced levels of vital minerals. Therefore, older people with less than optimal diets may need to increase their intake of vitamins C, D, E and beta-carotene, along with certain minerals. For some other nutrients, however, the opposite is true. Iron tends to build an inventory in the body after age 60, so too much iron in later years can raise the risk of heart disease.

Women’s Special Nutritional Needs

Women may need to adjust their intake of certain nutrients at various points in their life. Some of the best examples include iron to replace what is lost during menstruation, a number of extra vitamins and minerals to ensure a healthy pregnancy and calcium to combat the bone loss that accompanies aging.

Vitamin B9 (folic acid). Follic acid, also called folate or folacin, is essential to the proper development of the baby during pregnancy. Deficiency during pregnancy may lead to severe birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Many basic foodstuffs such as bread, flour, cereals, pasta and rice are now enriched with folic acid to prevent babies being born with spina bifida. Some governments are considering forcing food manufacturers to add folic acid to all bread and flour. But even the extra vitamin B9 in food is not always enough to prevent birth defects. Experts recommend that all women who could possibly become pregnant should take a supplement that contains vitamin B9. It is crucial to have folic acid in your body during the first few weeks of pregnancy, yet before you realize you are pregnant. Moreover, vitamin B9 deficiency can make some women anemic, whether they are pregnant or not.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). This vitamin is vital to the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system. Pregnant women need 1.9mg of B6 per day since a developing baby can easily drain maternal stores of this vitamin. To boost vitamin B6 intake naturally, eat fish, meat, nuts and beans or fortified foods such as bread and cereals. (For more details on B vitamins read this article.)

Calcium. Many women get only about half the amount of calcium needed to prevent osteoporosis (brittle bones), a disease which affects mostly females. By increasing the intake of calcium, older women can help compensate for the bone loss that occurs with the departure of estrogen during menopause. But, the best time to build bone mass is much earlier, since bone mass reaches 95% of its maximum density by age 18. Then, between the ages of 20 and 80, the average Caucasian woman loses one-third of hip bone density. Although extra calcium is needed after menopause to protect the bone that remains, it will no longer be able to increase bone strength for the future.

In addition to bone health, numerous studies indicate that calcium may have a protective effect against colorectal cancer in women and men alike. Researchers believe that calcium binds to bile acids and fatty acids in the bowel, creating a harmless substance so that the acids or their metabolites can no longer damage cells in the colon lining and cause cancerous growth.

Calcium is present in many foods besides milk and dairy products. Good examples include fish, figs, broccoli, kale, oatmeal, almonds, sesame seeds, navy beans, soymilk and black strap molasses. You may also want to try calcium-fortified foods such as calcium-fortified orange juice but keep in mind that consuming naturally occurring nutrients is a better course of action. If you do take calcium supplements, the best strategy is to split them up over the day. Taking them separately, for example at breakfast and dinner, increases the total amount absorbed by the body and is less likely to cause constipation. Calcium carbonate is inexpensive but a little more likely than calcium citrate to cause constipation in people taking medications, although most can digest it without suffering any discomfort.

There are certain restrictions when taking calcium supplements. For example, the fiber can impede calcium absorption so you should not take calcium pill immediately before or after eating high-fiber meal. If you also take iron in addition to calcium, do not take these two minerals together, because the calcium can obstruct the body’s absorption of iron. However, you should take vitamin D with your calcium, if it is not already contained in your calcium supplement, because the body cannot absorb calcium without vitamin D. Calcium can also interfere with the absorption of certain other minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Moreover, calcium may interact with certain medications such as corticosteroids, thyroid hormones and tetracycline. For example, it can prevent tetracycline from working to its fullest capacity. If you have previously had kidney stones, you should ask your doctor whether it is safe to take calcium supplements at all.

Iron. Women lose iron in their menstrual blood so that 10% of them actually have an iron deficiency every month. The body needs iron to make red blood cells, which contain hemoglobin that carries oxygen to other cells all over the body. Pregnant women need extra iron to make blood for their babies and about 50% of them happen to be deficient in this mineral. However, large doses of iron can be toxic, therefore, do not take more iron than contained in multivitamin supplements without your doctor’s approval. Some of the most common natural sources of iron are liver, fish and seafood, beef, turkey, kidney beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, broccoli and spinach. Remember that vitamin C increases iron absorption, while caffeine and tannin decrease it.

Zinc. Zinc deficiency, though relatively rare in the Western world, may cause miscarriage, low birth weight, labor and difficult delivery. Because the need for zinc increases during pregnancy, some doctors recommend that pregnant women take a multivitamin containing zinc to top up their zinc intake to 11mg per day as recommended for pregnant women.

Other Special Nutritional Needs

  • Vitamin D deficiency is common in countries of northern hemisphere with long, dark winters. In cold winter months when daylight hours are short, it is practically impossible for anyone to get enough vitamin D. Home-bound invalids hardly get enough vitamin D from the sun any time of the year. Therefore, all those concerned should aim for increasing their vitamin D intake in winter.
  • Anyone who is under great emotional or physical stress, smokes heavily, exercises extensively or has some health problems may benefit from extra intake of antioxidants, especially vitamin C.
  • Patients with lactose intolerance may need to take calcium supplements.
  • Very-low-calorie dieters may require extra intake of some vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B6, calcium and iron.
  • Vegetarians may be deficient in iron and zinc and should consider supplementing these two minerals.
  • Vegans who eat no dairy products and no eggs may need to take supplements of vitamins B12 and D and calcium (besides the above mentioned iron and zinc) to get their recommended dietary allowances. In addition, some experts also recommend vegans to take DHA supplements.
  • People, who regularly take blood thinners (anticoagulants), should not use supplements containing vitamin E. High doses of vitamin E, when taken in combination with a blood thinner, can interfere with blood clotting.