If you are like me who grew up as a kid in 90’s America, you remember every morning waking up, going downstairs and chewing down a Flinstone’s multivitamin and it was the first highlight of your day. Looking back in hindsight and if you were to taste those same multivitamins these days, you would chalk another item up to nostalgia tasting better than reality. Point being, from a young age, we are programmed to make sure to get all our vitamins in and often times that means taking a daily multivitamin.
What is a multi-vitamin supposed to be exactly aside from the “thing you know you’re supposed to take”. By definition, a multivitamin (also known as a multimineral) is a prepared combination of vitamins and minerals blended into a single tablet or capsule to serve unique and complementary roles in the human body. Most on the market today are formulated and intended for the consumer to take them once a day and contain all or most vitamins and minerals across the board, with what is generally close to the daily recommended value (RV%). The recommended daily value for vitamins and minerals may vary on a variety of factors such as gender and age and known as the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and Absolute Intake (AI).
You will also find or have already seen that many multivitamins have even been customized for a specific purpose. Take the well-known brand One A Day for example; you’ll see that within that brand alone they have over 10 variations ranging from a special formula for kids to men wanting to improve metabolism to seniors and everything in between. This is just the general ‘normal’ populations multivitamins too…when you dive into the world of multivitamins for sports nutrition it’s a whole new ballgame with specific formulas developed for more specific purposes such as athletic performance, joint health, etc. As you can imagine, with the sea of products available these days, it’s not hard to get lost in the mix.
What are Vitamins?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand vitamins and what they actually do. They are defined as any of a group of organic compounds that are essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by the body. Humans, as well as many other living organisms, require them and as you can imagine, each has different requirements. For example dogs unlike humans don’t need to ingest vitamin C because it can be synthesized at adequate levels in their body. In all, there are 13 recognized vitamins and classified by either water or fat soluble. A quick reference guide:
Water Soluble – Vitamin C and all B Vitamins are classified as water soluble. These vitamins don’t typically stay in the body for long and cannot be stored internally so they must be replenished more often than fat soluble ones.
Fat Soluble – These include the Vitamins A, D, E and K and can be stored in the fatty tissues of the body as well as the liver. They can stay in the body in reserves for months at a time. They require lipids to aid in absorption through the intestinal tract.
- Vitamin B (Thiamine)-Helps convert food to energy; Aids in muscle contraction
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) –Aids in breakdown and utilization of carbohydrates, fats and proteins
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin/Niacinimide)-Aids in digestive health, skin and nerve function
- Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)-Aids breakdown of fats and carbs; Crucial for hormones
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine/Prydoxamine/Pyrodoxal)-Aids in metabolizing of amino acids
- Vitamin B7 (Biotin)-Supports healthy skin, hair and nails
- Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid/Folinic Acid)-Large role in fetal health; Fosters growth of red blood cells
- Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin/Hydroxocobalamin/Methylcobalamin)-Aids in nervous system health
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)- Powerful anti-oxidant; Aids in formation of connective tissue, blood vessels and skin
- Vitamin D (Ergocalciferol/Choecalciferol)-Aids in absorption of calcium; Used in variety of body functions
- Vitamin E (Tocopherols/Tocotrienols)-Protects cells from free radical damage; Vital for proper function of many organs and enzymatic activities
- Vitamin K (Phylloquinone/Menaquinones– Regulates normal blood clotting; Aids in bone health
What are Minerals?
On a related note, minerals are the other critical component that are required on a daily basis for the body to function. Defined as a chemical element required as an essential nutrient by organisms to perform functions necessary for life. Minerals originate in the earth and cannot be made by living organisms and therefore must be obtained through diet. In the body, bacteria and fungi play a crucial role in the breakdown of primary elements in nature, allowing them to be released for consumption by other species in the ecological food chain. Within the human body, minerals are either categorized as essential or trace elements.
- Calcium– Needed for muscle, heart and digestive health; Builds bone; supports synthesis of blood cells
- Magnesium– Essential for ATP production and bone growth
- Potassium– Systemic electrolyte; Critical interaction with sodium for ATP regulation
- Sodium– Systemic electrolyte; Critical interaction with potassium for ATP regulation
- Phosphorus-Component of bones, energy processing, DNA and ATP functions
- Iron-Required for a variety of enzymes and proteins
- Chlorine-Essential for production of hydrochloric acid in stomach
- Sulfur-Component of two essential amino acids; Aids in protein synthesis and enzyme reaction
- Cobalt- Essential for red blood cell production; Maintains nervous system
- Copper-Required for proper working of redox enzymes
- Zinc- Required for several enzymes to function properly
- Manganese-Crucial cofactor in enzymatic functions
- Molybdenum-The oxidases xanthine oxidase, aldehyde oxidase, and sulfite oxidase
- Iodine-Used in synthesis of thyroid hormones: Prevents goiter
- Selenium-Essential for activity of antioxidant enzymes
Multi Vitamin Differences
When it comes to a multivitamin, there isn’t a one size fits all approach that necessarily fits. While a basic multivitamin can cover a variety of scenarios and act as a basic ‘safety net’ to ensure that Recommended Value is being met, factors can come into play that make some choices more suited for certain individuals than others. One of the first things to consider is gender as male and female bodies have their particular needs on a physiological basis. Selecting a multivitamin based on these factors is a good place to start when selecting a multivitamin:
Men – Male oriented multivitamins often contain added elements for promotion of prostate health first and foremost with ingredients such as extra selenium or saw palmetto. There are often also ingredients that support healthy testosterone production with such ingredients including DHEA, tribulus and others depending on the brand. One small note is that generally men’s multivitamins won’t contain iron as it is not needed for a majority of males with those that have certain dietary restrictions being the exception.
Women – Female multivitamin formulas are often time more geared towards addressing variations such as added iron for menstrual considerations or may address other aspects of healthy hormone regulation. Other major, common areas of emphasis for female multivitamins include items such as added collagen or biotin for promotion of healthy hair, skin and nails. Certain formulas can also be geared towards expecting mothers with pre-natal formulas.
Children/Teens– For children and even teenagers, special considerations are taken. Such include generally lower amounts as the Daily Values are often lower compared to adults for certain nutrients. Often times, they will be higher in items for healthy development such as things for healthy bone growth, brain development, etc.
Multivitamins vs. Whole Food & Whole Food Supplements
While many think that regardless of a diet if they take a multivitamin that has all of the necessary vitamins and minerals in it via pill form, they are good to go. This is sadly not even close to being the case as whole food not only has the vitamin and minerals needed but also contain beneficial plant derived phytochemicals. These are critical as they interact with the various vitamins and minerals and ensure adequate absorption and utilization. As a rule of thumb, the greater the food variety, the greater amount of varied interactions will take place and in theory, the more beneficial they become.
Directly related, if one is to choose the supplemental form of getting in vitamins and minerals, try and opt for what is known as ‘whole food’ supplements. These vitamins have been cultured into yeast and then processed to form the supplement rather than synthesizing them artificially. This is an advantage as the whole food supplement variety are cultured and therefore more bioavailable than the synthetic version. The increased bioavailability also tends to have a higher potency than synthetic as they are closer to the natural form. Another step is whole food concentrates which are concentrated forms of whole foods. They are superior as they have all the natural cofactors that make them more absorbable.
Furthering the issue with synthetic vitamins is that they lack the aforementioned cofactors that the naturally occurring sources have. This is a problem as without the complimentary cofactors, the body has to deplete its cofactors to absorb them. High potency vitamins from synthetic sources can start working against you as without cofactors, they can start placing stress on organs without the cofactors to properly process them. To tell the difference, look at the label for clues. If it is synthetic, it will list it simply as possible. For example, if it is synthetic Vitamin C it will say ‘Ascorbic Acid’ while the natural version wouldn’t have such a denotation. The amount is a giveaway too, and putting this in perspective an average orange has 50mg of Vitamin C. Considering if a tablet has 1000mg of Vitamin C do you think the naturally occurring sources would be the equivalent of 20 oranges?
As a general rule, it is a great idea to concentrate of consuming as many of the daily required nutrients from whole foods as you possibly can, however, sometimes there are holes even in the most structured of diets. Oddly, the bodybuilding style of diet with its traditional staples can be one that has voids in it. Think of it this way…if you stick to the same ‘clean’ food such as chicken, broccoli, sweet potato, rice, etc. you’re always eating the same thing, meaning you’re eating the same nutrients (and possibly missing the same nutrients) on a daily basis. This would be a good situation where even with a strict diet, food alone can fall short. Those who are physically active generally have higher nutrient needs compared to those who aren’t as active, and a performance multivitamin may make sense for them to ensure optimal performance and prevent deficiencies.
In general, the main reasons that one would consider using a multivitamin supplement is firstly to increase daily nutrient intake. For those such as the aforementioned bodybuilding diet would be a good example of someone that may benefit from taking such product. Other considerations for use such as those with certain health conditions can benefit. Such would include formulas geared towards preventing age related disorders such as macular degeneration, bone health etc. Other demographics that may benefit from using a multivitamin on a daily basis would be those on low-calorie diets, have poor appetite, have food avoidance or omit categories of food such as vegans and vegetarians.
Regarding the research surrounding multivitamin use for general population health, this is a bit of a hot button issue among those in the health community. Currently, there isn’t substantial evidence that multivitamin use can prevent disease such as cancer diabetes or heart disease and overall there isn’t enough evidence for or against the use of a multivitamin. The main reason for lack of substantial and conclusive guidelines is that when researching there is an extremely difficult if not impossible way of studying the effects due to so many variations in multivitamin formulas to establish patterns to study. Point being, if you don’t fall under the demographics with the afore mentioned criteria, multivitamins may or may not be of benefit for you.
Don’t be discouraged, though! For those in performance sports, there is some potential for seeing increases in the outcome. In theory, underlying the use of each vitamin depends upon its specific metabolic function in relation to sport. Vitamin A functions to maintain night vision; thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid are all involved in muscle cell energy metabolism. Niacin may also block free fatty acid release while pyridoxine is involved in the synthesis of hemoglobin and other oxygen transfer proteins. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are integrally involved in red blood cell (RBC) development and vitamin D may be involved in muscle cell energetics through its influence on calcium. These are just a few examples of how vitamins can help serve a metabolic function and research has indicated that deficiencies to in fact impair performance.
How do I pick a Multivitamin?
Now that we are familiar with what the components of multivitamins are, let’s cover what to look for. Generally, it is best to look for a multivitamin supplement that provides you at least 100% of the DV% for most of the vitamins and minerals, including: vitamin A (should be mainly from beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, biotin, folate, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, and selenium, and take it with one of your morning meals.
While you definitely need calcium and zinc as an athlete since these are two of the most crucial ones for athletic performance, it is wise to find one with the least amount of zinc in the multivitamin and supplement it separately. This is because calcium can interfere with the absorption of zinc, iron and magnesium. To avoid this, take your multi and calcium in the morning and then take the zinc and magnesium (commonly sold as ZMA) before bed.
One piece of advice is to also consider choosing a multivitamin designed for your age, sex, and other factors (like pregnancy). With so many variations, it only makes sense to take a multivitamin that is geared towards your needs to have the greatest possible benefit. Honestly, your best bet is to just pick a multivitamin off the shelf and see how it works. Another option is to work with a medical professional to help you identify exactly which vitamins and minerals you may lack.
Lastly, let’s note that too much of a good thing can be the case with a multivitamin. While water soluble vitamins (B Vitamins and Vitamin C) aren’t stored and expelled, too many can cause nerve issues or digestive distress such as diarrhea. The real issue is with fat soluble vitamins as since these can be stored, overconsumption of these can cause toxic buildup over time. Don’t let it scare you, but just be sensible with the amounts you are supplementing.
While there is no one size fits all multivitamin, with the above information you now have an idea of the rationale for supplementing. There are many variables that can come into play, but as always, the more informed you are, the better decisions you can make.