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Dear Mark: Mulling Multivitamins

Posted By Mark Sisson On March 17, 2008 @ 11:21 am In Dear Mark,Health,How To,Men's Health,Nutrition,Personal Improvement,Supplements,Women's Health | 29 Comments

Dear Mark,

I’m new to your blog and am interested in taking better care of my health. I’m changing my diet and want to start a multivitamin. I go to the store though and end up bewildered enough that I don’t end up buying anything. What am I supposed to be looking for?

Not surprisingly, I get a good number of questions about supplements. Since it’s a topic I’m obviously passionate about, I’m always happy to offer advice on what my research and experience have taught me about wise supplementation.

First off, I definitely recommend the kind of product you’re looking for: a core nutrient assurance. As you know, I’m all about a good diet – a great diet, in fact. But a great diet with strategic supplementation can offer optimum health benefits A few fundamental suggestions:

The divide from one “multivitamin” to another can be, well, cavernous. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of junk out there – incomplete, impure, inconsistent “formulas” (if you can truly call them something as intentional as formulas at all). Select a multivitamin from a trusted source to ensure you’re getting a product that offers purity as well as accurate and consistent dosages of nutrients. Yes, you’d think this would be a given, but it’s not. Many products, when tested by consumer advocacy groups, have been shown to not even contain some of their advertised nutrient ingredients or to contain certain ingredients at toxic levels. Some have even been shown to contain lead, presumably from subpar manufacturing conditions.

• I think a “multivitamin” should be more than a collection of a few vitamins. And most people really do want more than that. For the best benefit, look for a comprehensive daily nutrient supplement that offers the full array and appropriate balances of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and beneficial plant extracts. I never recommend supplementing piecemeal: a B-6, a calcium
chew, a vitamin C tablet, etc. Not only is this approach incomplete; you risk lack of absorption or redundancy of nutrients. More about that in a minute.

• For maximum potency, consider the freshness of vitamins. Many people would be surprised to know that store bought vitamins can sit on shelves for months or even years before being purchased. (And that doesn’t include the time they sat in warehouses and in multiple transports!) Liquid vitamin formulas, in particular, lose potency relatively quickly and oxidize easily. I would advise against them.

• Speaking of multivitamin “form,” tablets or caplets can be problematic as well. Because uncoated tablets don’t offer any buffer, they can irritate the stomach. On the other hand, caplets can have such a hard coating that they don’t fully dissolve and can become, as nurses call them, “bedpan bullets.” (There’s an image for your day.) On top of that, vitamins in caplet or capsule form can have unnecessary gums, glue, fillers and binders. The key is to find a formula that balances ease of absorption and natural buffering. Capsules with only essential ingredients are best. And I highly recommend a formula that contains enzymes for optimum absorption.

• The mark of a quality formula is the bioavailability and appropriate balance of its nutrient contents. I could talk forever and a day about this subject, but let me just give a few examples of what I mean. A quality formula contains the more “bioavailable” form of vitamin D, which is D3. Cheaper, lower quality supplements contain D2, which also happens to be the form used to enrich milk. A quality formula contains vitamin B12 as methylcobalamin and not cyanocobalamin. It should contain vitamin B6 as pyridoxal 5’ phosphate, the metabolically active form, and not pyridoxine.

• Likewise, the ability of the body to best absorb most nutrients involves those nutrients’ synergistic relationships, so to speak. Take beta carotene. There are over 500 carotenes, and optimum absorption and utilization occurs when they’re taken together. A hallmark of a quality formula: mixed carotenoids. Other examples include spectrum vitamins like B and E (with alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocopherols). Taking only one form of either doesn’t make any sense and won’t do you much good. You might as well throw your money down the toilet. Look for both mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols, the two main groups in the vitamin E complex.

• Finally, there are the basics. It’s important to expect the best in terms of protection. Make sure the bottle is in a protective sleeve. In most cases, multivitamins are only protected by the bottle cap. Also, look for added layers of protection from air and light to ensure freshness and full potency.

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits and ideal formulations of particular nutrients, I recommend checking out these non-profit scientific research sites. (And, as always, share your choice with your doctor.)

PLoS Public Library of Science [7]
Vitasearch [8]
PubMed [9]

Thanks to all who have sent questions. Please keep ‘em coming!

nats [10] Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

The ORAC Gift of Health [11]

Debunking Vitamin Myths [12]

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds [13]


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