Skip to Content

NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.

Healthy You

Breakdown of vitamins, probiotics and other dietary supplements

Thursday, February 15, 2024 10:39 AM

By Janet Hosey

Trying to choose what you might need from the vast array of dietary supplements available today could easily overwhelm.

First, there are various types of supplements, including vitamins, minerals, herbs and probiotics, for certain age ranges and genders. Also, taking supplements when you don’t need them could upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, leaving you feeling sick.


Where to begin?

Get what you need naturally

“Focus on food. Getting the vitamins and nutrients your body needs should primarily come from the foods you eat, supplements should be just that supplemental.” said Blaine Harbourne, ND, a naturopathic medicine clinician with Endeavor Health. “Eating healthy, balanced meals eliminates almost any need for supplements.

While a multivitamin can provide the basic, essential vitamins and minerals you need, the food you eat does a better job of providing them for most healthy adults.

Talk to your doctor after you analyze your (realistic) daily diet to see if he or she recommends you start a supplement. Dietitians can also help you restructure your diet to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need from your food.

Know what’s right for you

Also, know that supplements aren’t intended to treat or cure diseases. That said, there are times when a vitamin or other supplement can do your body good. Where your diet may be lacking, supplements can pick up the slack.

Other times, some type of probiotic is needed to feel better. For example, when too many bacteria growing in your gut leads to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The best place to start is with your primary care doctor. Through an annual exam and bloodwork, your doctor will be able to tell you whether they feel a dietary supplement would help you.

“There are so many variables that can affect the way supplements work in your body — such as your gender, age, whether you’re preparing for surgery, the medication you’re taking, whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and what you eat,” Harbourne said. “Don’t start taking something without asking your primary care physician whether it would be harmful or beneficial in your unique situation.”

The following are some supplements recommendations for certain people:

Women: Women mainly need supplements during pregnancy.

  • Iron. Sometimes women need more iron during pregnancy.
  • Folic acid. 400 micrograms daily, whether from supplements or fortified food — is important for all women of childbearing age. Folic acid should be taken before and during pregnancy.

Men: Until you’re age 50 or older, men really don’t need dietary supplements. Men should take a close look at their diets to make sure they’re getting the vitamins and minerals they need from their food.

Kids: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed infants receive a vitamin D supplement as newborns, as breast milk does not provide enough (even if mom is taking a supplement). Beyond that, most kids do not need supplements. If they’re eating a well-rounded diet, they should get all the vitamins and minerals they need. If they eat an erratic diet or have a medical condition that prevents them from absorbing essential vitamins or minerals, a supplement may be needed. If you’re wondering whether your child should take a supplement, talk to your pediatrician.

The over-50 crowd: If you’re age 50 to 70, there are certain supplements you may want to consider.

  • Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. As we age, our bodies may not produce vitamin D as well as when we’re younger.
  • Vitamin B6 strengthens your immune system and gives your metabolism a boost.
  • Vitamin B12 keeps your blood cells and nerve cells healthy.
  • Folate helps prevent you from becoming anemic.
  • Calcium. If you’re at risk for bone density loss, your doctor has probably already spoken with you about calcium supplements. Note: it’s important not to exceed 2,000 mg of calcium per day.

Probiotics for gut health

Probiotics – live microorganisms that promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria – are something everyone needs, but not everyone needs a supplement to get them.

Even when taking antibiotics, most people don’t need a probiotic supplement. There are ways you can help maintain the good bacteria in your body, such as:

  • Eat fermented foods. Good bacteria can be found in foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, some types of yogurt and miso.
  • Take antibiotics sparingly. Using antibiotics too frequently can lower the number of good bacteria in your body.
  • Focus on Fiber. Fiber is a nutrient that doesn’t get enough love. Breakdown of fiber is what fuels your gut cells to help promote and diversify the bacteria/health of your gut.
  • Put prebiotics on your menu. Prebiotics are foods that “feed” the good bacteria in your gut. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are components of a healthy diet and help maintain your good bacteria.
  • Take probiotic supplements recommended by your doctor. Like vitamins, it’s better to replenish your good bacteria with the foods you eat. Sometimes, however, a probiotic supplement can help balance your gut bacteria. This can help people with conditions such as IBS or Crohn’s disease. Ask your physician whether probiotics would help your specific condition.

Need a doctor? Find the right one for you at Endeavor Health.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.