Essentials to Know About Essential Vitamins and Minerals

A woman taking supplements

Our bodies— from our skin, hair, muscles and bones to our hearts, brains, and other organs — need essential vitamins and minerals to function and thrive. We often don’t need much — just small or even trace amounts measured in milligrams and micrograms, but we need them because our body cannot make them or it needs another substance to help produce them.

Consider Vitamin D, one of the most essential vitamins. It helps our body grow and maintain bones (our body needs it to absorb calcium) and it’s essential to our immune system. We absorb vitamin D from the sun, from food like some fish where it’s naturally present and from fortified foods like milk and orange juice.

Without enough vitamin D, we’re subject to bone and muscle pain, along with factures and muscle weakness. (Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to numerous other conditions, but the links are not definite.) Other vitamins and minerals have specific and varied jobs that boost and maintain our health. Many work together to achieve their complex goals, including keeping our immune system alert, our nervous system transmitting appropriately, our heart pumping properly, our blood pressure regulated, our muscles functioning and our teeth and bones healthy and strong.

When we don’t get enough, we may need to supplement.

The 13 Essential Vitamins 

There are 13 essential vitamins, which means our body needs them for growth and maintenance. Here’s what they are, some of what they do and where they’re found:

Vitamin A: vision, cornea maintenance, mucous membranes and immunity. Milk eggs, beef liver, sweet potato, Bok choy and apricots.  

Vitamin C: Collagen synthesis including for strengthening blood vessel walls, boosts iron absorption, supports the immune system. Oranges, grapefruit, red and green sweet peppers, broccoli, strawberries and orange juice.

Vitamin D: Bone and teeth mineralization. Mackerel, salmon, sardines, cod liver oil, enriched cereal and fortified milk.

Vitamin E: Antioxidant that scavenges free radicals that damage the skin. Wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, spinach, safflower and canola oil,

Vitamin K: Synthesis bone proteins and blood-clotting proteins. Leafy greens, cabbage, asparagus and soybeans.

B Vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate): Blood cell creation, metabolism (food into energy), maintenance of brain cells, skin cells, tissues. B vitamins can be found in fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy products, as well as leafy green veggies, beans and peas. Many breads are fortified with B vitamins.

The 7 Minerals We Need

Like vitamins, our body also needs minerals to thrive. Here are the main minerals it needs, what they do and where we find them.

Calcium: Mineralization of teeth and bones, blood clotting, muscle maintenance, nerve function. Milk, yogurt, cheese, turnip greens and sardines.

Iron: Blood oxygen transport, energy metabolism. Meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, seeds, nuts, spinach and chard.

Magnesium: Bone mineralization heart, muscle, nerve and immune function. Greens, beans and grains.

Phosphorus: Growth and tissue renewal, pH regulation. Animal protein, milk and cheese.

Potassium: Cell integrity, fluid and electrolyte balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction and blood pressure. Potassium can be found in a wide variety of fruits (bananas, apples, avocados and oranges) as well as leafy greens, root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant and pumpkin, and some fish, poultry, meat and dairy.

Sodium: Conducts nerve impulses, helps muscles contract and relax and maintains the proper balance of water and minerals. Salt is widely available in whole foods and, unfortunately, in processed foods. The average adult American consumes double the daily recommended value of sodium (1,500 milligrams ages 19-50, 1,300 mg ages 50 to 70, 1,200 mg above age 70).

Zinc: Immune system, wound healing, enzyme and hormone activation, breakdown of carbohydrates, cell division and cell growth. Shellfish (oysters, shrimp), beef, pork and enriched cereal.

Am I getting enough vitamins and minerals?

If you eat a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet that follows federal Dietary Guidelines and meets the required daily recommended intake value for your gender and age, you’re probably getting the right amounts of vitamins and minerals to help you stay healthy.

How do you know if you’re getting enough? The National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, provides additional details for each vitamin and mineral we need, including the daily recommended intake (DRI) for adults age 51 and older. On supplement labels, as on food labels, the percentage of DRI is noted.

But your doctor can also help you determine if you’re deficient in some important nutrient like vitamin D. Before you add an over-the-counter supplement, work with your primary care doctor and make sure you need one.

For most people, it’s best to get vitamins from food whenever you can. Supplements can be expensive, but more importantly, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, they are not heavily regulated. They can also conflict with medications, which is why it’s important to tell your physician exactly what supplements you may be taking. Many physicians prefer you ditch the multivitamin so they can sharp-shoot which specific supplements can boost your wellbeing.

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