How to Choose a Multivitamin
Disclaimer: This is not medical or personalized nutrition advice, but general education. Discuss your own nutrition needs with your healthcare provider or qualified nutritionist.
What is a multivitamin?
You probably know this, but just so we’re on the same page, multivitamins are blends of nutrients that are essential for human health. They are typically sold as a bottle of tablets, but you’ll soon learn that there are a few more preferable forms. Multivitamins are not necessary for most people, but support optimal health in an environment where nutrient depletion of food is the norm. If you’ve been confused about multis, you’re in the right place. It’s about to get more confusing, and then you’ll feel like a smartiepants.
What does “vitamin” actually mean?
The term “vitamin” is short for “vital amine,” and was coined by the Polish chemist who assumed all nutrients were based off of amines.
What is an amine, you say? It’s a type of molecule derived from ammonia, and is made of nitrogen, a lone pair of valence electrons, and one or more substituents that replace the typical hydrogen atoms. This image is a methyl amine.
Some vitamins are amine-based, while others aren’t. The term now refers to organic (carbon-based) nutrients needed in tiny amounts for human growth and function.
Vitamins you may see in a multi:
A (retinol, retinal, reined esters, retinoic acid) - used in retina rods, gene transcription, white blood cell formation, and iron mobilization
B1 (thiamin, thiamin monophosphate, thiamin triphosphate, thiamin pyrophosphate) - metabolizes carbohydrates, makes branched-chain amino acids, and supports nerve cell function
B2 (riboflavin) - metabolizes carbohydrates & fats, maintains blood cells, and supports glutathione function
B3 (niacin, nicotinic acid, niacinamide, nicotinamide) - supports energy production, DNA repair, and intracellular calcium signaling
B5 (pantothenic acid) - supports synthesis of fatty acids, cholesterol, steroid hormones, melatonin, bile, & heme, metabolizes drugs & toxins
B6 (pyridoxine, pyridoxal, pyridoxamine) - enables use of stored glucose, amino acid metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis, and gene expression
B9 (folate, folic acid, folacin) - mediates carbon metabolism for blood cells, amino acids, and DNA
B12 (methylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin) - supports cellular metabolism, converts amino acids and fatty acids, creates DNA & red blood cells, and synthesizes myelin for nerve function
Biotin - necessary for blood sugar regulation & breakdown of amino acids, support DNA replication
Choline - supports structure of cell membrane, cellular signaling, nerve impulses, osmoregulation, & fatty acid transport
C (ascorbic acid) - synthesizes collagen, amino acids, norepinephrine, & serotonin, acts as both a pro- & anti-oxidant
D (calciferol) - maintains calcium metabolism, supports immune & cardiovascular function, necessary for brain development
E (alpha-tocopherol) - antioxidant in cell membranes, limits oxidation of LDL cholesterol, supports cellular signaling & gene transcription
K (phylloquinone, menadione) - cofactor in calcium absorption and bone mineralization, supports blood coagulation & cellular growth
What about minerals?
Minerals are often included in multivitamins (even though they technically aren’t vitamins) because they are also nutrients essential for human growth and function. What makes them different from vitamins is that they are non-organic, meaning they are not carbon-based. Rather, they are individual elements (like, the kind in the periodic element chart)
Minerals you may see in a multi:
Calcium - major component of bone, aids in muscle contraction, cellular signaling, secretion of insulin, and blood clotting
Chromium - necessary for regulation of insulin, decreases oxidation of lipids, modifies serotonin function
Copper - assists energy production, nervous system function, and connective tissue formation, necessary for gene expression and melanin formation
Iodine - assists in thyroid hormone synthesis and regulation of thyroid
Iron - transports and stores oxygen, necessary for DNA synthesis
Magnesium - component of bones, cell membranes, & chromosomes, necessary for energy production, supports cellular signaling
Manganese - component of antioxidants and enzymes, cofactor for bone development and wound healing
Molybdenum - supports amino acid metabolism and antioxidant actions
Potassium - electrolyte, aids in muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and pH balance
Selenium - supports antioxidant & immune function, necessary for thyroid function, breast health, & normal sperm count,
Zinc - necessary for growth, supports immune, neurological, & reproductive function, improves structure of cell membranes, regulates gene expression
How many nutrients do I need in a multi?
This really depends on your unique situation: your health status, what and how you eat, any medications or substances you take that deplete absorption or increase nutrient needs, and your history of vitamin use. This is why it’s really helpful to work with a qualified nutrition professional to select a multivitamin that is safe for you. You should also know that higher doses are not necessarily better for you. You may only need moderate doses of certain nutrients, while others might need to be higher. And as fun as quizzes are, a short internet quiz is not going to accurately assess your nutrient needs.
Here’s a basic guideline to choosing nutrient doses in multivitamins. Keep in mind this is not advice tailored to your situation, and I strongly encourage you to ask your healthcare provider before choosing a multivitamin.
If you have a chronic illness (or have had one recently), such as depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorder, cancer, or arthritis, your nutrient needs are high. Food should supply most of these nutrients, but often there is a gap between the level of vitamins you eat and the level of vitamins you need. Multis that require you to take 3 or 4 pills per day will contain more vitamins and support better absorption than those that require just 1 per day. If you have digestive distress, consider a whole-food tablet or capsule or a liquid formula.
If you are pregnant, postpartum, lactating, or considering conception in the next year, it is highly suggested to take a prenatal multivitamin that contains at least 800 mcg folate, 4000 IUs D, eat least 2 mg B6, and less than 5000 IUs vitamin A. If nausea gets in the way of your supplement schedule, try taking your pills with the first bite of dinner or choose a powder formula you can add to smoothies.
If you are an athlete (competitive or otherwise), your increased metabolism requires more of everything, but especially B vitamins, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc. Look for an athlete-specific multi (it might be 6 pills a day) or work with a nutritionist (hey, that’s me!) to develop a specialized supplement plan. Supplement throughout the day to get maximum absorption.
If you are stressed to the max and it’s not letting up anytime soon, your immune and nervous systems need extra support. Look for extra Bs, D, magnesium, and zinc, and make sure there’s moderate levels of iodine. Choose an easy routine that you can stick with, because consistency is important.
Which type of multi should I choose?
This can be a bit confusing, because there are pros and cons to each type. The great news is, you have options! Choose which you think is best for your situation.
This is the most common form of multivitamins. Tablets are convenient because they are relatively temperature stable and easy to transport. They do need moisture control, which is why those silica packets are present inside the bottle. Be sure to keep these in a dry pantry or on the counter, away from any sources of water or steam. Tablets tend to have higher amounts of binders and fillers, which can impede absorption.
Food-based tablet brands:
Garden of Life MyKind, MegaFood, Innate Response Formulas, New Chapter, Natural Factors Whole Earth & Sea
High quality synthetically produced tablet brands:
Solgar, Rainbow Light, Bluebonnet, Nature’s Plus
Capsules break apart more easily than tablets, and are generally preferable to tablets for that reason. However, if you don’t drink enough water when taking them, they can break apart and cause irritation in the esophagus. Capsules also have fillers and lubricants, sometimes just as much as tablets.
Recommended capsule brands:
Thorne, Emerald Labs, Dr’s Best, Garden of Life Vitamin Code, Enzymedica
Softgels contain liquid which can absorb more quickly than tablets or capsules. Softgels are also more sensitive to pressure and temperature changes, and are more difficult to travel with or keep in a pill box. Finally, softgels are typically made with gelatin. If you are vegan or vegetarian, look for “vegetarian softgel” on the front of the bottle, or check the ingredients for any animal products. If you are Jewish or Muslim, know that some softgels are certified Kosher or Halal, but they are rare. You will have more options to choose from if you look at capsules and tablets.
Recommended softgel brands:
Irwin, Carlson, Zahler
Powders mix easily in water and can be quickly absorbed. Typically, they come in individual packets for ease of use in travel and daily life. Canisters are usually more cost effective, but must be protected from moisture, light, and heat to preserve quality. I often recommend powders to clients who don’t mind mixing them into water or smoothies. Some whole-food powder blends are marketed as multivitamins because they are so nutrient-dense.
Recommended powder brands:
Oxylent, Vibrant Health Trilogy
Liquid multis are ideal for kids and adults with digestive impairment. They are ready-to-use, kept in the fridge for quality and taste purposes, and can be added to juice or smoothies if desired. The one downside to liquid multis is that, once opened, the liquid is exposed to oxygen and vitamins can dissipate more rapidly because of the presence of water. For best vitamin levels, drink the bottle within one month of opening.
Recommended liquid brands:
Genesis Today, Nature’s Plus, Buried Treasure
Gummies are the fun way to take a multi! They usually come in colorful containers, have fun shapes and colors, and are more flavorful than liquid multis. They also typically have a bunch of sugar, and generic store brands may also have food dye. Look for gummies that have less sugar and use vegetable coloring. Also note that it’s impossible to get as much vitamin quantity in gummies without compromising the taste, so they are much lower doses than the other forms.
Recommended gummy brands:
Smarty Pants (sugar free), Nordic Naturals, Nature’s Way Alive
Well, there you have it.
If you have any more questions about selecting a multi, come find me over on Facebook.