What is the Difference Between a Vitamin and a Supplement?

By Dr. David Sneed, Austin Family Medicine Associates

Most of us know the importance of getting enough vitamins and minerals in our diet to maintain a healthy body, and many of us also take supplements on a regular basis in order to ensure we’re getting enough of the right nutrients to be in good health. However, for some, the line between vitamins and supplements is blurred, and to ensure we’re meeting our nutritional needs, it’s crucial that we understand the difference between the two terms in order to figure out exactly where and how we should be supplementing our diet.

What are vitamins?

By definition, vitamins are nutrients which occur naturally, but which cannot be synthesized by our own bodies. Traditionally, our intake of vitamins relies on our diet because most vitamins are naturally found in food. However, if you do not consume enough vitamins in your diet, it’s often recommended that you supplement your intake in order to maintain good health.

Why are vitamins important?

Vitamins have a huge range of roles within the body, and without them we leave ourselves vulnerable to a wide range of diseases and complications. The most valuable functions of vitamins are as follows:

Vitamin A forms and maintains healthy bones, teeth, skin, soft tissue and mucus membranes

Vitamin B complex a group of vitamins which plays vital roles for our metabolism, our production of red blood cells and the maintenance of our brain function and central nervous system

Vitamin C an antioxidant which helps with iron absorption, promotes healing and maintains healthy teeth and gums

Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium and can only by synthesized by the body after exposure to the sun

Vitamin E an antioxidant which helps form red blood cells and allows the body to use vitamin K

Vitamin K not deemed an essential vitamin, but important for the coagulation of blood

What are supplements?

“Supplement” is a catch-all term which describes any vitamin, mineral or nutrient that you add to your dietary intake. Some molecules may be synthesized naturally in the body, but it may be necessary to supplement that production if your body is not making enough. Not all supplements are considered vitamins, but all vitamins are technically considered supplements because vitamins don’t occur naturally in the body and need to be incorporated into our diet in some form, either through the food we eat, or through extra supplements in the form of injections or oral capsules. For this reason, people generally understand supplements to be injections or pills which contain extra nutrients, vitamins and minerals to support good health.

Why are supplements important?

Vitamins, minerals and micronutrients are vital for every single enzymatic process that the body performs. For example, without the mineral iron, our blood cells are unable to carry oxygen which is vital for the body’s survival, and inadequate levels of zinc can make it difficult for the body to properly fight off infections. By supplementing key vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that we are deficient in, we can ensure that all of these vital processes continue throughout our body as normal in order for us to be in optimum health.

Should I be taking supplements?

Whether or not you need to be taking supplements depends entirely on your current nutrient levels. Sometimes it can be detrimental to supplement vitamins or minerals which are already at healthy levels, so there’s little use in supplementing every single micronutrient. Instead, you should only supplement for micronutrients which you are deficient in.

Although some deficiencies can cause particular symptoms to make themselves obvious (for example a deficiency in vitamin B12 may cause heart palpitations, lightheadedness and tiredness among other symptoms), others can go completely unnoticed until a serious medical condition is detected as a result of long term deficiency. In other cases, patients may experience mild symptoms without really noticing them, until they use supplements to normalize their levels and realize how much better they feel afterwards. It is therefore very important to undergo regular testing to discover whether deficiencies are present.

Luckily, assessing the need for supplements is as simple as a series of quick blood tests. The advanced blood work we’re able to perform, known as a micronutrient analysis panel, can unveil a huge variety of valuable information about our current micronutrient levels and help us to pinpoint key deficiencies which should be treated with supplements. With this knowledge, your doctor will be able to recommend which supplements you should be taking and advise whether any current supplements you’re taking, including multivitamins, are performing effectively. They can also evaluate your medical history to assess where extra supplements could be taken to alleviate key medical conditions, or to avoid supplements which may interfere with medications you’re already taking.

To find out which supplements you should be taking, be sure to book an appointment for your micronutrient analysis panel in order for us to create you a comprehensive supplementation plan.

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