Fortune Well April 21, 2023
If you’ve ever walked down the supplement aisle in a pharmacy, you’ve seen the overwhelming abundance of options available for your medicine cabinet. According to the 2022 Council on Responsible Nutrition Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, 75% of Americans use dietary supplements, most on a regular basis.
It’s important to remember that supplements are just that: supplemental. While they’re good for giving you a bit of a leg up when you’re lacking certain nutrients, the number one way to get the vitamins and minerals and antioxidants you need is through a healthy, nutritious diet.
“Supplements will never give you what actual, real food will,” says Kara Burnstine, RD, a nutrition educator at Pritikin Longevity Center. “They simply aid you along. They’re not meant to be a food replacement.”
Still, Burnstine recognizes there can be setbacks of relying solely on food for optimal nutrition, and there are times when supplements can be a boon.
“It would be wonderful if we all ate all our fruits and vegetables and our whole grains and our lean proteins and got everything that we needed from the food supply, but unfortunately, our food supply is sometimes not the highest quality either,” she says. “So we could be doing a lot of the good things and not be getting all of the nutrients from the food.”
That deficit can become even more pronounced as you age, she says.
“We are machines, so as we get older, things that worked well start to not work as well. That’s when we might need to turn more to supplements.”
Not all supplements are for everyone. You should always consult your doctor before starting any supplement to be sure they won’t interact with medications you’re taking or put you at risk of other problems. But for most people approaching or in their golden years, here’s what Burnstine recommends:
Calcium does a lot for you: It plays an important role in blood clotting, it helps your muscles contract, and it regulates normal heart rhythms and nerve functions. It also builds and maintains strong bones. When you don’t take in enough calcium, your body borrows it from your bones to keep things running smoothly. A daily intake of calcium helps you replace this calcium and keep bones healthy.
When you reach age 50, your daily calcium requirement goes up. Prior to that, 1,200 milligrams a day will do you, but when you hit the half-century mark, it’s time to bump up to 1,500 milligrams a day. Women who are past menopause are at the highest risk of getting osteoporosis, a disease that makes bones weak and brittle. Lack of calcium ups these chances even more.
Burnstine says if you know you’re not getting at bare minimum two servings from a calcium source each day, a calcium supplement is a good idea. But the supplement is only one piece of the puzzle.
“In addition to the calcium supplement, I’m also going to recommend that you get at least two servings of dairy or that you eat a lot of green leafy vegetables, and you do resistance training, which protects bones more than anything else,” she says.
Speaking of healthy bones, your body can only absorb calcium when vitamin D is present. In addition, vitamin D has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties. It supports immune health, muscle function, and brain cell activity.
Your body doesn’t make vitamin D, so you have to get it from outside sources. These include food, the sun, or supplements. Before age 70, your daily requirement is 600 IU. After 70, it goes up to 800 IU. In your later years, your body may need a boost to meet these goals.
“As we age, most of us no longer absorb vitamin D as well,” says Burnstine. This can be especially true if you live in an area without much sun, or if you’re always wearing sunscreen.
Emerging studies suggest that supplements of probiotics—the “good” bacteria that lives in your digestive system and helps keep “bad” bacteria in check—may help counteract age-related shifts in gut microbiota, improving your immune health and aiding healthy digestion as you age.
“We know that if our gut health is good, everything else follows, in terms of inflammation, brain fog, weight loss, sleep, depression,” says Burnstine. “Our gut is tied to just about everything.”
Like with most nutrients, it’s best to get probiotics through the foods you eat. You can load up on them through fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, refrigerated sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso. But a supplement isn’t a bad idea.
Some supplements have upwards of 50 billion CFUs (colony-forming units), which may seem like a huge amount, but Burnstine says your body only absorbs 20% to 30% that amount.
“Taking a supplement helps create that diversity and huge population of probiotics in the gut to help us be healthy, lose weight, and lower our cholesterol,” she says.
Magnesium is attached to immune function, enzymatic reactions, and it plays a part in lowering inflammation. It’s also a key player in mood stabilization. Magnesium levels go down as age goes up, putting you at risk of mental health struggles.
“People who are low in magnesium tend to have higher depression,” says Burnstine. Chronically low levels can also increase your chances of having high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Anyone over age 30 should be getting 320–420 milligrams a day, but Burnstine says not all magnesium supplements are the same.
“For example, you could take a magnesium carbonate, but you could also take something called magnesium glycinate, which is slightly easier on the stomach,” she says. “The combination of how it’s formulated causes sort of different responses.” Talk to your doctor about the best magnesium formulation for you.
A daily multivitamin, while not a panacea, can give you an overall nutritive boost. At the very least, says Burnstine, it won’t hurt.
“I always say that a multivitamin is sort of like an insurance policy,” she says. “I would recommend a general multivitamin at any age.”
Most brands are the same, but for peace of mind, look for the USP symbol. This seal of approval marks brands that have consistent quality, the exact ingredients in the potency and amount you find listed on the label.
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