Welcome to the first ever article of my new series: Ask Anni. Every Thursday on the blog, I’ll be answering your most asked questions and giving you evidence-based answers. This week on Ask Anni, many of you are wondering, “What supplements should I take during the winter?”
To start, there are three main things you should know about supplements before starting a regular regimen:
Supplements act to enhance a healthy diet and lifestyle habits. In other words, supplements are one part of a holistic healing approach. If you're just taking supplements and not making other positive changes, it's unlikely you'll see the results you were hoping for.
Patience and persistence is key to protection. Supplements aren't a magic pill. Just like drinking a ton of orange juice with vitamin C won't cure the cold you have right now, supplements need to be taken consistently to provide the kind of protection you are looking for. It can take upwards of 3-6 months to see signs and symptoms change, but supplements often accomplish in the long-term what medications use a "band-aid fix" for in the short term -- and they typically involve lower risk and less side effects.
Inform your healthcare team of any changes, especially if you have certain conditions. Adding vitamins and minerals to your daily health routine usually involves a low level of risk. However, it is important to inform your providers of any changes. Conditions like pregnancy, chronic illness, or discoveries in recent research can inform doctors and dietitians as to which supplements are safe for you to take. Don't hesitate to ask your health professionals what they know to be true about the supplements you are taking -- better safe than sorry!
In other words, it’s extremely important to practice good health and eating habits in addition to taking supplements. Supplements are exactly as they sound, supplemental to the diet. You should try and get your vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients like fiber and protein from food first before turning to supplements.
With that being said, sometimes the body just needs a little boost! It can be helpful to ask your primary care physician and dietitian if they recommend any blood tests to be run. Common blood work often can alert you to vitamin deficiencies.
Read on to discover supplements I recommend looking into during winter weather. The brands recommended in this post are purely recommendations and not sponsored products.
This vitamin gets talked about a lot in the winter, and for a good reason. Vitamin C protects our immune system, and it arms our bodies to fight seasonal stressors like the common cold or flu. It aids in the natural processes our bodies use to detox.
Foods to get it from first: citrus (in season!), strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, dark leafy vegetables
Recommended Product(s): USP verified Kirkland Signature
You’ve probably heard that vitamin D has something to do with sun exposure, and you would be right. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” since the sun helps the body convert vitamin D into a form that it can use. It makes sense then, that during the colder winter months, getting sufficient sun exposure can be more challenging. However, even just stepping outside for 15 minutes midday can be enough to help your body process adequate vitamin D levels.
Essential to many body processes, vitamin D helps the human body to absorb and metabolize other nutrients, helps cells develop properly, aids in immunity, and is key to maintaining many basic life functions. It’s important to note that since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, the most efficient way to absorb it (both in food and supplement form) is to ingest it along with healthy fats. Some examples of healthy fats include nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, and avocados.
Vitamin D has also been studied in recent decades for its potential relationship to mood. Depression and vitamin D deficiency have been associated in many studies, however evidence is ongoing as to whether it is an effective treatment. My professional advice is this -- taking a vitamin D supplement within the recommendations of your dietitian and physician carries very little risk. It could be an effective way to regulate mood, especially when those winter blues strike. Remember, it can take months for symptoms to be effectively mediated, so don’t expect signs to go away immediately.
Foods to get it from first: fortified dairy products, mushrooms, eggs, cod liver oil, fatty fish
Recommended Product(s): Green Pasture Blue Ice Fermented Cod Liver Oil (I would recommend getting the Orange Flavor -- helps to mask the taste of fish oil), USP Verified Nature Made Vitamin D3, Jarrow Formulas Vitamin D3
A mineral of increased concern in the winter, iron is a nutrient that is essential to maintaining energy through shorter days and decreased levels of physical activity. It also helps carry oxygen throughout the body. This helps to keep your organs nourished and functioning smoothly, even when they might be under attack and your immune system is busy fighting off potential threats.
A deficiency of iron can cause all sorts of symptoms, including dry skin, hair, and nails, low immunity, general fatigue and weakness, heart problems and headaches. Many clinicians are familiar with iron-deficiency anemia, a condition that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough iron and in turn has trouble delivering needed oxygen and other needed components to the parts of the body that need it to function optimally. However, recent research supports that there is a range in which iron deficiency can exist without anemia or a primarily underlying cause. If left untreated for the long-term, low iron can be challenging to treat as many proteins in the body contain iron as a component. Iron is involved in many metabolic pathways, so needless to say it is very important to avoid a deficiency of any kind.
As with any medication, there are some common side effects to misusing an iron supplement. Stomach upset is a common one, and for that reason I suggest taking a form of iron called iron bisglycinate chelate, also known as ferrous bisglycinate. This type of iron responds uniquely in that it is regulated closely by the body’s need for iron. In other words, it allows for a more significant and individualized iron treatment, and in my professional experience I have yet to see a patient or client who I’ve recommended this form to have stomach upset symptoms. As always, I recommend consulting with a trusted healthcare team to determine if this supplement would be a good fit for your regimen.
Foods to get it from first: beans, dark leafy greens, poultry, seafood, limited amounts of red meat
Vitamin C, mentioned above, makes a great with the mineral zinc. It forms a synergistic relationship by working tag team with vitamin C to support brain health, the body’s natural detoxification processes, and works to help avoid cell and tissue damage. Zinc has also been shown to improve the sleep quality of ICU nurses, suggesting that along with magnesium, it may be a mineral vital to obtaining better sleep. Zinc is intricately associated with wound healing and metabolism, so this supplement could help boost the immune system. This mineral is crucial in the cases of both acute and chronic illness or deficiency, and this makes it indispensable to immunity. A zinc supplement can play vital roles in mediating immune response and can influence the outcome of many inflammatory diseases.
Foods to get it from first: dark leafy greens (i.e. spinach), lean cuts of beef, beans, seafood, pumpkin seeds, and nuts
Folate & Other B vitamins
All B-vitamins are important, but folate is a special one. Folate plays a vital role in mood regulation. During the winter, it is possible to experience seasonal depression or “winter blues”. Taking a bioavailable form of folate can help you to support your cellular health, prevent disease, and bolster your mood.
It’s important to note that finding a bioavailable form of folate is critical, especially if you have a methyltetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene mutation. Basically, this gene mutation affects the way the body metabolizes folate. Recent research has shown that L-methylfolate can be a bioavailable form for individuals with this mutation.
In addition to folate, it’s important to get other B-vitamins as well. Vitamins in the B-family are widely found in foods but the more they are processed, the less nutrients they often contain. It may seem a marginal loss until you consider this conclusion from a recent study showing a strong link between low levels of B vitamins and depression:
“Low folate and B12 serum levels seem to be associated with depression. Folate has been linked to depression and there is a strong body of evidence suggesting the introduction of folate supplement in the prevention and treatment of depression…”
Foods to get it from first: dark leafy greens, beans, lentils, peas, avocados, nuts, seeds, broccoli
Vitamin E & Omega-3s
Vitamin E is often added to skin and scalp products because it is a key factor in skin and scalp health. The body uses vitamin E to protect cell membranes, slow damage to cells, and protect the intestines and other body tissues from threats. Deficiency can cause problems from head to toe - quite literally - with symptoms ranging from neuromuscular in nature to effects on vascular and reproductive systems.
In the winter, eating and ingesting the proper amount of vitamin E can help to keep the skin soft and protected. Like vitamin D, it’s important to ingest vitamin E with healthy fats for the best level of absorption. The need for vitamin E is partially dependent upon the amount of poly-unsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs consumed. PUFAs are a class of fatty acids that include important essential compounds that the body can’t produce on its own. Omega-3 is one example of a PUFA. In other words, this relationship between vitamin E and dietary PUFAs exists because the requirement for vitamin E increases or decreases as the degree of unsaturated fatty acids in body tissues rises or falls. The good news is that good sources of PUFAs also tend to be adequate sources of vitamin E.
Foods to get it from first: avocados, papayas, peaches, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, nuts, seeds, sunflower and safflower oils, vegetable and plant oils, egg yolk, wheat germ
Recommended Product(s): USP verified Kirkland Signature, Pure Encapsulations Vitamin E (with mixed tocopherols), Green Pasture Blue Ice Fermented Cod Liver Oil (I would recommend getting the Orange Flavor -- helps to mask the taste of fish oil)
In addition to the supplements and foods listed above, I would highly recommend finding a good probiotic and learning which probiotic foods you love! Probiotics help the gut stay healthy by improving intestinal balance and helping “good” gut bacteria to thrive. Especially in the winter, it is important to make sure your gut is doing well. Intestinal health is linked to many things, from mood to appetite to immunity. A healthy gut often means a healthy body and mind as well.
When looking for a good probiotic supplement, find a product that is third-party verified (such as with the USP verified seal) and one that has little to no additives. I would also recommend looking for a probiotic that contains at least 10-13 strains (10-13 billion live cells). Essentially, this encourages maintenance of diversity in gut bacteria, a major marker for digestive and overall health.
Foods to get it from first: yogurt, kefir, aged cheeses, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, cultured non-dairy yogurts (often fortified with live cultures)
The Bottom Line
Taking supplements in the winter can be a great way to enhance your health, and especially your immunity. Vitamin and mineral supplements are most effective when taken as directed by health professionals. If you feel overwhelmed, start out by taking a good multivitamin, like Smarty Pants Vitamins which are formulated thoughtfully and use more bioavailable forms of nutrients so that your body has the best chance at getting what it needs. Also, don’t forget I have an entire page on my website dedicated to Free Vitamin Guides, where you can learn more about each vitamin. Everyone is different, and so it’s important to understand what your body needs and how you can provide it with the nutrients it needs.
Still have questions?
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