Picking the right multivitamin can provide a variety of health benefits–from increased longevity, improved moods and cognition, to the prevention of illness. But which vitamins are the best for which people?
Answering this question involves clarifying the process of how our bodies store and use nutrients. We all need to consume nutrients like vitamin C, magnesium, and B vitamins on a regular basis in order for our bodies to function properly.
The caveat is that everyone’s diet is different, and everyone’s body is different. Certain people may find that their bodies do not properly store or process some nutrients from their natural diet, meaning they may need to supplement these nutrients by taking a multivitamin.
Key Point: In this guide, we explore the basic science behind choosing the right multivitamin and which factors impact this decision.
With hundreds if not thousands of multivitamins on the market, we have aimed to make the process of finding the best options easier.
To save you hours of perusing store aisles and websites, we ranked the best multivitamins for men and the best multivitamins for women. But first, we need to explore the basic science behind multivitamins.
What’s the difference between vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins are organic (i.e. carbon-containing) substances that we need to ingest in relatively small amounts on a regular basis for survival. Examples are the B vitamins, vitamin D, and vitamin C.
In contrast to vitamins, minerals are inorganic substances, meaning they don’t naturally contain carbon atoms.
Most minerals are metal elements, such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Like vitamins, we also require relatively small quantities of minerals on a regular basis for survival.
Do multivitamins really work?
This is probably the most common question people have about multivitamins, but I think we should rephrase it before answering.
Asking “if something works” is incredibly vague if you really think about it. A car can “work” but still be unreliable, just like many nutritional supplements “work” in the sense that they produce very mild biological effects.
The more pertinent question to ask is if multivitamins are beneficial. If so, what kind of benefits can you expect from a multivitamin? According to extant evidence, the benefits of taking a multivitamin are not entirely clear.
However, a recent meta-analysis suggests that micronutrient inadequacies are an emerging epidemic in the U.S. (and globally), and multivitamins may reduce the risk of diseases and other health issues by helping fulfill vitamin and mineral requirements.
So rather than relying on vitamin supplements as your predominant source of micronutrients, the optimal approach is to use a multivitamin as a “backup” or complementary source of vitamins and minerals along with a healthy, balanced diet.
This approach ensures you get both the benefits of a wholesome diet and any benefits that multivitamins may provide.
How long does it take for multivitamins to work?
17.25 days, to be precise…
Jokes aside, there is no set time frame for multivitamins to “work.” Remember, multivitamins aren’t magic pills that suddenly transform your life in the blink of an eye.
Taking a multivitamin is about supplementing your diet to fill in any possible micronutrient gaps, which in turn can help keep you healthy. In this sense, multivitamins work right from the first dose, but you aren’t going to perceive much difference until you’ve taken them for a considerable time.
Think of multivitamins as a long-term “insurance policy” of sorts toward your micronutrient needs.
What’s the difference between men’s multis and women’s multis?
The main difference between gender-specific multivitamins is the dosages of vitamins and minerals, since men generally need more of these micronutrients than women.
Other differences are that men’s multivitamins may contain herbal extracts and polyphenols specifically for male health, like saw palmetto extract for prostate health and Tribulus terrestris extract for supporting testosterone levels.
Female multivitamins often provide herbal extracts and polyphenols that target women’s health, like vitex extract, uva ursi extract, and cranberry extract.
Naturally, it’s best to stick with the multivitamin formulated for your biological sex.
Do I need to take a multivitamin for optimal health?
This question is impossible to answer without further context.
Everybody is unique in terms of their genetics and lifestyle, so whether or not you should take a multivitamin comes down to any potential micronutrient deficiencies and/or health conditions that prevent you from absorbing certain vitamins and minerals through the digestive tract.
In any case, the path to optimal health is having your vitamin and mineral levels within the normal clinical range.
Before you start using a multivitamin (or if you’re currently taking one), consult with a physician and have periodic blood work performed to ensure your vitamin and mineral levels are within normal ranges.
Concrete data like this provides an objective measurement to gauge your health and wellness. It’s one thing to pop a few pills and think to yourself, “Hmm, I feel a little better.” It’s another thing to have factual values that reassure you those pills are doing what they are intended to do.
Should I take my multivitamin with food or on an empty stomach?
Take it with food, preferably a complete meal that contains some fat so your body can properly absorb the fat-soluble vitamins.
What’s the difference between water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins?
Water-soluble vitamins are vitamins C and the B vitamins, all of which are soluble in water and rapidly absorbed.
Water-soluble vitamins are also less likely to build up to toxic levels in the event of an overdose, since they are readily excreted in the urine.
Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, are vitamins that are soluble in lipids (fats), which makes them insoluble in water.
Hence, having some fat in the digestive tract helps the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Toxicity of fat-soluble vitamins is more likely to occur if you ingest excessive amounts regularly, since — with the exception of vitamin K — these vitamins are stored in the liver and slowly excreted.
Is it better to take multivitamins if I don’t eat a lot of vegetables or fruits?
It’s hard to say whether people who consume a plant-rich diet benefit less by taking a multivitamin than those who don’t eat as many micronutrients from whole foods.
Logically, you would think that those who consume ample amounts of vitamins and minerals from whole foods wouldn’t see much benefit by taking a multivitamin, and vice versa.
However, this could lead to the misapprehension that multivitamins replace a healthy, balanced diet, which they don’t. Again, multivitamins are complementary to your diet.
Multivitamins and Longevity: Do Vitamins Make You Live Longer?
Now, for the grand finale multivitamin question: “Will multivitamins make me live longer?”
The answer: In conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle, possibly.
I realize that’s not the black-and-white response you were hoping for, but if I’m being candid, very few things pertaining to human health and nutrition are that clear-cut.
The good news is that high-quality multivitamins have a reputable safety profile, and the chances of them reducing your lifespan are next to nil. I know that isn’t much of a selling point — “Oh great, taking this pill won’t kill me. That’s reassuring!”
Unfortunately, science and clinical studies can only control so many variables at once and tracking the daily activities of millions of people over decades makes it exceedingly difficult to study the effects of multivitamins on our longevity.
To account for these hurdles, determining a supplement’s safety profile is the next best thing.
As a recent systematic review put it, “multivitamins did not increase the risk of mortality and may provide a modest protective benefit against cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
Given the unemphatic, matter-of-fact prose of scientific writing, that’s actually a pretty compelling statement.
The Most Effective Ingredients to Look for in a Multivitamin
There are several kinds of multivitamin ingredients, each serving a different purpose. And while dosage and correct ingredients will vary on several factors, such as weight, height, age, and nutrition needs, few ingredients remain essential.
Some of the most popular ingredients that people typically require more of are as follows:
- Vitamin A: promotes vision, cell division, growth, reproduction, and immunity
- Vitamin B12, B6, and other B Vitamins: support the functions of several enzymes, including those that release energy from fat and carbohydrates, break down amino acids, and transport oxygen and nutrients that contain energy throughout the body
- Vitamin D: helps the body retain and absorb calcium and phosphorus
- Vitamin E: protects your cells from oxidative damage
- Choline: enhances mood, improves memory and intelligence
- Fiber: keeps the gut healthy
Conclusion: To get the most out of any form of supplementation, you need to have a good understanding of how your body works and what your body needs. But at least in the case of multivitamins, finding the right ones can provide a variety of health benefits.