A guide to vitamins and minerals – what are you lacking?

Vitamins and minerals are crucial for many essential bodily functions. However, deficiencies are common – often due to poor diet, use of certain medications, chronic illness, poor digestion or not spending enough time outdoors. Infants, the elderly, pregnant women and menstruating women are particularly vulnerable.

Helpfully, the way you look and feel can often help demonstrate exactly what you might be deficient in and what you’d benefit from eating a little more of:

  • If you feel a rundown and want more energy

Feeling rundown or low in energy can often be due to low iron levels, particularly in women. However, it’s important to have iron levels checked by a GP before supplementing with high dose iron supplements, as an excess of iron can be toxic.

A natural way to boost iron levels is to load up on lean meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, pulses and soya products. Eating iron-rich foods with a food or drink high in vitamin C (such as a glass of fresh orange juice) will help enhance iron absorption.

  • If you suffer from skin breakouts

Vitamin C is needed for radiant skin and to help blemishes heal properly. The best sources
are blackcurrants, blueberries, broccoli, guava, kiwi  fruit, oranges, papaya, strawberries and sweet potatoes. These all help to produce collagen that strengthens the capillaries that supply the skin.

1Zinc is involved in the normal functioning of the sebaceous glands in the skin and helps to repair skin damage and keep skin soft and supple. Zinc-rich foods include fish, lean red meat, wholegrains, poultry, nuts, seeds and shellfish.

  • If you’re worried about the effects of ageing

Studies suggest that a selenium-rich diet can help to protect against skin cancer, sun damage and age spots. One way to boost your intake is to eat Brazil nuts – just four nuts will provide the recommended daily amount.

Vitamin E is often a key ingredient in skin creams, but the best way to get your dose is to eat it. Yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potato, mango and peppers (orange and yellow ones) all contain carotenoids, antioxidants that the body converts to Vitamin E, which nourish the layers of skin under the surface.

  • If you struggle to sleep

You may be low in magnesium, a mineral needed for quality sleep. Almonds are a great natural source.

Fish such as tuna, halibut, and salmon are high in vitamin B6, which your body needs to make melatonin (a hormone to aid sleep). Other foods high in B6 include raw garlic and pistachio nuts.

Kale and spinach are loaded with calcium, which helpsspinach-dd-02 the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin, so it’s also worth upping your intake of green leafy vegetables.

  • If you’re vegetarian

Vegetarians are often deficient in omega-3 fats. There are two types of omega-3’s – the long chain versions found in oily fish – (DHA and EPA) and the short chain versions from vegetable oils, particularly flaxseed, walnut, rapeseed and soya oils – (ALA).

Vegetarians are often particularly deficient in long chain fatty acids as although our bodies can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, the conversion isn’t very efficient. It is therefore advisable for vegetarians to consider a supplement made from algae derived DHA if you don’t eat fish, or to include sea vegetables in your diet.

  • If you’ve switched to a vegan diet

Everybody needs regular, reliable sources of vitamin B12, which is found naturally only in animal sources. It is therefore imperative that you supplement B12 or include B12 fortified foods (such as fortified soya, yeast extract and nutritional yeast) if you’re a vegan.

When avoiding dairy foods, you may also be low in calcium. This can be found in tofu, fortified foods such as soya, rice or oat milks and green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, sesame seeds and tahini.

  • If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant

When trying to improve your fertility it is worth setting aside a 3 month period to make positive changes to your vitamin and mineral status. If using the contraceptive pill, this can deplete many vitamins and minerals (including vitamin B2, B6, C, A and zinc) and may have a detrimental effect.

liver-detox-smoothie-copyFolic acid is the most essential pregnancy nutrient (both before and during pregnancy), working together with vitamin B12 to ensure that the baby’s genetic materials are fully developed. It is difficult to get sufficient quantities from food alone, so is the only supplement that all women must take before conception.

400mcg per day is recommended from 3 months prior to conception until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, plus a further 200mcg from food (found in beans, peanuts, avocado and green leafy vegetables).

Retinol (the animal form of vitamin A found in many supplements) should be avoided during pregnancy, as it can cause developmental and birth defects in excess. It is therefore important to be cautious when taking multi vitamin supplements or Cod Liver Oil which can contain high levels of Vitamin A in retinol form.

© Sarah West Nutrition

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a steroid hormone. It differs from other vitamins as it is produced within the body as well as being obtained from dietary sources.

Where do I get vitamin D from?


It can be found in fish liver oils (such as cod liver oil), fatty wild fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and herring, fortified foods (such as cereals) and egg yolks. However, only about 10% of our vitamin D intake comes from food sources, so it is nearly impossible to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from diet alone.

Exposure to sunlight is the most reliable way to generate vitamin D in your body; it is produced by the skin in response to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It is possible to generate 20,000 units of vitamin D following only 20 minutes of sun exposure without suntan lotion. It is also found in some food sources.

What does vitamin D do?

Like all hormones, vitamin D is involved in the production of enzymes and proteins within the body, which are crucial for preserving health and preventing disease. It improves muscle strength and strengthens bone. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, aids the action of insulin within the body and has anti-cancer properties.

Because of its vast assortment of benefits, maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D is crucial for good health. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked with many of the diseases of modern society.

Why is it important to get enough vitamin D?bigstock-Sunshine-Vitamin-D-61736075.jpg

Vitamin D deficiency is rarely considered to be a problem in the modern world. However, it remains a common deficiency in many children and adults. Worldwide, it

is estimated that the epidemic of vitamin D deficiency affects one billion people.

Before birth and during childhood, vitamin D deficiency can cause slowed growth and skeletal deformities and may increase the risk of fractures later in life. Vitamin D helps your bones absorb calcium, which keeps them healthy and strong. In adults, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to muscle weakness and play a role in many major diseases, including osteoporosis and osteopenia, many types of cancer, depression, heart disease and heart failure, obesity, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, sexual health and infertility, Parkinson’s, depression, Alzheimer’s and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Gwyneth Paltrow hit the headlines after revealing that she has been diagnosed with the early stages of Osteopenia, a bone-weakening disease that is most commonly diagnosed in elderly women. If left untreated, bones may become more brittle, leading to osteoporosis. Paltrow was confused by her doctors’ advice to get more sun in order to increase her vitamin D levels, which was counterintuitive to warnings about protecting the skin from harmful UV radiation.

So how much sunshine do you need?

il_570xn-317727000All living things need sun; the important factor is getting the right balance. In the last few years, numerous studies have shown that modest sunlight exposure may actually be beneficial; helping the body to manufacture the adequate levels of vitamin D it needs to keep bones healthy and protect against a range of health problems, including skin cancer. However, excessive sun exposure can cause melanoma and skin ageing.

As a general rule, if you are not vitamin D deficient, about 20 minutes of sun exposure a day (without sun cream) is sufficient. It doesn’t matter which part of the body you expose to the sun. All you need is a common sense when heading outdoors; make sure you do it gradually and always avoid sunburn.

Are you getting enough vitamin D?
Current UK guidance is clear on who should be taking vitamin D supplements and in what quantity. It indicates that for most adults they are completely unnecessary.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women need extra vitamin D to make sure they have enough to protect their bones and ensure that their baby grows properly. They should take 10 micrograms a day – about twice the dose found in the average multivitamin pill. Other at-risk groups, which include the elderly, the housebound and those who cover their skin for religious or cultural reasons, should also take 10 micrograms.

Signs of a vitamin D deficiency include muscle pain/weakness and bone pain; don’t let these warning signals go unanswered.

The only way to accurately ascertain whether you are vitamin D deficient is to see your GP for a blood test. It is then perfectly possible to reverse a diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency with prescribed vitamin D supplementation and controlled, moderate sun exposure. Don’t rely on food alone for your Vitamin D needs. Although irresponsible sunbathing is unquestionably harmful and precautions need to be taken, regular, moderate sun exposure is essential for good health.

A diet rich in vitamin D and calcium, regular weight-bearing exercise like jogging, walking and avoiding smoking are also key to help prevent osteopenia, osteoporosis and other associated conditions.

© Sarah West Nutrition