Taking Supplements as You Age
Eating a healthy diet can help your immune system stay strong and prevent health problems.
“Most nutritional needs can be met with food,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But as you get older, if you have a limited diet and aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet, your doctor may recommend a supplement.
What are Supplements?
Food supplements are capsules, pills, powders, or liquids that you take to get additional nutrients. These can be vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, plants or enzymes. You can buy them in grocery stores and drugstores. You don’t need a prescription for the supplements.
Supplements as you get older
If you are over 50, you may need more of certain vitamins and minerals. The doctor may recommend a supplement to help meet these needs, such as:
Calcium. You need calcium to keep your bones strong. As you age, you lose bone mass, which can lead to fractures. “Bone loss accelerates in your 50s, especially in women,” says Wright.
You can get calcium from foods like milk, canned fish, and dark leafy vegetables. If you are not eating enough foods rich in calcium, you may need extra calcium and vitamin D because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.
Vitamin D. If you get 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight about twice a week, your body can produce enough vitamin D. But as you age, it is more difficult for your body to absorb vitamin D from sunlight.
If you don’t want to take a supplement, eat foods high in vitamin D like fortified milk, fortified cereals, and oily fish.
Vitamin B12. “One vitamin that we watch out for as we get older is vitamin B12,” says Wright. “This is because stomach acid, which is necessary for your body to absorb vitamin B12 from food, decreases with age.” You need vitamin B12 to keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy and to prevent anemia.
If you want to increase vitamin B12 in your diet, try foods like fortified meats and grains.
Antioxidants like beta-carotene, selenium, vitamin C, and vitamin E can help prevent disease. You can get them by eating foods like fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts, and seeds.
Research suggests that taking supplements with antioxidants does not protect you from chronic illnesses like heart disease or diabetes. It is best to get antioxidants from the foods you eat.
Herbal supplements like black cohosh, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng come from plants.
These products are not regulated the same way as drugs, Wright says. In addition, some can interfere with the medications you are taking and others have unpleasant side effects. While there is a lot of research on many, there may not be others. Let your doctor know if you are considering taking one, so they can make sure that it won’t do more harm than good.
Are the supplements safe?
Before considering taking a supplement, talk to your doctor. Supplements can interact with certain medications and affect how they work. And they can be harmful if you take them before surgery or other procedures.
Taking too much of a supplement can also be dangerous. “Avoid supplements that exceed the UL, or the upper limit, for that vitamin or mineral,” says Wright. “More is not better.”
Taking a megadose increases your risk of side effects. If your food is already high in vitamins and minerals, adding a supplement can give you too much.
Avoid taking high doses of these supplements, especially if you are taking prescription drugs:
- Black cohosh
- St. John’s Wort
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
If you experience a severe reaction or side effects to a supplement, stop taking it and call your doctor.
Remember that supplements are not regulated like prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The FDA does not test the safety of supplements or what they claim on the label.
“Avoid supplements that carry all kinds of claims, such as ‘cures memory problems’ or ‘boosts libido,'” says Wright. Just because it says something on the label doesn’t mean it’s true.
Tips for taking supplements
Try a generic. “Generic brands are equivalent to more expensive brand names,” says Wright.
Take it with food. Taking your supplement with food can help you absorb it better and prevent an upset stomach.
Talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you decide if you need a supplement and, if so, which ones are safe and healthy for you.
Try to eat well. “Remember that supplements are just that, a supplement to your diet,” says Wright. “Focus on consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats to build a strong foundation that supplements can add to.”
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