Vitamins Demystified: Do They Work and, if so, What Should You Be Taking

For many of us, our relationship with vitamin supplementation doesn't extend much further beyond glugging on Berocca-infused water in times of crisis (read: hangovers), and then there are groups of supplement-sceptics, who wouldn't dream of choosing magnesium – in lieu of tried-and-tested aspirin – for joint pain, or high-strength Vitamin C instead of a sachet of Lemsip to take the edge off a cold. This approach is rational, safe and easy. Who needs to play around with snake oil when you can pop down to the chemist and buy a blister pack of something that has been medically proven to do the job?

Even if you're not buying into the benefits of Vitamin A, B, C and the like, you can rest assured that someone else is. And they're spending a lot; in the UK alone, the market for vitamins and dietary supplements is worth over £670 million.

I was extremely skeptical about vitamins and herbal supplements until a couple of years ago when, as a skint student, I worked on the shop floor at Holland & Barrett. I was only there briefly because it wasn't the nicest environment to work in, even for only 12 hours a week, but my bad days spent trying not to cry in the stockroom were almost cancelled out by the interesting, comprehensive training I received from H&B. Making my way through several training days, long tests and fat workbooks (yeah, it was very much like studying science subjects at school) left me with two qualifications in Vitamins & Herbal Supplements. Don't be jealous! Seriously, though, I now have a wealth of supplement-related facts drilled into my brain and, interestingly, it's not all total BS. Even though my relationship with H&B ended a long time ago, I religiously take various vitamins and supplements on a daily basis. And I'm about 90% sure that they are working.

Today I'm going to talk about vitamins, which are kind of like the foundations – the building blocks, if you will – for good overall health. I'm going to talk about supplements – which can do everything from making your hair shinier to alleviating symptoms of depression – in another article, so stay tuned for that.

Vitamins cheat sheet

Vitamin A

What does it do? It promotes lovely, ageless, spot-free skin (hence why retinol is a much-loved skincare saviour) as well as helping with your vision and supporting your immune system.
So, what can it help to treat? Skin affected by acne, eczema and psoriasis loves a bit of Vitamin A. It's also great if you're prone to colds or have allergies.
Anything else I should know? Vitamin A comes in two forms, retinol and beta-carotene. Retinol can be found mainly in liver, eggs and dairy; beta-carotene can be found mainly in fruit and veg – particularly those that are green, orange or yellow. (Kind-of) fun fact: you can actually overdose on Vitamin A, so don't overdo it. Also, don't supplement with it if you're pregnant, as it has the potential to cause birth defects.

The B Vitamins

There are several B-vitamins, all useful for different conditions and concerns, so it's probably easier just to list them individually...

B1 (a.k.a thiamin)

B2 (a.k.a. riboflavin)

B3 (a.k.a niacin)

B5 (a.k.a pantothenic acid)

B6

B7 (a.k.a. biotin)

B9 (a.k.a. folic acid)

B12

Vitamin C

What does it do? Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is brilliant for your immune system, and also works well combined with other vitamins as it aids speedier absorption.
So what can it help to treat? Colds, post-exercise soreness, fatigue, bruising, stress, anaemia...
Anything else I should know If you're a smoker, you'll naturally be more deficient in Vitamin C, so it's particularly important to keep those 'normal' levels replenished in light of your dirty habit. Vitamin C is my favourite – since taking 1000mg a day (this is the highest dose you should be taking, by the way), every day, for the last two years, I get so fewer colds than I used to, and my immune system is, like my lifestyle choices, awful. It's also worth noting that Vitamin C deficiency can lead to a bunch of nasty things... bruising easily, fatigue and bleeding gums, anyone? Ugh.

Vitamin D

What does it do? Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium and phosphorous... in layman's terms, it's great for your bones and muscles.
So what can it help to treat? Pretty much any bone and teeth-related issue can be improved by Vitamin D. Fragile bones? Osteoporosis? Brittle teeth? Muscle loss? This is for you.
Anything else I should know Calcium helps with the absorption of Vit. D, so they're best supplemented together. Great food sources of Vitamin D include oily fish and dairy products – for this reason, if you're vegan, you might want to put this vitamin on your shopping list.

Vitamin E

What does it do? Vitamin E reduces damage from nasty free radicals floating around your body, thus helping your immune system as well as keeping your muscles strong. It's also a known winner in the world of anti-ageing skincare.
So what can it help to treat? Arthritis, premature ageing (i.e. wrinkles!) and circulatory health.
Anything else I should know You'll find two forms of Vitamin E on the shelf of your local health store: 'D' and 'DL'. DL is, in essence, a cheaper, synthetic form of Vitamin E so, while it is still effective (and perfectly safe!), you know you're getting the purest, best stuff when you opt for the 'D' form. Vitamin E may temporarily increase your blood pressure when you begin using it, so start out with a low dose of 100IU. If you already have high blood pressure, discuss using Vitamin E with your GP before you even consider taking it.

Images Monica's Health Magazine Instagram – @gracegramz The Atlantic Office of Dietary Supplements Wise Geek BBC UC Berkeley

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Part-time copywriter; part-time freelance writer. Bit of a fashion nerd. Fan of fluffy coats and fluffy dogs.