Vitamin safety

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Vitamins and supplements can be quite confusing for many seniors. Do they work? Are they safe? What should you take? With so many options available in stores and online, we met with Humana Pharmacy® pharmacist Adam M. Bell, who holds a doctor of pharmacy degree, for a question and answer session about senior vitamin safety.

Adam M. Bell, PharmD, Pharmacist, Humana Pharmacy clinical programs, Doctor of Pharmacy: University of Pittsburgh (2005)

Q: If I am taking a prescription, is it alright for me to also take over-the-counter vitamins?

A: Over-the-counter vitamins can be a great addition to a well-balanced diet. They may not always be appropriate for you and your prescription. Just like with medications, make sure your physician is comfortable with the vitamin before starting it, and that your pharmacist has reviewed for drug interactions.

Q: I read that vitamin C can actually block the absorption of my prescription medicine. Is this true?

A: Some medication can be negatively affected by vitamin C, including some cancer medications. That’s why you should always review your supplements with your healthcare provider before starting them, and whenever adding a new medication.

Q: If I eat 3 meals a day, do I need to take vitamins or supplements after the age of 65?

A: A well-balanced diet is always the first step to good health. Unfortunately, our body changes over time and we may not absorb some nutrients in the same ways, or our medications may impact our supplement needs. As a result, your physician or pharmacist may recommend a vitamin or supplement to compliment a healthy diet.

Q: My doctor suggested I take vitamin D to maintain bone health, but I have never broken a bone. Do I really need it?

A: Remember that vitamins and supplements can be prescribed to help prevent complications. If your physician has identified a vitamin D deficiency, or bone loss, not taking the supplement could increase your risk for a future fracture.

Q: I noticed a senior multivitamin at my local pharmacy. How is this different from a non-senior version?

A: Senior multivitamins are designed to meet specific needs often found in the senior population. As we age, we may need more of some things and less of others. Often you’ll see differences in iron, vitamin B-12, and vitamin E content.

Q: Could over-the-counter vitamins or supplements be harmful to me if they are naturally derived?

A: Yes, even if naturally derived, an over-the-counter vitamin or supplement has the potential to do harm. That’s why you should always review your over-the-counter products with your healthcare provider.

Q: Is it better to take a multivitamin or to take vitamins individually?

A: Some people experience side effects or harm when taking many supplements in combination. Remember that a lot of foods are already nutrient enriched. Talk to your physician prior to starting a vitamin routine as you may only need to supplement one nutrient, or maybe a larger range like those found in a multivitamin, or possibly none at all.

Q: My doctor suggested I have one nutritional smoothie per day. How will that help me?

A: A nutritional smoothie can often help to supplement for the lack of nutrients in your traditional diet. This could be due to a medical condition that affects your appetite, or just your ability to absorb nutrients through your regular meals. Again, a balanced diet is the best solution, but having a smoothie can help your body to continue to work to its peak potential.

If you decide to use smoothies to improve your diet, make sure you find recipes that match your needs. “Green” smoothies made with ingredients like kale and spinach can help if you have difficulty eating enough vegetables, and smoothies made with fruit high in certain vitamins can help you make up for some deficiencies. If you need to gain weight, consider healthy sources of high-quality calories such as plain yogurt or unsweetened nut butters. Use ingredients with lots of sugar like apple juice, orange juice, or honey sparingly. If your smoothie is too sweet, the extra sugar can do more harm than good.

Q: How can I tell which brands are the best when I am shopping for vitamins and supplements?

A: Vitamins and supplements do not require approval by the FDA, which can create a lot of confusion. Several independent organizations offer seals of approval which you can look for. These include the U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com, and NSF International. Ask your pharmacist if you need help selecting a product. 

Q: My doctor suggested I add a B-12 supplement to help with my fatigue. Why is this?

A: Vitamin B-12 can help us to make healthy blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles and organs in our bodies. It’s estimated that up to 15% of individuals may have some kind of B-12 deficiency.

Q: I read that vitamin supplements aren’t effective. Is this true?

A: Vitamin supplements may not be approved by the FDA, but a lot of data supports their effectiveness when used appropriately. Not all supplements and not all people are the same, so remember to review them with your healthcare provider to see if they are the right fit for you.

Use these resources if you’d like to learn more:

NIH Office of Dietary Supplements

NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

U.S Food & Drug Administration

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