The definition of a supplement is “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” Surveys show that more than half of all Americans take some form of vitamin supplement almost daily, but what are the best supplements to take for health? (1)
Supplements remain a controversial topic — some health experts tell us that they’re mostly unnecessary because we can get the essential nutrients we need from our diets alone, while others tell us that conventionally grown foods today don’t contain enough nutrients due to issues like poor soil quality. So who should we believe? And if we’re going to take supplements, what are the best supplements for overall health?
The best supplements for you will depend on factors like your gender, age, medical history, genetics, level of physical activity and diet. For example, adult men and women may benefit from taking different supplements, vegetarians/vegans can use more of certain nutrients like vitamin B12, and people living in cooler climates may need more vitamin D.
We also have to remember that even the best supplements can’t take the place of eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. While supplements like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and protein powders can help to support specific functions, the real goal of using supplements should be to enhance an already-balanced diet.
What Is Considered a Supplement?
According to the National Institute of Health, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products. (2) Today, more supplements than ever before in history are available in health food stores, drug stores, pharmacies and online in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, tinctures, powders, gummies, drinks and more.
Some of the most widely consumed supplements include multivitamins; vitamins D and E; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs, such as turmeric, echinacea and garlic; glucosamine; probiotics; omega-3 fish oils; and protein powders.
Top 6 Best Supplements for Health
1. Vitamins C, E and A for Skin Health
As we get older, our skin becomes more susceptible to damage caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, too much sun exposure, a poor diet, overactive immune system and other factors. Which vitamins really work when it comes to improving skin health? Obtaining plenty vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A/beta-carotene and zinc can all help to keep your skin looking healthy and youthful. (3)
For example, the antioxidant vitamin C does more than just fight illnesses — it also helps protect your skin by fighting free radicals and helping you absorb more trace minerals and nutrients in general. Consuming plenty vitamin E and vitamin A together has been shown to improve healing. Collagen is another supplement that can benefit your skin by helping repair wounds and keeping skin elastic, strong and moisturized.
2. B Vitamins for Energy and Help Handling Stress
B vitamins, including vitamin B12 and folate, are important for your metabolism, supporting cellular processes, growth and energy expenditure, preventing fatigue, and boosting cognitive functions. (4)
Plant-based eaters who avoid meat (vegetarians/vegans) are more likely to be low in B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, which is only found in animal foods, therefore supplementing is recommended. Even if you consume the daily B vitamins you need (from eating things like beef, poultry and eggs), you might still have trouble with proper absorption (such as of vitamin B12) due to medication use or health conditions that impair gut health.
3. Vitamin D and Calcium for Bone Health and More
It remains a controversial whether two of the best supplements for keeping bones strong and reducing your risk for bone loss and fractures are calcium and vitamin D. (5) Calcium, when consumed when other key nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium, has been shown to offer protection against some of the biggest threats to adult men and women: heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer, for example. Experts believe that most adults in the U.S. don’t get enough calcium on a daily basis, but calcium is not absorbed properly when someone has low levels of vitamin D and magnesium. Supplementing with calcium has pros and cons, so speak with your doctor about your risk factors, and first try to get enough from foods if you can.
Not only is vitamin D3 important for bone/skeletal health, but it’s also needed for brain functions, preventing mood disorders, immune support and hormonal balance. We get the majority of our vitamin D from exposing our skin to sunlight. Since more people spend a large majority of their time indoors these days or wear sunscreen diligently when outdoors, both men and women are at high risks for vitamin D deficiencies. Estimates range, but some research shows that about 75 percent of adults in the U.S. might be deficient!
How much vitamin D should you take daily? The best way to get enough vitamin D is to spend 15–20 minutes outside most days of the week without sunscreen on. If this isn’t possible for you, it’s recommended you take 400–800 IU/day, or 10–20 micrograms. Studies research suggests that higher daily intakes of 1000–4000 IU (25–100 micrograms) may be even more beneficial for some deficient adults, so it’s best to talk to your doctor.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Fighting Inflammation
What is the best supplement to take if you want to keep your immune system strong, joints in good condition, brain working sharply and heart healthy? Omega-3 fatty acids/fish oil supplements may be able to help fight inflammation, which is associated with common conditions, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. (6) Eating wild-caught fish several times per week or taking a supplement equal to about 1,000 milligrams daily is the best way to beat inflammation and get enough omega-3s.
Other vitamins may be able to effectively manage blood sugar levels and hormonal responses, which can contribute to inflammation when they become abnormal. Vitamin E, vitamin A and vitamin C all work together to keep cells and tissue strong and protect against inflammation. Zinc is one of the most important nutrients for helping with nutrient absorption (it’s involved in over 100 metabolic processes) and allowing for proper waste elimination, which fights inflammation and cellular damage.
5. Antioxidants for Eye Health
Eye vitamins and antioxidants can help protect the eye’s macula, lens and cornea while also lowering free radical damage and inflammation, which destroy tissue in the eyes. A number of antioxidants, including vitamin A, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin, can help to protect your vision and eyes as you age. (7)
Lutein and zeaxanthin are cartotenoids that are found in the macular region of the retina of the eyes, and studies suggest they can help reduce the risk of light-induced oxidative damage that can lead to macular degeneration (AMD). Zinc and copper in combination with other vitamins can also help protect the retina and lower risk for macular degeneration and vision loss. Vitamin A and vitamin C help fight free radical damage in the eyes caused over time by things like a poor diet, blue light emissions from computer screens and sun/UV light exposure.
6. Probiotics for Gut/Digestive Support
Probiotics are bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. Certain strains of probiotics enhance immune function, whereas others promote health or hormone balance. (8) Your “good gut bugs” help produce vitamin B12, butyrate and vitamin K; crowd out bad microbes; create enzymes that destroy harmful bacteria; and stimulate secretion of IgA and regulatory T-cells, which support immune function.
When buying probiotic supplements, look out for the genus, species and strain. The label should also indicate the type of CFUs (colony forming units) that are present at the time of manufacturing. It’s best to take a probiotic that has at least 50 billion CFUs and has strain diversity, including multiple bacterial strains, such as Bacillus clausii, Bacillus subtilis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.
If you suspect you might have leaky gut syndrome (aka intestinal permeability) — perhaps because you have symptoms of food sensitivities, inflammatory bowel disease or skin issues like eczema — then other leaky gut supplements are also worth trying (in addition to following a leaky gut diet and treatment plan). These include collagen and licorice root to help maintain the mucosal lining of the stomach and duodenum, digestive enzymes (such as one that includes protease, amylase, lipase and lactase) L-glutamine, which can help repairing the gut and intestinal lining, and N-acetyl glucosamine, which can help protect the lining of your stomach and intestines.
Who Needs Supplements?
It’s technically possible to get all of the essential nutrients you need from a carefully planned, balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods. Still, many people wind up getting less of one or more nutrients than they need, such as vitamins or minerals.
There are 13 vitamins that all humans require from their diets, including vitamins C, A, D, E, K and the B vitamins. (9) There are also a number of important trace minerals and fatty acids too that we must get from our diets because our bodies can’t produce them.
Research shows many adults (and children too) experience at least one type of nutrient deficiency, if not more, even if they consume enough calories on most days. You’re most likely to suffer from a nutrient deficiency if you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods, in which case some supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. People who are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients include:
- The elderly, who often have a reduced appetite and a hard time absorbing some nutrients.
- Those who consume a large amount of processed foods, sugar, refined grains and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
- People eating calorie-restrictive diets.
- Those with malabsorption/gut issues.
- People who consume high amounts of alcohol or smoke.
- Those under a lot of mental/physical stress.
- Endurance athletes or people who are very active.
- Pregnant women who have higher calorie and nutrient needs.
- People exposed to various environmental pollutants.
- Those on a vegan diet or vegetarian diet that doesn’t include any animal or much animal products.
If you have any of the following symptoms or conditions, then certain supplements can likely be helpful:
- Muscle aches, pains and spasms
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Trouble recovering from workouts
- Brain fog
- Digestive issues like bloating, constipation or diarrhea
- Fatigue and low energy
- Blurry or diminishing vision
- Acne, skin breakouts and signs of skin irritation
- Poor quality sleep
- Thinning hair
- Irregular or heavy periods
- You’re pregnant or breastfeeding
The Best Supplements for Men
What are the most important vitamins for your body if you’re a man? The following are considered some of the best supplements for men:
- Magnesium is one of the most important minerals for both men and women, but unfortunately it’s also one of the most common deficiencies. As an electrolyte, magnesium helps regulate calcium, potassium and sodium and is essential for over 300 different biochemical functions in the body. Studies have shown that many older people don’t eat enough magnesium-rich foods to begin with, plus they’re prone to experiencing reduced magnesium due to trouble with intestinal absorption, reduced magnesium bone stores, and excess urinary loss due to factors like stress and exercise.
- Many men are also low in potassium. Potassium deficiency is most common in men who take medications or diuretics in order to treat high blood pressure, diabetes or coronary heart disease; those with a history of kidney or adrenal disorders; alcoholics; and men who exercise for more than one to two hours a day.
- Men need vitamin D3 to produce enough testosterone, maintain strong bones, protect brain health, prevent mood disorders like depression, and help control cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- What supplements can you take to build muscle and “get ripped”? Of course women can have the goal of gaining muscle and losing fat just like men can, but bodybuilding supplements tend to be more popular among men. Some of the safest and best bodybuilding supplements include collagen, creatine, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), glutamine, caffeine and protein powders. These are generally safe for most adults to use and offer benefits like increasing lean muscle mass, improving muscular strength, decreasing muscle soreness, improving blood flow during training and helping repair injured connective issue.
- What are the best protein powders for men? Whey protein powder is one of the most popular and has been used for many years. It is fast-digesting, can help increase muscle mass post-workout, can improve appetite control, supports muscle recovery, stabilizes your blood sugar and more. To use whey protein, simply add one scoop (or about 28 grams) of a high-quality powder to any low-sugar shake or smoothie. Keep in mind that whey protein should not be consumed by people with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. If this applies to you, try collagen protein powder, hemp protein, pea protein or sprouted brown rice protein powder instead.
The Best Supplements for Women
Some of the best supplements for women listed below may help prevent common health problems like anemia, bone loss and joint pains.
- Post-menopausal women are more susceptible to bone-related disorders like osteoporosis and bone fractures. Women can benefit from consuming adequate vitamin K, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium for bone health. If you’ve been taking antibiotics for an extended period of time or suffer from intestinal problems, such as IBS or inflammatory bowel disease, then you might need additional vitamin K beyond what your diet provides.
- Iron deficiency and anemia are the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies in the world, especially among women. Older women, those with anemia, vegans and vegetarians should work with a doctor to make sure they get enough B vitamins and iron since they’re at the greatest risk for these deficiencies. Adolescent girls are at the highest risk for iron deficiencies, and women in general need to be careful to get enough since demand for iron increases during menstruation due to blood loss.
- A lack of calcium, amino acids (protein), omega-3s, zinc, iodine and iron are more common in women (and men) who don’t eat any animal products, which is why supplements are recommended in this case.
- Women between the ages of 20–39 are most likely to have low iodine levels. (10) Iodine intake is especially important for young women looking to become pregnant or who are pregnant, plus it helps support production of thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland requires iodine to produce the hormones T3 and T4, which help control your metabolism and prevent problems like hypo or hyperthyroidism.
- Weight loss supplements and workout supplements can be beneficial when used carefully in appropriate doses, although they aren’t a magic bullet. Some of the best weight loss supplements to add to an already-healthy diet include green tea extract, caffeine (watch out for very high doses), ginseng, vitamin B12, chromium, citrus polyphenols and grapefruit essential oil. Try these in addition to exercise, stress management and eating filling, fat-burning foods.
- Requirements for many micronutrients increase during pregnancy — especially nutrients like folate, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and iodine. (11) For pregnant women, supplementing with folic acid helps decrease the risk of certain birth defects, including spina bifida. Folate (which is called folic acid when it’s created synthetically) is critical for a healthy pregnancy and developing fetuses because it helps build the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Stick to fermented folic acid/folate, which is metabolized by the body similarly to naturally occurring folate. The American Thyroid Association also recommends all prenatal vitamins contain 150 micrograms of iodine, which should be taken during pregnancy and afterward while breast-feeding.
What to Look For
Unlike prescription medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed and sold to the public. The FDA has established “good manufacturing practices” (GMPs) for dietary supplements to help ensure that they are safe and pure, however it’s still your responsibility as a consumer to do your research, buy from products from a reputable brand and follow dosage directions. (12)
Organizations, including the U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com and NSF International, offer seals of approval for supplements, so these are good resources to check before buying a new product.
I recommend purchasing foods-based supplements, such as multivitamins, whenever possible, which can mean that the nutrients are easier to digest. Synthetic supplements are made from an unnatural source while whole food-based supplements are created through the process of fermentation, probiotics and enzymes.
You can also look for multivitamins that are made with additional superfoods, herbs, enzymes and botanical ingredients like spirulina, camu camu, chia seeds, saw palmetto, ginseng, apple cider vinegar and ashwagandha. I also highly recommend choosing a fermented multivitamin, since fermentation is a form of pre-digestion that makes nutrients easier to absorb. Ideally you’ll take a fermented multivitamin rich in superfoods that also contains herbs that can help with digestion, such as ginger and peppermint.
Best Supplements vs. Worst Supplements
I recommend avoiding all synthetic supplements and seeking out the higher-quality, whole food-based supplements. Check the ingredient label and skip supplements that contain ingredients like artificial coloring, titanium dioxide, soy lecithin, BHT, maltodextrin, talc, hydrogenated oils, high doses of caffeine or aconite. (13)
Precautions When Taking Supplements:
Some supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong and/or negative effects on the body. Supplements are most likely to cause side effects when when they are taken in high doses, in combinations or with prescribed medicines. Remember that supplements are not drugs, and they shouldn’t be used to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent or cure diseases.
Some supplements can interact with prescription drugs in ways that might cause problems or make the drugs less effective. This means that you shouldn’t take supplements in place of, or in combination with, prescribed medications without talking to your doctor first.
Be especially careful about taking new supplements if you’re taking medications like blood thinners, antidepressants, birth control pills or chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer. Many supplements (especially herbal products) have not been well-tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, so if this applies to you be extra cautious.
How to Eat to Support Supplementation
Supplements are intended to do what their name implies: supplement your diet. Supplements shouldn’t take the place of eating healthy foods, so taking them is not an excuse to avoid eating things like veggies, fruit and fish — even the best supplements!
Even if you do regularly take high-quality supplements, you should still make an effort to eat nutrient-dense foods every day. Some of the best foods for providing essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more include:
- Anti-inflammatory foods, which are high in antioxidants and have positive, preventative effects against many age-related disorders. Foods that fall into this category include veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, seaweeds, herbs and spices.
- Veggies like carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and leafy greens, which are considered some of the best foods for overall health because they provide antioxidants and vitamins, including vitamins C, E, A and zinc, along with carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Other great options include cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemon and limes), sweet potatoes, green beans, eggs (including the yolk), berries, papaya, mango, kiwi, melon, guava, red bell peppers, peas, nuts and seeds (sunflower, sesame, hazelnut, almond, Brazil nuts, etc.).
- A diet that includes high-fiber foods like sprouted chia seeds, sprouted flaxseeds and sprouted hemp seeds is important for supporting probiotic growth.
- Several times per week, try to have wild-caught seafood, especially salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, halibut, tuna, etc. Other nutrient-dense protein options include organ meats like liver, grass-fed meat, cage-free eggs, raw dairy products and pasture-raised poultry.
- Aim to have some raw foods like veggies that are uncooked or lightly cooked. Preserve antioxidants in your food by cutting and cooking them as close to the time you’ll be eating them as possible. Cook your foods at low temperatures as much as possible to avoid destroying delicate phytonutrients.
- Try to also buy organic, fresh, grass-fed and wild-caught foods as much as possible to get the highest nutrient concentrations.
- Consume foods high in vitamins and antioxidants along with healthy fats, since many of these vitamins are “fat-soluble nutrients” that are absorbed best when eaten with a source of lipids (fats). Pair nutrient-dense foods with something like omega-3 foods (like salmon), coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds for proper absorption.
Every nutrient needs to be taken in different amounts, so when buying supplements, always prefer to the supplement facts panel found on the bottle/package that lists the contents, amount of active ingredients per serving, other added ingredients (like fillers, binders and flavorings) and recommended dosage.
Supplement manufacturers will suggest the serving size that is recommended for most adults. Because needs vary, you can speak with your care provider if you think a different amount is more appropriate for you. Keep in mind that moderation is key with supplements, even the best supplements, and just because a nutrient is considered essential doesn’t necessarily mean that taking more is always better — in fact, this can be dangerous and have negative effects.
Because some medications might interact with supplements, it can be beneficial to take them at separate times (you can ask your doctor or pharmacist). By sticking to a regular schedule for when you take drugs and supplements, you’re more likely to remember them each day.
Below are general recommendations for common supplements (again, do your research or ask your doctor if you have special needs):
- Vitamin D: 15 to 20 mcg/day (600 to 800 IU, or international units).
- Calcium: 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day.
- Probiotics: 2–4 capsules of high-quality probiotic capsules daily.
- Folate/folic acid: 400 mcg/day.
- Iron: 8 to 18 mg/day.
- Magnesium: 310 to 400 mg/day.
- Vitamin A: 700 to 900 IU/day.
- Vitamin C: 75 to 90 mg/day.
- Vitamin E: 22.4 IU/day (or 15 mg/day).
- Omega-3s: 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily.
What’s the best time of day to take supplements? It really depends on the type of supplement, although consistency is probably most important. Take supplements with food (unless otherwise recommended) to boost absorption and reduce the risk of side effects like nausea. Check the instructions to see if you need to split doses throughout the day, since the body absorbs smaller doses of many nutrients better than large ones. Iron is one supplement that is best absorbed on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning, and taking probiotics about 30 minutes before a meal seems to work well for most people.
- What are the best vitamins and best supplements to take daily? There isn’t a clear-cut answer to “what’s the best supplements” because it depends on factors including your gender, age, medical history, genetics, level of physical activity and diet.
- Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies among adult men and women include vitamin D, magnesium, iron, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. Examples of other supplements that also offer many benefits include probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, collagen, vitamins C and A, and zinc.
- Adults may benefit from taking supplements if they’re experiencing signs of a nutrient deficiency, such as fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches, poor recovery from workouts, acne, trouble sleeping and digestive issues.
- You can likely benefit from supplementing with certain nutrients if you’re a vegetarian/vegan, pregnant or nursing, over the age of 55, have a gut-related issue that interferes with absorption, you’re taking certain medications, have a history of alcoholism, you’re dieting, you’re very stressed or you work out intensely.
- Today, some of the best supplements available are fermented, food-based vitamins that only include herbs, botanicals and enzymes that help with absorption.