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How Do Multivitamins Work? Everything You Need to Know about Vitamins

by Elliot Reimers, CNC, M.S. Candidate | Reviewed by Advisory Board

How Do Multivitamins Work? Everything You Need to Know about Vitamins

Multivitamins and multiminerals are the most popular dietary supplements by a sizable margin. A seemingly infinite number of vitamin supplements are on the market, most of which claim to deliver crucial micronutrients that will help you lead a longer and healthier life. 

It’s an undeniable fact that we need plenty of vitamins and minerals for optimal wellness and longevity, but a $10 multivitamin from the local supermarket is not going to cover your micronutrient needs. 

A well-formulated multivitamin, however, can certainly be a worthwhile investment for active people and health enthusiasts. 

So, what exactly goes into a quality multivitamin? Are vitamins worth it if you already eat a healthy diet? 

The answers to these questions may surprise you.

What’s in Your Multivitamin?

Dietary vitamins and minerals play ubiquitous roles throughout the human body by serving as veritable “helping hands” (e.g. cofactors and coenzymes) in biological processes. For example, several B vitamins are necessary for basic survival function, such as converting glucose from food into cellular energy (adenosine triphosphate). 

Multivitamin and multimineral supplements generally feature a vast array of vitamins and minerals to help people meet their daily needs of these essential micronutrients. 

But do multivitamins really work

Well, it depends on the specific forms of vitamins and minerals that you supplement with.

Supplement and food companies toss around verbiage like “organic” and “from natural sources” somewhat ambiguously in hopes of differentiating their product from the competition. Intuitively, consumers presume that the best multivitamins are the ones made with Earth-grown, organic ingredients blessed by the Greek gods, but that’s not necessarily true. 

Vitamins, by definition, are organic (carbon-containing) compounds. It’s redundant to say “organic vitamins” because they are all inherently organic. 

Yet, there are vitamins that are synthetically produced (read: not naturally occurring), and this is where things get a little dicey with multivitamin formulas…

Vitamin forms

Naturally Occurring vs Synthetic Vitamins

Synthetic vitamins aren’t ineffective, dangerous, or poorly absorbed by virtue of their origin, just as naturally occurring vitamins aren’t necessarily optimal in terms of bioavailability and efficacy. 

As an example, folate is found in many foods, but the body needs to convert this to biologically active L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) through a series of enzymatic reactions. 

Recent research suggests that folate deficiency is more common than we previously thought because a considerable proportion of the population has genetic mutations involving the MTHF reductase enzyme responsible for the last step of this conversion. 

Consequently, the Italian nutraceutical company Gnosis S.p.A. developed QuatreFolic®, a vegetarian-friendly, yet “synthetically produced” glucosamine salt of L-5-MTHF that is demonstrably superior to naturally occurring folate for treating folate deficiency.  

It’s tough to argue that “synthetic” forms of vitamins are ineffective and “bad for us” when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary for certain vitamins. 

There are also desirable advantages of numerous synthetic, or “man-made,” forms of dietary minerals. 

Importance of Mineral Bioavailability

Mineral bioavailability

In contrast to vitamins, minerals are inorganic molecules in their native ionic state - meaning they don’t contain carbon.  A classic example of this is the magnesium chloride that naturally occurs in large bodies of water (and sea salt).  

In the case of magnesium, it frequently occurs as part of the chlorophyll molecule in plant foods. While this is considered an “organic source of magnesium,” a recent research review published in Current Nutrition & Food Science found that healthy men absorb an average of only 30-40% of dietary (naturally occurring) magnesium. What’s more, men with gastrointestinal dysfunction may absorb as little as 10% or less of dietary magnesium. 

Does it make sense to tell someone to just eat more magnesium-rich vegetables if their body can’t absorb most of it? Absolutely not. 

So, what should they do?

Believe it or not, supplementing with “man-made” forms of magnesium, notably chelated magnesium taurate and magnesium glycinate, is the prudent option since they are readily absorbed in the small intestine and serve as a reservoir of ionized (active) magnesium in the bloodstream. 

Nevertheless, many people are vehemently opposed to putting anything that’s “man-made” or “from a lab” in their body. 

This is a silly apprehension when it comes to vitamin supplements; virtually all synthetic vitamins and minerals are made by reacting them with innocuous, naturally occurring compounds like amino acids and citric acid. Hence, a vitamin or mineral can be “synthetic” as well as vegan-friendly and non-GMO. 

Also, consider that not every substance found in nature is good for us; morphine is a naturally occurring opioid, but that doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to use it for pain relief.  

By the same token, not every substance we create in a lab is intrinsically bad for us. The advent of nanotechnology has allowed us to synthesize revolutionary vehicles (e.g. liposomes) that can deliver supplemental micronutrients more effectively than ever before. If anything, scientific advances that allow us to optimally deliver promising nutrients to the body should be exciting to the general public. 

Multivitamin pills

What to Look for in a Quality Multivitamin Supplement

Considering all of the above, the forms of vitamins and minerals that go into a multivitamin supplement are arguably the most important aspect of the formulation process. The efficacy of micronutrients isn’t dictated solely by their origin, whether they are naturally occurring or synthetically produced. 

Dosages are also crucial when looking for a quality vitamin supplement. However,  you need to look at more than just the RDAs to determine if a multivitamin is worth it. Let’s say you can purchase a multivitamin that contains 100 mg of supplemental magnesium that is 90% bioavailable, or one with 400 mg of supplemental magnesium that is 10% bioavailable. 

Which is going to give you more magnesium? Simple math tells us that 100 mg of 90% bioavailable magnesium yields 90 mg of absorbed magnesium, versus a mere 40 mg for the poorly absorbed form. 

Unfortunately, a supplement with 400 mg of ineffective magnesium would be able to state that it has four times the amount of magnesium that a supplement with 100 mg of highly bioavailable magnesium. 

Moral of the story: Quality counts, especially when it comes to multivitamins.

Are Vitamins Worth It? 

Multivitamin supplements can provide a myriad of benefits by helping you get enough of the key micronutrients that your body needs for proper health, performance, and longevity, but they will not make up for a poor diet or unhealthy lifestyle. 

Eating a wholesome diet, with ample amounts of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, should be the priority for meeting your daily needs of vitamins and minerals. It’s no coincidence that people who eat more than five servings of fruits and veggies per day tend to live longer.

Taking a quality multivitamin can provide a “preventative safeguard” of sorts for your health and well-being, but don’t count on it being a panacea to all that ails you. 

Now, before you run off and buy a cheap house brand vitamin at the local pharmacy, remember that many supplement companies use ineffective forms of vitamins and minerals in high doses knowing that most people just look at the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and call it a day. 

Frankly, you might as well flush the money down the toilet if that’s the route you’re gonna go when it comes to vitamin supplements. 

Anybody can slap a pretty label on the bottle with some unjustifiable lingo to reassure consumers how great their product is, but to formulate an evidence-based multivitamin with bioavailable micronutrients takes a little more dedication.

multi vitamin final view

Transparent Labs Multivitamin is made with bioavailable forms of key vitamins and minerals, such as Chromax® chromium picolinate, chelated magnesium bisglycinate, and copper chelate. This multivitamin formula goes a step further by providing patented KSM-66® organic ashwagandha root extract, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), Coenzyme Q10, and boron citrate for supporting overall wellness from top to bottom. 

Transparent Labs Multivitamin is also an iron-free formula and gentle on the stomach. 




Elliot Reimers, CNC, M.S. Candidate
Elliot Reimers, CNC, M.S. Candidate

Author

Elliot is a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC) and M.S. candidate in the Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology program at Michigan State University. After obtaining his B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota in 2013, Elliot began freelance writing and has since written 100s of articles pertaining to nutritional science, dietary supplements, exercise physiology, and health/wellness. As an inveterate “science nerd,” he loves helping people understand how nutrients, supplements, and exercise work on a cellular and molecular level so they can be smarter about what they put in - and do to - their bodies. When he's not busy writing or studying, you can find Elliot pumping iron, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or playing the piano.



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