The nutrient ingredients in a supplement can be essential to your health, or they can be inactive, and sometimes even harmful. I want to ensure that you can distinguish between these. I suggest that you pull out your current multivitamin and check the ingredients listed as you read along.
Let’s start with a very common nutrient deficiency that is essential for your health, magnesium.
NUTRIENT #1: Protein-Bound Magnesium versus Magnesium Oxide
Magnesium is an essential mineral for our health. It improves blood flow, blood pressure, and blood sugar control, plus it speeds the connection between brain cells. It also helps prevent constipation, migraine headache, muscle cramps, insomnia, and serious heart arrhythmias. Yet a whopping 70% of people don’t get enough to meet the basic RDA recommendations.
You can get magnesium from seeds, nuts, beans, and green leafy veggies. Yet, after I identify foods that are rich in magnesium, more than half my patients still won’t realistically meet this critical need, making a supplement important. Often people need to supplement with 150-250 mg daily. Magnesium is a big molecule and the minimum requirement is 400 mg daily. You typically won’t find more than 20-50 mg of magnesium in a multivitamin pill, or none, so don’t be surprised if you need to take a separate pill to meet your magnesium needs.
The best supplement form of magnesium is the kind that is bound to protein, as it is very well absorbed, and is gentle on your stomach. Examples of protein-bound are: magnesium glycinate, magnesium malate, and chelated forms of magnesium. Magnesium citrate is less well absorbed, but doesn’t bother your stomach, and can be helpful for constipation.
The most common form sold is magnesium oxide, and sadly it has the worst absorption, and can cause GI distress. Too often, people stop it due to gastro-intestinal symptoms, making this form of magnesium inactive if it isn’t tolerated.
Magnesium Tip: Aim for protein-bound sources of magnesium, such as malate, glycinate, or other chelated forms.
NUTRIENT #2: Organic Copper versus Inorganic Copper
Humans have consumed the “organic” form of copper for 100,000 years and it is essential for blood cell and immune function. Good sources include: sees, nuts, beans, mushrooms, and green leafy veggies.
In contrast, “inorganic” copper is not found in food, and has only very recently been introduced for human consumption, primary through cheap vitamin supplements and copper plumbing. The latest research shows a strong link between Alzheimer’s disease and inorganic copper intake in humans, and animal studies show that inorganic copper intake can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and increased formation of beta-amyloid in the brain. This makes inorganic copper potentially toxic to your brain.
Some vitamin supplements contain no copper (and this should not be a problem as you can usually get all the copper you need from food), and some contain organic forms of copper (such as copper glycinate, copper bisglycinate, or copper amino acid chelates).
Unless future studies prove inorganic copper to be safe, I recommend avoiding all multivitamins made with inorganic copper (such as copper oxide, copper sulfate, and copper carbonate). If the multivitamin only says copper, very likely, it is an inorganic source; you can easily do a search on google for the type of copper used in a supplement.
Copper Tip: Avoid a multivitamin made with inorganic forms of copper. If you have copper pipes in your kitchen, you can install a reverse osmosis filter in the kitchen to filter your water for drinking and cooking, thus removing any inorganic copper from the water coming from your kitchen faucet. (I highly recommend reverse osmosis filters for cooking and drinking water. Even though my wife and I don’t have copper piping in our kitchen, we still choose to have a reverse osmosis filter.)
NUTRIENT #3: Mixed Folates (Vitamin B9) Versus Folic Acid
Mixed sources of folates help your DNA to repair itself, preventing cancer, and they remove toxins from your body. Folates also help protect your brain and heart and are essential for good health. You get mixed folates from eating beans, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.
Most cheap supplements use folic acid as a source of folates. The problem is that 40% of people are unable to convert folic acid to the active forms that protect your DNA. This makes folic acid an inactive nutrient for many people, and thus they may have an increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and memory loss.
Folate Tip: Ensure your multivitamin contains mixed folates (e.g., 5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate, not just folic acid). The multivitamin listed at the end of this article is a good example.
NUTRIENT #4: Mixed Carotenoids Versus Beta Carotene
Plant pigments (carotenoids) come in many forms and they are essential for a healthy brain. Carotenoids are antioxidants, and they block oxidation (aging) body wide. One specific carotenoid, beta-carotene, can also be converted into vitamin A, an essential nutrient.
There are multiple essential forms of carotenoids, including beta-carotene (orange pigment from squash and oranges), lycopene (red pigments from watermelon and tomatoes), and lutein/zeaxanthin (green pigments from green leafy veggies). Consuming lycopene reduces your risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are noted to help prevent macular degeneration and blindness. If you eat at least five cups of a variety of colors of vegetables and fruits every day, you likely meet your requirement for these nutrients, yet many people don’t eat enough colorful vegetables and fruits to meet this essential need. Most high-quality multivitamins provide a variety of mixed carotenoids. The more common supplements typically contain only beta-carotene. This makes beta-carotene alone in a supplement partially inactive.
Carotenoid Tip: Ensure your multivitamin has mixed carotenoids, not just beta-carotene. The multivitamin listed at the end of this article is a good example.
OTHER SIGNS OF A HIGH-QUALITY MULTIVITAMIN:
Other ways to confirm that your multivitamin is protecting your brain is to ask:
- Does it have adequate vitamin D? You should get at least 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily from your supplement plan, which can come from both your multivitamin and your fish oil.
- Does it have adequate vitamin B12? If you are past age 40, have any gastrointestinal issues, or occasionally take a heartburn medication, ensure that you get at least 100 mcg and up to 500 mcg of vitamin B12 daily.
- Does it have enough chromium? Chromium is essential for blood sugar control. You should get 400 mcg of chromium with your multivitamin daily.
- Are the minerals in your multivitamin bound to protein? Or bound to salts? Protein-bound has better absorption and is gentle on your stomach. Salt bound compounds often have less absorption and can cause stomach distress. So when you look at the zinc, selenium, and iron, avoid sources that say sulfate, carbonate, or oxide. Choose forms with minerals bound to glycinate, malate, or other chelated forms.
To meet all your brain and heart nutrient needs together, consider the Brain & Heart Support Pack, which includes a 2-pill daily multivitamin, fish oil with adequate vitamin D & K, magnesium, and vitamin B12.
I hope this has given you the tools to ensure that you are taking a high-quality supplement that has active and essential nutrients for your health and your brain.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS