Monday, 30 November -0001

Have you had your supplement?

Sof McVeigh on the importance of taking vitamins and minerals to ward off colds in winter

Written by Sof McVeigh

I know it's the New Year with all its new beginnings and new plans – but it's often not easy to muster the necessary vigour to meet new challenges in this dark, cold month. Now is the time when vitamins come into their own. I am the first to encourage anyone to get the necessary goodness from the food we eat, but in winter I often resort to supplements. Regular readers of my Home Remedy column will know that I have a few favourite vitamins: vitamin C, zinc and a multivitamin and mineral capsule. I take them in winter to boost the immune system and ward off colds. Periodically, I review which supplements I am taking, and assess whether they're necessary. (Most vitamins, with the exception of vitamin A, are not stored in the body. If you're pregnant you must avoid vitamin A as it can lead to birth defects.)

Blood tests can show if you are low in certain nutrients – though not all deficiencies show up in blood tests – and they are often available on the NHS. For example, low iron or low vitamin B12 levels can cause anaemia, or low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is one of the few vitamins our bodies can produce just from the action of sunlight on our skin; it is crucial for bone density. Hair tests are often very informative and a nutritionist may suggest one.

Why are supplements necessary?

Some people take supplements for specific health reasons and these must be prescribed by a qualified nutritionist. If you eat a balanced diet of fresh food, you probably don't need supplements. However, much of food's natural goodness is destroyed when it is processed. Also, the Soil Association says that much of the soil is now denuded of essential minerals, which therefore can't be passed on to the plants we eat. Here are a few top vitamins and minerals to look out for in winter...


As women, we have it drummed into us to watch calcium levels for fear of osteoporosis. We also have to be aware of the subtle dance that calcium, vitamin D and magnesium play in our bodies, with each one affecting the absorption of the other. Magnesium is in foods like kelp, green leafy vegetables, wheat bran and wheatgerm and nuts. Low levels of magnesium can result in insomnia, menstrual cramps and other muscle issues and low energy levels, but it can be replenished quickly.

Vitamin B

This is many different vitamins: B6, B12, thiamine, folic acid, to name a few. Thiamine is B1 – a deficiency in this causes beriberi – it's still prevalent in parts of Asia, where polished white rice makes up much of the diet. Vitamin B supplements often come in the form of a 'multi B complex' to ensure you get them in the right ratios. However, many of these vitamins are for certain health issues – like folic acid in pregnancy, B12 if anaemic andB6 for PMT (take it two weeks before your period). If your concerns touch on these areas, seek specific advice. (Viridian offers good vitamin B multi capsules.) Most B vitamins occur in whole grains, leafy vegetables and legumes and some, such as riboflavin and niacin, occur in offal.


This year, a review of all recent research undertaken about zinc and colds – covering more than 1,000 people – found that zinc reduces a seven-day cold to four days. Zinc has anti-viral properties and is great for the skin. You'll find it in specifically formulated mixtures, such as Imedeen's products, aimed at ageing skin (zinc decreases as you age). It's best-known source is oysters, but also fish, red meat and whole grains.


Certain vitamins and minerals are antioxidant, which means that they protect you against damage from free radicals, such as environmental pollutants, which are thought to cause ageing to cells, leaving them prone to diseases. The better-known nutrients in this category are: vitamin C and E, zinc and vitamin A. Some work in the lipid (fat) environments of our body like vitamin E, others work in the aqueous (water) environments in our body, like vitamin C. Green and white tea are favourite antioxidants, due to high levels of flavonoids – plant pigments.

Vitamins and supplements is a huge topic – the above are a handful. Get professional advice if you have specific health concerns.

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