A healthy diet can help your immune system stay strong and keep health problems at bay.
“Most nutrition requirements can be met with food,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But as you age, if you have a limited diet and don’t get the vitamins and minerals you need through food, your doctor may recommend a supplement.
What Are Supplements?
Dietary supplements are capsules, pills, powders, or liquids you take to get added nutrients. They may be vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, plants, or enzymes. You can buy them at grocery stores and pharmacies. You don’t need a prescription for supplements.
Supplements as You Age
If you’re over 50, you may need more of certain vitamins and minerals. The doctor might recommend a supplement to help you meet those needs, such as:
Calcium. You need calcium to keep your bones strong. As you age, you lose bone mass, which can lead to fractures. “Bone loss accelerates during your 50s, especially among women,” Wright says.
You can get calcium from foods like milk, canned fish, and dark, leafy vegetables. If you don’t eat enough calcium-rich foods, you may need a calcium and vitamin D supplement because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.
Vitamin D. If you get 15-30 minutes of sunlight about twice a week, your body may make enough vitamin D. But as you age, it’s harder for your body to absorb vitamin D through sunlight.
If you don’t want to take a supplement, bulk up on vitamin D-rich foods like fortified milk, fortified cereal, and fatty fish.
Vitamin B12. “One vitamin we keep an eye on as we age is vitamin B12,” Wright says. “That’s because stomach acid, which is required for your body to absorb vitamin B12 from food, declines with age.” You need vitamin B12 to keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy and to prevent anemia.
If you want to boost B12 in your diet, try foods like meat and fortified cereals.
Antioxidants like beta-carotene, selenium, vitamin C, and vitamin E may help you ward off disease. You can get them by eating foods like fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts, and seeds.
Research suggests taking supplements with antioxidants doesn’t protect you from chronic diseases like heart disease or diabetes. It’s best to get antioxidants through the foods you eat.
Herbal supplements like black cohosh, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng come from plants.
These products aren’t regulated the same way drugs are, Wright says. Plus, some can interfere with medications you’re taking and others have unpleasant side effects. While there’s ample research on many, there may not be on others. Let your doctor know if you’re thinking about taking one, so they can make sure it won’t do more harm than good.
Are Supplements Safe?
Before you consider taking a supplement, talk to your doctor. Supplements can interact with certain medications and change how they work. And they may be harmful if you take them before you have surgery or other procedures.
Taking too much of a supplement could also be unsafe. “Avoid supplements that are more than the UL, or upper limit, for that vitamin or mineral,” Wright says. “More is not better.”
Taking a megadose increases your risk of side effects. If you already get a lot of vitamins and minerals from your foods, adding a supplement may give you too much.
Avoid taking high doses of these supplements, especially if you take prescription medicines:
- Black Cohosh
- St. John’s wort
If you feel a serious reaction or side effects to a supplement, stop taking it and call your doctor.
Remember that supplements aren’t regulated like prescription and over-the-counter medicines. The FDA doesn’t test the safety of supplements or what they claim on the label.
“Avoid supplements that carry all kinds of claims, such as ‘cures memory problems’ or ‘builds libido,’” Wright says. Just because it says something on the label doesn’t mean it’s true.
Tips for taking supplements
Try a generic. “Generic brands are equivalent to the more costly name brands,” Wright says.
Take it with food. Taking your supplement with food may help you absorb it better and avoid an upset stomach.
Talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you decide if you need a supplement, and if so, which ones are safe and healthy for you.
Try to eat well. “Remember that supplements are just that, a supplement to your diet,” Wright says. “Focus on eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats to establish a strong foundation that the supplements can add to.”