Vitamins and minerals are complex chemicals we need to stay fit and healthy. They occur naturally in food, which is the most natural way to take them in to our bodies, and are vital for regulating the body’s metabolic functions. If you don’t get enough vitamins you can see the effects on your health and well-being in any number of ways.

Vitamins are essential substances that cannot be manufactured by the body. We need small amounts of vitamins for growth and development. Without vitamins the body cannot survive.

The term vitamin is derived from the phrase vital amine and there are two types.

Minerals are inorganic elements that come from the soil and water and are absorbed by plants or eaten by animals. Your body needs larger amounts of some minerals, such as calcium, to grow and stay healthy. The 10 most important minerals are: calcium, iodine, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium, zinc.

A recent survey – the largest of its kind in the UK – conducted by the Health Supplement Information Service (HSIS) revealed that many of us do not get the vitamins we need for our basic nutritional needs. HSIS nutritionist Dr Pamela Mason states. ‘Ideally, we’d get a healthy balance from our diet, but the nutrient value of much of what we eat is depleted by modern processing and farming methods. Erratic eating habits, stress, drinking or smoking, and simply getting older, also affect our vitamin and mineral intake.’

The findings of the survey show that over half of women questioned are deficient in calcium and many lack B vitamins. Men have low levels of zinc, magnestium and calcium. So what’s the solution? ‘Even taking one or two well-chosen supplements can make a marked difference to your health,’ says Dr Mason.

The Food Standards Agency has warned that taking too many supplements, or taking them for too long, can be harmful. This advice has on occasion been misrepresented by the media who have tried to warn people away from vitamin supplements. The truth is that overdoing them, as with most things, can lead to problems. Taking them in the recommended amounts, however, is perfectly safe and does provide a valuable supplement to many peoples diets. This is especially true for the elderly and low income families who may lack the means to eat a fully varied diet.

So, many people do find a regular vitamin supplement beneficial as daily and occasional health boosters. The full benefits of each of the vitamins and minerals is a large and complex subject, but here is a quick review of some of the main types and how they can help.

(Remember, tablet strengths vary, so follow the instructions on the bottle for recommended dosage).

Multivitamins and minerals: An all-in-one tablet containing the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of basic vitamins and minerals. Good for – balancing your diet and making sure you get a full range of vitamins and mineral. They’re also very good for countering the chemicals that can build up due to stress and smoking.

Vitamin B complex: A combination of eight B vitamins, good for helping to stabilise the amino acid homocysteine, lowering the risk of hardened arteries and cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B is water-soluble, which means it is easily excreted.

Vitamin A, C and E with selenium: Antioxidant vitamins A, C and E combined with the mineral selenium. Good for neutralising free radicals, which can contribute to premature ageing, cancer and heart disease. Vitamin A can be very toxic in high doses, so stick to the RDA.

Vitamin C: Found in fresh fruit (mainly citrus) and vegetables, especially greens. Really good for boosting immunity, fighting infection, enhancing healing, and it keeping blood vessels healthy. Vitamin C also helps form collagen, so your skin needs it too. Too much may cause diarrhoea so, again, stick to the RDA.

Vitamin E: Found in foods such as seed oils, nuts, wheatgerm and avocado, Vitamin E has excellent antioxidant qualities which may protect against heart disease. Not to be taken if you’re on blood-thinning medication such as warfarin.

Calcium: A mineral found in dairy products that is important for building strong bones, teeth and nails, and stimulating nerve impulses. Low calcium intake may lead to osteoporosis. You should avoid these supplements, however, if you suffer from kidney problems as it may encourage kidney stones.

Fish oils: These are the Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Good for circulation, a healthy heart, easing arthritic pain and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

So whether you generally feel a little run down, or are very active and want to ensure your diet is properly balanced, then you may want to consider taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Home carers who take care of the elderly and disabled at home may also want to consider supplements for the individuals they care for. People in care may have additional needs for particular supplements, particularly if they are incontinent and their bodies flush nutrients through their systems more quickly than usual. A conversation with a specialist may be of great value here.

Remember, the key is stick to the Recommended Daily Amount. Do this and you shouldn’t have any ill effects, but you may certainly feel the benefits. As always, if you have any doubts then check with your doctor.