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If you find yourself feeling a little confused in the vitamin aisle (so much choice!), wondering what the contents of all the tubs and tubes really do, you’re in the right place. What exactly are vitamins? Do I need to supplement my diet with added vitamins? Whatever your question, our handy guide makes getting the answers as easy as (vitamin) A, B, C.
What are vitamins?
It’s time to get down to the details. Vitamins are nutrients your body needs in small amounts to work and stay healthy. Whenever you hear the word vitamins, your mind probably jumps straight to thinking about taking them for an added nutrient boost. There are different vitamin supplements available, but the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals you need is by eating a healthy, balanced and varied diet. Taking supplements should never replace eating well. It’s the golden rule to remember.
There are 13 essential vitamins – A, C, D, E, K and the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12). If we don’t get enough of these, we're more vulnerable to getting sick.
What are the 13 essential vitamins?
• Helps look after your skin
• Helps to maintain normal vision
• Helps to keep your immune system working, as part of a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle
Good news! Getting your daily dose is super easy as there are lots of foods rich in vitamin A like carrots, green leafy vegetables, cheese, eggs, oily fish and milk.
There are eight types of B vitamins (who knew?), and each plays a role in keeping you in tip-top shape.
• Thiamin (B1)
• Riboflavin (B2)
• Niacin (vitamin B3)
• Pantothenic acid
• Vitamin B6
• Biotin (vitamin B7)
• Folate and folic acid
• Vitamin B12
Find out everything you need to know about B vitamins.
• Helps to keep your immune system working properly
• Increases iron absorption
• Helps keep skin, bones and cartilage healthy
Add more to your diet by enjoying oranges and orange juice, broccoli, red and green peppers, berries and even Brussels sprouts (no, really). Find out more about vitamin C for yourself.
Vitamin D helps control the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body to help keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. It’s also great for supporting our immune system. While foods such as oily fish, red meat and egg yolks contain the sunshine vitamin, getting enough vitamin D from food alone is tricky.
During the lighter and brighter months of the year, most adults and children aged five and over can get all the vitamin D they need from eating a balanced diet and through the natural sunlight on their skin. When we’re out enjoying the sunshine (remember your sunscreen, hat and sunglasses!), our bodies can make and store enough vitamin D to last us a few weeks – how cool is that!
Between October and March in the UK, the sun isn’t strong enough for us to produce enough vitamin D, so adults and children aged five and over should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D. Learn more about vitamin D here.
• Contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress
Eating green, leafy vegetables, wheat germ (found in lots of cereal products) and snacking on nuts and seeds are great ways to add more vitamin E into your diet.
• Helps with healthy blood clotting
• Helps to keep your bones healthy
If you’re looking to find foods high in vitamin K, go for leafy greens, such as spinach, avocado, cereal grains and vegetable oils. It’s handy to know that your body stores vitamin K meaning that you won’t need to worry about including it in your diet every day.
What about iron & calcium?
These are both minerals, and like vitamins, they help your body do its thing.
• Helps make red blood cells which move oxygen around your body
• Helps reduce tiredness and fatigue
• Supports normal cognitive function
Foods rich in iron include red meat, beans, nuts, dried fruits, whole grains and dark, leafy greens such as kale.
• Helps maintain healthy bones and teeth
• Helps with normal muscle function, contributes to the normal function of digestive enzymes
Try including foods like milk (or fortified plant milk), cheese and other dairy foods in your diet to make sure you’re getting plenty of calcium. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, there are plenty of choices for you, too! Soya beans, fortified soya milk, green leafy vegetables like broccoli, nuts and tofu are all great sources of calcium. Psst! Check out our article on vegetarian and vegan diets for ideas, advice and more!
Do I need to take extra vitamins & supplements?
Most of us can get nearly all the vitamins and minerals we need from the foods we eat. However, there are certain groups of people who may benefit from taking a vitamin food supplement.*
Our little ones have delicate skin, so protecting them from the sun’s rays is super important. Our bodies make vitamin D naturally when exposed to sunlight, and it’s harder for babies to get enough of the sunshine vitamin.
It’s recommended that breastfed babies from birth to one year of age have a daily supplement containing 8.5-10micrograms of vitamin D all year round. Formula-fed babies won’t need a vitamin D supplement until they have less than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day because infant formula already contains vitamin D!
Children aged six months to five years
We all know that growing kids can sometimes be fussy eaters, and it can be tricky to make sure they get enough vitamin A, C or D from the foods they eat. It's recommended all children aged six months to five years take a daily supplement containing vitamins A, C and D unless they continue to drink 500ml or more of formula each day.
Pregnant women, or women trying to get pregnant
Folic acid is important for the development of a healthy foetus. It can reduce the chance of neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida.** If you’re trying to get pregnant, it's advised you take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid when you’re trying and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
People who aren’t regularly exposed to the sun
Unless you spend the colder months of the year jetting off to the sunny shores of the Caribbean (can we join?), getting enough sunlight in the UK is tricky. It's advised that everyone aged five and over considers taking a 10 micrograms (mcg) vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months to help keep their levels topped up.
A year-round supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D is recommended if:
• You wear clothes that cover most of your skin when outdoors
• You are housebound or rarely go outside
• You have dark skin – for example, you have an African, African-Caribbean or South Asian background, you may also not get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone
How much should I take?
If you decide to take supplements, make sure you take the recommended dosage. Have a close read of the label as it states the NRV (nutrient reference value) that the supplement contains. This NRV is a guidance level to meet the daily needs of the average healthy adult to prevent deficiency. We’re all different, so your doctor may advise you to take another amount based on what’s best for you.
Questions about vitamins or supplements? Worried you might have a deficiency? Have a chat with your pharmacist or GP.
Is it possible to have too much of a vitamin?
Most people won’t have to worry about consuming too many vitamins through just their diet. If you supplement with vitamins, it’s good to know what and how much you’re putting in your body. You really can have too much of a good thing!
Did you know that both vitamin C and B vitamins are water-soluble? It means the body can’t store them, and you pass any excess you don’t need in urine. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, meaning the body stores them for long periods. Taking high doses of fat-soluble vitamins is a no-go, as this can lead to health problems. Although less likely, regularly taking an excess of water-soluble vitamins can also be harmful. Always make sure to stick to pack instructions when it comes to figuring out how much you should take unless your doctor advises differently.
There you have it, the vitamin lowdown. It’s super important to eat a healthy, balanced diet to make sure you give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to keep you feeling your best.