Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients your body needs in small amounts to work properly.
Most people should get all the nutrients they need by eating a varied and balanced diet. If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplements, be aware that taking too many or taking them for too long can cause harmful effects.
Some people may need to take vitamin and mineral supplements. For information on who could benefit from supplements, see Do I need vitamin supplements?
The pages in this section contain advice and information about vitamins, minerals and trace elements essential for health, including:
- What they do
- How much you need
- What happens if you have too much
- Safety advice about supplements
What are vitamins?
There are two types of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins are found mainly in fatty foods such as animal fats, including butter and lard, vegetable oils, dairy foods, liver and oily fish.
While your body needs these vitamins every day to work properly, you do not need to eat foods containing them every day.
This is because your body stores these vitamins in your liver and fatty tissues for future use. These stores can build up so they are there when you need them. However, if you have much more than you need, fat-soluble vitamins can be harmful.
Fat-soluble vitamins are:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, so you need to have them more frequently.
If you have more than you need, your body gets rid of the extra vitamins when you urinate. As the body does not store water-soluble vitamins, these vitamins are generally not harmful. However, this does not mean that all large amounts are necessarily harmless.
Water-soluble vitamins are found in fruit, vegetables and grains. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, they can be destroyed by heat or by being exposed to the air. They can also be lost in water used for cooking.
This means that by cooking foods, especially boiling them, we lose many of these vitamins. The best way to keep as many of the water-soluble vitamins as possible is to steam or grill foods, rather than boil them.
Water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C, the B vitamins and folic acid.
There are also many other types of vitamins that are an important part of a healthy diet.
What are minerals?
Minerals are necessary for three main reasons:
- Building strong bones and teeth
- Controlling body fluids inside and outside cells
- Turning the food you eat into energy
Minerals are found in foods such as meat, cereals (including cereal products such as bread), fish, milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruit (especially dried fruit) and nuts.
Essential minerals include calcium and iron, although there are also many other types of minerals that are an important part of a healthy diet.
What are trace elements?
Trace elements are also essential nutrients that your body needs to work properly, but in much smaller amounts than vitamins and minerals.
Trace elements are found in small amounts in a variety of foods such as meat, fish, cereals, milk and dairy foods, vegetables and nuts.
What are vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to work properly. For example:
- Iron has several important roles in your body, such as making red blood cells
- Calcium builds strong bones and teeth
- Vitamin C also has several important roles, such as keeping cells healthy
You can find out more information about vitamins and minerals.
When are supplements recommended?
Many people choose to take supplements, but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends certain supplements for some groups of people who are at risk of deficiency, including:
- Folic acid supplements in pregnancy
These should be given to all women thinking of having a baby and pregnant women up to week 12 of the pregnancy, to help prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. For more information see the vitamins and supplements in pregnancy.
Vitamin D supplements
These can given to all pregnant and breastfeeding women, children aged six months to five years, people aged 65 and over.
They should be given to people who are not exposed to much sun, for example people who cover up their skin for cultural reasons, or people who are housebound (stay indoors) for long periods of time. For more information see What does vitamin D do?
A supplement containing vitamins A, C and D
This should be given to all children aged six months to four years. This is a precaution because growing children may not get enough, especially those not eating a varied diet, such as fussy eaters. Ask your health visitor for advice, or for more information see vitamins for children. You can get vitamin drops free if you qualify for Healthy Start vitamins.
Your GP may also recommend supplements if you need them for a medical condition. For example, you may be prescribed iron supplements to treat iron deficiency anaemia.
Anaemia, vitamin B12 or folate deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia or folate deficiency anaemia develops when a lack of vitamin B12 or folate causes the body to produce abnormally large red blood cells that cannot function properly.
The main symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency or folate deficiency anaemia are:
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
You should see your GP if you have persistent tiredness or lethargy. If they suspect anaemia, you will be asked to have a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.
There are several different types of anaemia, and each one has a different cause. This topic focuses on anaemia caused by a lack of vitamin B12 or folate in the body.
It also covers pernicious anaemia, which is the most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency. Read more about the causes of vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia.
Vitamin B12 and folate
Vitamin B12 and folate work together to help the body produce red blood cells. They also have several other important functions:
- Vitamin B12 helps to keep the nervous system (brain, nerves and spinal cord) healthy
- Folate is important for pregnant women because it reduces the risk of birth defects in unborn babies
Vitamin B12 is found in:
- Dairy products
The best source of folate is green vegetables such as:
- Brussel sprouts
Treating vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia
Most cases of vitamin B12 and folate deficiency are easily treated.
Supplements of vitamin B12 are usually given by injection at first, followed by tablets until the deficiency is under control. In cases where there are problems absorbing vitamin B12, such as in pernicious anaemia, you will need supplements for the rest of your life.
Folic acid tablets are used to restore folate levels, which usually need to be taken for four months.
Improving your diet can prevent the condition returning, depending on the underlying cause of your vitamin B12 or folate deficiency.
In rare cases vitamin B12 or folate deficiency may lead to complications, such as problems with the heart, lungs and nervous system and increase your risk of infertility. However, most of these complications can be treated.
Who is affected?
Both vitamin B12 deficiency and folate deficiency are more common in older people, affecting around 1 in 10 people above the age of 75. Vitamin B12 deficiency is rare in younger people, although those who follow a strict vegan diet may be more at risk.
Pernicious anaemia, which is the most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency, affects 1 in 10,000 people in northern Europe.