Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
There’s a lot of debate in the medical world about whether vitamin supplementation is required, or optimal, for teens. Teenagers are much more likely to be in good health than older adults, as a function of youth, but that doesn’t mean they can’t optimize their health with vitamin supplementation.
In this article we’ll review some of the vitamins teens may wish to consider talking to their doctor about, and conclude whether vitamins are necessary for teens at all.
When are Vitamins Necessary?
It typically only makes sense to supplement with a vitamin when someone is deficient in that vitamin, with some exceptions like Vitamin D3 and Vitamin C which we’ll discuss later.
Most vitamins can be obtained from a healthy diet, but people can have absorption or other health issues which prevent proper assimilation of the vitamin.
One of the most important steps that teenagers can take to determine whether they need vitamin supplementation is getting blood work done by their doctor. A standard blood panel can help determine vitamin deficiencies, and is usually part of an annual checkup and fully covered by insurance.
If a vitamin is found to be deficient in the patient, their doctor can recommend supplementation to treat the deficiency. Vitamin B12 is commonly deficient in Americans, and a doctor may advise a B12 vitamin supplement to correct the deficiency.
Some vitamins may be useful to take year-round by teens and we’ll explore these below:
Vitamin D3 is the better-absorbed type of Vitamin D, and this can be a useful vitamin for teens to supplement with if they’re indoors a lot.
Vitamin D is produced by the body in response to sun exposure and is an incredibly important vitamin. It’s involved in hundreds of biochemical responses and is involved with proper hormone functioning according to medical research.
Many modern teens don’t get nearly enough sunlight to optimize Vitamin D status, and those living in northern latitudes can’t generate Vitamin D for much of the year even with sun exposure due to the angle of the sun.
Because Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it can bioaccumulate and is unsafe in very high doses. For this reason, it’s always recommended to get a Vitamin D test at your doctor’s office and work with your doctor to establish a safe supplementation regimen. The risk of Vitamin D toxicity is very low, but it makes sense to base supplementation off test results instead of guessing.
Vitamin C is another vitamin that may be good for teens to supplement with. It’s involved with proper immune system development and functioning, and can be lacking in a Standard American Diet.
Most processed foods contain little or no Vitamin C, so teens who eat a diet with a lot of fast foods may want to consider supplementing with Vitamin C. Of course the better option would be to simply eat a healthier diet, but if that’s not an option then supplementation is likely a good idea.
Unlike Vitamin D3, Vitamin C is water soluble meaning you urinate any excess out, so there is much less safety risk. It’s still worth consulting with a doctor before supplementing Vitamin C, especially as a teenager, to ensure a safe dosage.
Vitamin C is naturally found in produce like kale and apples, so teens open to improving their diet can easily attain enough Vitamin C just by eating the right foods. One orange alone contains over 50 mg of Vitamin C, or more than half the Daily Recommended Allowance (RDA) depending on gender and age.
Other Supplements for Teens
There are other supplement categories outside of vitamins which may be useful to teens on a case-by-case basis. Many teenagers in the U.S. work out regularly, and whey protein can be a useful and safe food supplement that’s well-studied and can improve strength and lean body mass in combination with resistance training.
Whey is generally a better alternative than most popular sports nutrition drinks that are loaded with sugar and ineffective ingredients and marketed to teens. Premier Protein Shake is one such product and we wrote a detailed review of why it’s a waste of money and less healthy than a plain protein shake.
Melatonin is another extremely safe supplement which improves sleep. There’s no need to take it as a preventative measure, but it can be a much safer alternative to pharmaceutical sleep medications if approved by a doctor.
Similarly, adderall is often prescribed to teenagers even though it has a very questionable long-term safety profile, especially for a developing brain. It is, after all, an amphetamine. There are a number of natural substitutes for Adderall which can be purchased OTC, but should only be used to replace Adderall with careful physician monitoring, as tapering off prescription stimulants can be dangerous.
We don’t believe that any one vitamin is required by all teenagers. Most vitamins can be obtained from a healthy diet.
For teenagers interested in vitamins or other supplements, we recommend a cautious approach since there can be more risks than benefits to a developing body. Certain vitamins like Vitamin D3 and Vitamin C may be good for general health maintenance, especially Vitamin D in the winter, but bloodwork should be done by a doctor to confirm a clinical need.
Teens may want to consider vitamins and supplements with excellent safety profiles like melatonin to replace pharmaceuticals if they and their doctor believe the pharma drugs are risky long-term.