In an ideal world, we would all be getting enough nutrients from our diets. However, for one reason or another, many of us feel we need a little extra help sometimes, and turn to supplements. But what is the best way to take them? And which vitamins and minerals are we most likely to benefit from in supplement form?

A 2011 study found that approximately one third of americans regularly take a multivitamin. While it is preferable to get all of our nutrition through a healthy diet, if you know your diet is lacking in certain vitamins, then taking supplements is a good idea. But some of these build up in the body, while others – notably the water-soluble B and C vitamins and folic acid – are flushed out of the body as waste. So if you are taking, for example, vitamin C supplements, there’s no point in taking a higher dose than 90mg per day (the U.S recommendation for the average adult male), because your body won’t absorb any more than that.

Research has shown that supplements do have a positive impact on health. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition recently showed that women who took multivitamins for at least three years had a lower risk of death from heart disease. Another study showed that people taking multivitamins had a slightly lower risk of dying from cancer, but the study didn’t take their diets or other factors into consideration, so we can’t be sure that supplements that were the reason.

One thing to bear in mind is that, in a lot of cases, too much can be as bad as too little. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) build up in your liver and fatty tissues, so it is possible to take too much. An overdose of vitamin A, for example, can cause stomach pains and diarrhoea and has even been known to be fatal – though unless you’re an antarctic explorer surviving on animal liver such a serious outcome needn’t worry you!

However, very high doses of any nutrient beyond the recommended intake for your age and body size are best avoided unless you’re taking them on the advice of a qualified medical professional. “Maximum dose” vitamins are probably not necessary unless you know you have a deficiency and are trying to restore the balance. One notable exception is vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans, as this water-soluble nutrient is found almost exclusively in meat products.

Assuming you are taking supplements as a top up rather than to completely substitute for a healthy diet, though, as with all things, be sure you don’t exceed the recommended dosage. If you are unsure what this is, you can find RDIs for all the common vitamins and minerals on their dedicated pages on this website, so do take a look.

Finally, be sure that you are taking your supplements with food and water whenever possible. If your body is already primed for taking in nutrients via the process of digestion, the absorption of those extra minerals will be enhanced if the supplement is taken with (or just before) food.