Digestive health is an important part of overall health. And if you’re not getting enough of the nutrients you need for proper digestion, it can lead to problems including fatigue, nausea, weak bones, and a weak immune system.
The good news is that you can usually get all the vitamins you need for digestion by eating fruits, vegetables and protein, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“When patients do have digestive conditions, diet becomes a huge factor,” says Sandy Sun, RD, an advanced practitioner in clinical nutrition with the Stanford Digestive Health Center in California. “A lot of patients don’t get enough nutrition because they don’t eat for their symptoms.”
Read on to learn which vitamins are the most important for healthy digestion and how to incorporate them into your eating habits.
B Vitamins: Energy for the Day
These vitamins are found in proteins such as fish, poultry, meat, and dairy products, as well as leafy greens and beans, and help your body form red blood cells and get energy from the food you eat, the NIH explains. B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning you can’t store them away in your fat cells to use later; they need to be a regular part of your diet. (This is true for all B vitamins except vitamin B12, which recirculates.)
“B vitamins play a huge role in energy metabolism, whether it’s carbohydrates or fats,” says Sun.
There are a number of B vitamins necessary for the body. For the digestive system, these include:
- B1 Also known as thiamine, B1 helps your body convert carbohydrates into energy for your cells and it helps regulate appetite.
- B3 Also known as niacin, B3 is important for many digestive tract functions, including the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and alcohol. A niacin deficiency can result in a disease known as pellagra, which causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.
- B6 Also known as pyridoxine, B6 is very important in helping your digestive system process the protein you eat.
- Biotin helps your body convert food into energy.
- B12 Also known as cobalamin, B12 plays a role in the nervous system and the production of blood cells. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anemia, the NIH cautions. It can also cause neuropsychiatric syndromes and problems with gait.
Most Americans get enough B vitamins from food, but supplements may be helpful for some people. For example, people with certain digestive issues like Crohn’s disease may have very low B12 levels. Speak with your doctor about any supplements you are considering before you begin taking them.
Vitamin C: Bones and Iron
Because it’s an antioxidant, many people associate vitamin C with the immune system and the prevention of colds, but this essential vitamin also aids in digestion by supporting healthy teeth and gums and helping the body absorb iron, according to the NIH.
“We do see a fair amount of iron deficiency in patients with digestive issues,” says Sun. “And it’s really hard to sometimes supplement iron because iron can cause constipation.”
People with a healthy diet do not need to supplement vitamin C, which is found in a number of foods, including:
- Citrus fruits
- Fortified cereal
Vitamin D: Calcium Collectors
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and plays a key role in how your nerves, muscles, and immune system function, according to the NIH. What’s more, healthy levels of vitamin D are associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer, according to a review published in Cancers in June 2021.
Still, 35 percent of adults in the United States have a vitamin D deficiency, which can result in bone pain, muscle weakness, and cramps.
There are three ways you can get vitamin D, the NIH explains:
- Sun exposure
- Vitamin D–rich foods, such as egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver, fortified milk, and cereal
You may also need a vitamin D supplement if you have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease, which is often associated with low vitamin D levels, according to a study in the May 2019 Nutrients. Other people who are at a greater risk for a vitamin D deficiency include:
- Older adults
- Breast-fed infants
- People with dark skin
- People with a liver disease or cystic fibrosis
- Obese people or those who have undergone gastric bypass surgery
If you aren’t getting enough vitamin D from sunlight and food, talk to your doctor about a supplement. Keep in mind that you may already be taking a supplement that contains vitamin D. For example, many calcium supplements also contain vitamin D, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Vitamin A: Risky to Ignore
Vitamin A is involved primarily in boosting vision, bone, and reproductive health, as well as the immune system, according to the NIH. Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, and other dark greens, as well as liver and milk, are rich sources of vitamin A.
Although vitamin A is not directly involved in digestion, some gastrointestinal diseases can leave you vulnerable to a vitamin A deficiency. For instance, vitamin A deficiency is more common among people with Crohn’s disease, according to a study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. The researchers noted that a lack of vitamin A can worsen the imbalance between the formation and destruction of free radicals in the intestinal mucus lining of people with Crohn’s. This deficiency is also common in people with celiac disease.