Will vitamins and supplements keep me healthy?
The vitamin and supplement industry is a multibillion dollar business. If you search the internet, browse your pharmacy aisle or read a magazine you will discover many claims about a supplement treating a multitude of symptoms, cure disease, or increase vitality. Watch out for these claims, especially the wonder pill that treats so many problems that it sounds too good to be true- it most likely is. Is there true benefit or is it marketing hype? Ask you healthcare provider or nutritionist about the evidence if any that exist behind these claims. Here are some common claims or statements you may have heard.
What about the following scenario? You are talking to a friend who states, “You should take vitamin X. I read on the internet that it helps keep nerve cells healthy. Ever since I started taking it, I feel great and my tremor is reduced!” A vitamin, like any treatment, can help symptoms by directly acting on the problem through the placebo effect. Studies have proven that Parkinson’s disease has a high placebo effect, sometimes as high as 30% improvement. Researchers also tell us that the more you believe in something and the greater expectation you gave for a treatment, the higher the placebo effect. For this reason, many clinical research trials are designed to control for this phenomenon by comparing the effects of a medicine, vitamin or supplement to a placebo pill.
So why do we take vitamins? When asked, most people say they are taking vitamins to stay healthy, ward off disease and colds and to make up for a healthy diet.
There is no data to support the claim that vitamin supplements will keep you healthy and in the absence of deficiency will not treat disease. Expecting your vitamin pill to take the place of a well balanced vitamin and nutrient rich diet is like trying to make a full course dinner by tossing together a few key ingredients. If health is your aim, remember diet, exercise, stress reduction, emotional and social health are the key ingredients.
It is just a vitamin so it can’t hurt me (or substitute it is just an herb or natural supplement). Yes it can! The following examples illustrate this point:
- Vitamin A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins. These vitamins are stored in our body’s fat cells and high doses can accumulate to toxic levels.
- Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, helping the body reduce damage caused by free radicals. Although the evidence is inconsistent, one met analysis (review of the effect based on examining outcomes of many studies) found higher rate of mortality from all causes in people on high dose vitamin E. High dose vitamin E has multiple toxic consequences. Miller 2005. Ann Intern Med. Jan 4 2005;142(1):37-46
- Over ingestion of vitamin D may be associated with calcification of blood vessels in elderly and African Americans.
- High dose preformed vitamin A, known as retinol (found in animal foods) can cause headache, seizures, muscle aches, osteoporosis, skin and stomach problems. Provitamin A such as beta carotene found in fruits and vegetables such as carrots is safer than preformed vitamin A so read your vitamin label carefully.
- Excessive doses of vitamin C are used by some during cold and flu season. Very high doses of vitamin C can cause kidney stones from uric acid, diarrhea and increase iron absorption (this is a problem if iron is stored in excess).
- Excessive iron can be deposited in our body’s tissues leading to problems liver, skin, joint and intestinal symptoms. Iron is used to treat certain types of anemia. Many postmenopausal women and men do not need iron so talk to your doctor about whether you need iron.
So should I take a multivitamin?
Few Americans are vitamin deficient. In part because the processed foods we buy off the shelf are fortified with vitamins and minerals. A multivitamin will never substitute for the health benefits of a balanced diet that includes 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, vegetable protein, omega 3 fats such as in certain fish, and high fiber (20-30G). Turn to food and vitamins to be sure you get a variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet.
However, some people are at higher risk for deficiencies:
- Vegetarians- may be deficient in B12, iron, calcium depending on diet
- Intestinal Malabsorption problems- Celiac,Sprue.
- Long-term users of stomach acid depleters ,
There is no simple answer as to whether a vitamin is needed for you. Talk with your doctor before choosing a vitamin. Specific questions to ask include:
- Do I need iron?
- Should I take a calcium supplement?
- What about vitamin D or B vitamins?
- What dose of vitamin E and A is safe for me?
- How much B vitamins, calcium and D should I take?
Steps you can take if you do take a vitamin
- Read the label on your vitamin bottle.
- Avoid mega-doses unless recommended by your doctor. This is especially true for vitamin E and A.
- Take iron only if needed.
- Pay attention to how much calcium you are getting in your diet and vitamin. Does it add up to the recommended dose given you by your doctor (1000-1200mg is the average daily requirement for older adult needs).
- Look for 100% RDA of vitamin C, B12, folate,B2, B6, thiamin, niacin, A (preferable in provitamin beta-carotene form). Gender specific or other specialty vitamins may differ slightly but the true value of these costly formulas is unknown.
More information can be found under Nutrition Tips.
Author: Monique Giroux, MD