Scared of Vitamins by Deborah Chase

Vitamin pills This has not been a  good  time for the vitamin industry. A recent story  in the New York Times  reported  that vitamin supplements were not what they seemed.  Some were  contaminated by rodent poop while others had 200X recommended levels of selenium.  And then there were those Ayurvedic  supplements which contained  potentially harmful levels  of lead, mercury and arsenic.

Now in December no less than three studies showed that multivitamin supplements  had no health benefits.  Research out of Harvard  Medical School gave 6000 men over 65 a daily multivitamin pill and measured their brain function.  At the end of 12 years, the multi vitamin made  no difference  in cognitive ability. The much  larger US Preventive Service Task Force followed 300,000 men and women who took multi vitamins.  The result?  No change in heart and cancer rates.  Finally researchers at  Division of Cardiology at Columbia University  gave high dose multi vitamins ( 200-6000X RDA) to 1700 men  who  had suffered a heart attack.  Again, there was no difference in any type of cardiac problems.

These large, comprehensive and well-done studies  were all  published in a top ranked medical journal. In addition to more than a dozen major  studies that showed an increased risk of cancers, heart disease and  early death from  high doses of beta carotene and vitamin E supplements, these are not  findings that can be ignored.  But before  we throw out all  our vitamins,  we need  to  put these studies into context.

Vitamin Deficiencies Are Real

I think that we have all forgotten just how devastating vitamin deficiency  diseases  can be.  Three once  common and fatal diseases– scurvy, pellagra and beri-beri were due to lack of vitamin C and B vitamins.  Providing vitamin supplements and/or fortifying  everyday foods with missing nutrients  virtually erased these  terrible  diseases from the entire planet.   The stuggle to identify the causes and treatment  of these illnesses  is  one of the great narratives of public health for the common good. Its also a story that doesn’t get  much attention these days.

When researchers  today look at large populations there are  no longer wide spread deficiency  problems.  But if you drill down to look at individuals, I think different nutritional ptterns  can emerge.  For example  wheat is a major source of thiamin and niacin– and the  now  very popular  gluten-free diets  can be woefully  low in essential nutrients if supplemets are  not used.  Meat is our other  great source of  niacin and  without  supplements vegans can be at high risk for genuine defiencies.  And lets not forget low carb Atkins style diets that avoid  fruits and most vegetables virtually eliminating vitamin C from the diet. Since vitamin C is the  top beauty vitamin, supplementing  a low carb diet is essential for  smooth, firm skin.

Our  uber rapid digital lifestyles  can also contribute  to  low levels of essential nutrients. For example  soda and black coffee decrease aborption of vitamins while stress increases our needs  for  B vitamins and vitamin C.   Finally accelerated agricultural methods and  extensive  food processing dramatically lower the nuritional contents of seemingly healthy foods.

The Bottom Line On Vitamins

I definately  think there is enough evidence to avoid using high doses of vitamins as medication to reduce risk of heart disease and cancer.  However given the real time difficulties  of  meeting even minimal  recommended daily levels, I am  going to continue to use a single  multi-vitamin each morning.  It meets  no more than 100% of RDA for  the most essential  vitamins and micro minerals.  Its those  mega doses I’m going  to leave on the stores shelves.  .

What vitamins  do you take?  Will these widely repored studies  change the way  you take supplements?


2 thoughts on “Scared of Vitamins by Deborah Chase

  1. I take a few supplements. I taken zinc for my immune system and my skin (though I am not sure if it’s doing something for the latter…), vitamin B for my hair and vitamin D to combat winter fatigue.

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