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?