Woman taking a vitamin

The health benefits of taking a supplement are debatable. In some cases, it might even be dangerous.

Photo: ZUMA Press
Here's a tough pill to swallow: supplements are a $25-billion-a-year industry, but are they necessary? Could it be that you’re literally peeing your hard-earned money down the toilet, or worse, doing more harm than good by consuming too many supplements? It’s certainly food for thought.
Many medical professionals and nutritionists argue that supplements are necessary because:
  • Most people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables
  • Most people eat processed foods, which lack essential nutrients
  • The soil in which our food is grown is depleted, thus lacking essential minerals
  • Pregnant women and the elderly need more vitamins than food provides
  • The consumption of pharmaceuticals, which may interfere with vitamin absorption
But what about for those who exercise regularly, eat balanced whole foods at every meal, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol moderately? Are supplements necessary?
Some research says 'no'
An article last year on Slate.com mentioned a study that was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which concluded, “The evidence for routine use of multivitamin and mineral supplements to reduce infections in elderly people is weak and conflicting….”
Another peer-reviewed study mentioned in the article was penned by several researchers at the Division of Public Health Sciences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. After following up with more than 160,000 post-menopausal women during the 1990s, for an average of eight years, the researchers’ study “provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD (cardiovascular disease), or total mortality in postmenopausal women.”
Debunking supplements doesn’t stop there. Experts at the National Institutes of Health five years ago argued that there’s no clear evidence that vitamins prevent chronic diseases.
So what have researchers concluded from supplements? Researchers have inconclusively concluded the following:
  • Health benefits from taking multivitamins is still up for debate.
  • Some people may be getting too much of certain nutrients.
  • There may be possible interactions between multivitamins and minerals and prescribed or over-the-counter medications.
That’s a bummer. My cabinet is stocked with supplements. Surely my antioxidant pills are highly effective?
Marketing gurus have helped companies make millions by touting the latest antioxidant product du jour, be it the acai berry, mangosteen, blueberry, Omega 3s…the list goes on.
But research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that not only can some antioxidant supplements be ineffective, they can be hazardous to your health. The 2007 study of more than 232,000 people concluded that antioxidant supplements can "increase the risk of death."
Gulp. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow. Why would antioxidants be bad for you? Researchers theorize that we shouldn’t be as vigilant about free radicals as we are; our body actually needs some amount of them to perform certain functions like regulating blood sugar levels.
Is there anything these studies bashing supplements have missed?
Perhaps. Nutritional experts would argue that not all supplements are created equal. Certain brands are derived from whole-food sources, while other, more mainstream brands are laced with synthetic ingredients. The aforementioned research did not indicate what brand of vitamins the subjects were taking.
Certain vitamin supplements are time-released, while others flood the digestive system all at once, jockeying for position to be absorbed by the body, only to be flushed out by the kidneys.
Conclusion: Take supplements on an as-needed basis
If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about supplements; you may be advised to take supplemental folate. Susceptible to cold sores? You may need supplemental lysine, an amino acid. Concerned about prostate health? Saw palmetto or a bevy of other natural supplements might be the right choice. Digest food poorly? Hydrochloric acid and pepsin might be beneficial. Taken antibiotics lately? Consider recolonizing your digestive tract with probiotics. Most of your immune system lies within your gut, so if you’re going to choose one supplement to take, consider one that aids digestive health. If you eat a poor diet, a multivitamin split in half and taken in the morning and evening might be more effective than a diet full of junk food. But do your research on which multivitamin to take.
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

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