If you stay connected with the natural health headlines, you already know that last week was rough on dietary supplements. Two separate studies linked supplement use with an increased prevalence of disease, or worse, death. One study found that dietary supplements increased mortality in older women (here). The second study found that prostate cancer risk increased in men who took Vitamin E and Selenium (here).
The studies clearly ruffled the feathers of the supplement industry, who responded quickly, and in force. It is the same armchair banter I have grown accustomed to. Your study lacks validity because:
- Your sample is not representative of the population;
- Your method was flawed;
- You failed to account for the ‘______’ variable;
- You should have done ‘______’ instead;
- Blah blah blah.
This scientific chest beating is fundamental to driving science and medicine forward. It is vitally important to people in the industry—but, what about the general public? They just read that supplements will KILL YOU! The media, not surprisingly, fails to report rebuttals consisting of an array of technical and statistical reasons as to why something is invalid. Doom and gloom gets all the attention. There is nothing sexy about peace and happiness. So, from a practical standpoint, what is a person to do regarding their supplements?
Separating Fact from Fiction
Vitamins and minerals are essential for life. No one will dispute that. There are hundreds of disease processes, some very serious, that increase inversely with a specific micronutrient: Vitamin C and scurvy, Iron and anemia, Vitamin D and rickets, etc. So, inductive reasoning may tell us that if a little is good for our health, then a lot must be great. WRONG! Mega doses of the wrong kinds of vitamins can have very serious health consequences. There is evidence to support the use of large doses of certain vitamins, but this should be done with caution, and with professional aid.
Diet vs. Dietary Supplements
There is a widespread belief that everyone should take supplements to support healthy function in the body. This simply is not the case. In an ideal world, we would get all of our nutrients from highly nutritious sources in our diet. But for the vast majority, this ‘ideal world’ is make-believe, an unattainable fabrication. Virtually all chronic diseases plaguing our population come as a direct result of the cumulative effects of our atrocious dietary patterns: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and many forms of cancer, just to name a few. We tend to under consume nutrient rich health promoting foods, and grossly over consume nutrient depleted health quashing foods.
The name ‘Supplement’ is indicative of its intended use. We add something supplemental only when it is lacking; it is redundant to add something that is already there. Hence, supplements are used to make up for the deficiencies in the diet. And for the majority, who follow a standard American diet, numerous deficiencies tend to exist.
Should I Take a Multi-Vitamin?
Multi-Vitamins are a ‘blanket’ approach to nutritional medicine—if you take a large dose of all vitamins and minerals, you will certainly hit the ones that are lacking. Perhaps a multi-vitamin will account for a particular nutritional deficiency, but it also pushes other nutrient levels in to excess physiologic range. It has been long believed that there is no harm in this approach. But if we learn anything from the studies above, it is that just like over nutrition of unhealthy foods, over consumption of certain health promoting nutrients can also have a long term negative effect. This is why naturopathic doctors like to find and only treat specific nutritional deficiencies. Sometimes a multi-vitamin is indicated in the short term, while investigating specific deficiencies, but it should never be a long term solution.
There may even be danger in long term consumption of some multi-vitamins, due to their general composition. They tend to be heavy in both Iron and Vitamin A, both of which have a long account of toxicity symptoms from over-dose. As well, some multi-vitamin products contain biologically inactive forms of certain nutrients, inorganic and synthetic compounds, and many other ‘fillers’. It is very important to ensure your multi-vitamin was compounded with proper quality control; otherwise what it says on the label may not be what you are putting in your body. If you are taking a multi-vitamin for general wellness, you should consult with a professional to ensure you are not inadvertently harming your body.
Vitamins Do Not Justify an Unhealthy Diet
Nutrition does not follow the principles of simple arithmetic. One healthy vitamin does not subtract and neutralize one day of unhealthy food choices. Too often vitamins are used as a justification for poor eating habits. “I can have a burger and fries because I took my vitamin this morning.” Often times, the most dedicated vitamin taker is also the unhealthiest eater. This certainly plays in to why a trend is seen between supplement takers and increased mortality—it is not the vitamin, but rather the type of person who takes the vitamin.
So, Will My Supplement Kill Me?
No. Even with totally irresponsible use, you would be hard pressed to be killed by your vitamins. News agencies publish stories that will elicit debate, and feed upon anything that will drum up controversy. In truth, studies are published every day showing the safety and health promoting effects of vitamins, especially when used responsibly (i.e. used for a specific purpose, after objective testing showed a deficiency), and according to the evidence. If you want to focus on something that will actually kill you, open your medicine cabinet and look at the drugs that stare back at you. Close to 1 million people die in North America every year, as a direct result of adverse effects from prescription drugs. The safety record of pharmaceutical drugs is not even comparable to vitamins.
Everything in life is a risk—but vitamins are repeatedly shown to be safe and effective for many conditions. Always seek professional guidance, but as is anything, the choice is ultimately yours!