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Vitamin supplements: More harm than good?

Another study about vitamin supplements and another nail in the coffin. After decades of health advocates telling us vitamins in pills are good for us, we’re now learning they aren’t. Or at least they’re not beneficial.

Despite this new evidence, nearly a third of adults take vitamins and over 70% in people over 65 years. With all these people buying vitamins, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

The latest study looked at vitamin D to prevent diabetes in people with high blood sugar. Since people with low vitamin D levels in their blood have a greater chance of getting diabetes, taking vitamin D may help. And short-term studies indicated that vitamin D may lower blood sugar. But when it comes to preventing diabetes, taking a vitamin pill doesn’t cut it. Whether people were taking vitamin D or placebo, their chances of getting diabetes was the same.

This isn’t the first time a vitamin supplement has showed promise only to be proven wrong later on. Vitamin D was also thought to be protective against heart disease. Yet more recent and robust studies show that not to be the case. The same goes for cancer and preventing fractures. Vitamin D has no effect.

Other early studies also showed promise with B vitamins in preventing heart disease. People with high levels of homocysteine have a greater chance of getting heart disease. B vitamins lower homocysteine, so it seemed reasonable that taking these vitamins would reduce your chances of getting heart disease. Again, however, this didn’t turn out. People taking B vitamins did end up lowering their homocysteine but it did nothing for preventing heart disease.

Virtuvian Man

You Need Vitamins to Live

Vitamins are essential for your body to work. For example, vitamin A is needed for good vision and development of organs. While vitamin K is needed for clotting of the blood. Without it, you could bleed to death from a simple cut.

In no other situation is the effect of vitamin deficiency more apparent than in the British Navy during the 18th century. At this time, scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, claimed more sailors lives than war itself. With the supplementation of citrus on naval ships, scurvy all but disappeared and sailors were given the slang term of limeys.

Today, however, vitamin deficiency in western society is extremely rare. We may have poor diets, but we don’t lack for vitamins. So why did people start taking vitamins in the first place?

scientist studying vitamins

The Science of Vitamins

Within science, there’s an obsession of breaking things down to a single factor. In the case of diets, this means trying to find out what is the single ingredient that makes a good diet. There’s lots of evidence that fruits and vegetables are good for us, so scientists asked what makes them so good. Since they are full of vitamins, this became the natural target. And early studies did show a benefit of taking vitamins.

However, these studies were only observational. This means people were asked if they took vitamins or not. Then years later scientists checked in on their health to see if there was a difference in those taking vitamins and those who didn’t.

These are important initial studies, but they don’t tell us if vitamins can prevent disease or not. Mainly because people who take vitamins tend to be more health conscious than people who don’t. They’re more active, less likely to smoke, see their doctor more often, etc. And it is likely these effects which lead to a lower chance of disease and early death.

is there harm in taking vitamin supplements

Is there harm in taking vitamin supplements?

There are two main types of vitamins; water soluble and fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins (B and C) are those that dissolve in water. If you take in more of these vitamins than you need, you’ll just end up peeing them out.

Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) cannot dissolve in water and are needed to be carried in fat globules in the blood. Any excess amounts of these vitamins are stored in the liver and fat tissues. As a result, too much of these vitamins can be toxic. In a healthy diet, this is rare, but even a small dose of vitamin E over eight years was associated with a 17% increase chance in prostate cancer.

It’s also possible for people to be allergic to the ingredients of vitamin pills. And given that vitamins are not regulated to the same extent as drugs, disclosure of the full ingredients isn’t not always available. And if you take medications, you may wish to discuss any vitamins or supplements with your pharmacist to check for interactions.

vitamin supplements not worth the money

Money well spent?

For most people, however, the biggest harm of taking vitamin supplements may be to your wallet. You’ll be paying for something of no benefit.

It’s not known why vitamin supplements don’t work in preventing disease when they’re so important to our health. It could be our diets are nutritionally sufficient and we get all the vitamins we need. It could also be that for vitamins to be effective, they need to be eaten as part of food, and not taken as a pill.

There is still so much we don’t know about nutrition, but the best evidence we have around nutrition is still on whole, natural foods.

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8 responses to “Vitamin supplements: More harm than good?”

  1. This was a very informative read, Dr. Lear! Thanks for sharing. I feel like this topic is so overlooked

  2. Hi, It’s an interesting topic and certainly there have been numerous studies lately to show that taking supplements can actually be harmful. The downside of calcium and magnesium for senior women is an example. It is logical that vitamins in good wholesome foods is always superior than similar substances found in dried, dehydrated, compounded chemicals. Our bodies were made to process and be fueled by good food, not a few pills.

    But, it’s not just vitamins that can be expensive and risky, it’s herbal supplements. I am very pleased with the books now available that detail the risks and the side effects of supplements, including a book on alternative remedies and cancer and how various herbal remedies can be a benefit or detriment depending on cancer treatments.

    The flip side is supplements can be a direct benefit if taken in consultation with a medical professional. The medical clinic I attend regularly prescribes vitamin B12 shots for seniors after first checking blood levels. We’re often low on B12.

    As patients we’re reluctant to ask our physicians for advice concerning supplements. Part of the reason is appointment time is sparse as it is. There isn’t 10 minutes extra just to chat about vitamins and herbs. Fortunately, some communities now have nurse practitioners to help manage chronic care conditions and set up specific protocols of care with family physicians.

    This would be an ideal setting for discussions like this. The more we push for better management protocols for chronic conditions (70% of a doctor’s patient load), the more likely we are to have this type of care program available throughout BC. Then we could get better individualized care programs with a hard look at the right foods, medications, and supplements to complement each of our medical conditions and life styles.

    1. Thanks Jolaine for the great points and advice. Extremely helpful.

      Supplements and minerals can be of the same concern as you point out (supplemental calcium has been associated with kidney stones). Sometimes there are also negative interactions between medications and supplements. A person’s pharmacist can also be helpful here if it’s hard to connect with your doctor.

      1. Hi, People underestimate the value of a skilled pharmacist. I always check out the pharmacies and find the one with the best service. When my pharmacist changed stores, I followed him as did dozens of other customers.

        We can also advocate with our MLAs or the Medical Services Commission for the right of pharmacists to order blood tests. They can in Alberta. This could help prevent medication errors. For example, many drugs are metabolized through the kidneys, and us older folks naturally have declining kidney function. It’s what happens with us. This can affect the dosage of some of the drugs we take. If the kidneys are slower to excrete them, then the effects of the drugs last longer.

        Also, with the lack of family physicians, pharmacists could play a much larger role in health care management. For patients taking the same drugs for a very long time without complications, it is logical for pharmacists to be able to renew certain prescriptions.

      2. I totally agree. Pharmacists know a lot more and should be used as part of health care more than they are.

  3. […] for most of us, the days of nutritional deficiency are long gone and no supplement has been found to be beneficial (or necessary) when eating an adequate diet. Sometimes a multivitamin may be warranted in older […]

  4. We are taking more than you need costs more and might also raise your risk of side effects. A new study suggests that popping pills to supplement your vitamin intake may be worse than ineffective.

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