Can vitamin supplements make you instantly healthier?
Why do millions of people around the world regularly take extra vitamins? I suspect it’s a combination of the offer of an easy answer and some persuasive marketing. Vitamins and supplements are a multi-billion-dollar business and companies spend huge amounts of money convincing us that we need their product. And it’s an easy sell. In our minds it’s a simple equation: Who wouldn’t want to pop a pill a day and be instantly healthier?
But are these customers achieving their aims? For me, the most telling statistic comes from a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that only 23 percent of people who regularly take vitamins do so on the advice of a healthcare provider, and thus have no way of telling whether they are having any effect or not. So are there any tangible benefits? The truth lies somewhere in between.
A number of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in recent years have found no evidence to support the suggestion that long-term vitamin use improves heart health or cognitive performance. An editorial accompanying the findings was titled ‘Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements’. As if that’s not damning enough, Dr Tim Byers of the University of Colorado Cancer Center presented research in 2015 claiming that, when consumed in excess of the RDA, over-the-counter vitamin supplements can increase cancer risk.
This was supported by researchers at Copenhagen University Hospital, who concluded that “Beta carotene, vitamin E, and higher doses of vitamin A may be associated with higher all-cause mortality.”
This isn’t a call to reject vitamin supplements altogether. A 2015 study found zinc capsules to be effective in treating the common cold. Fish oil supplements have also been shown in numerous studies to be beneficial to heart health. So the question is not ‘Are vitamin supplements good or bad?’ but rather ‘Are we taking vitamins responsibly, in a manner beneficial to our health?’
The answer to that question, on the whole, is no. For starters, we are far better off getting them via food. For example, fatty fish is high in omega-3 which is known to reduce blood clotting, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart problems. Several studies also point to it helping maintain or even increase bone mass.
All of the essential vitamins that we need can be found readily in a healthy diet: Vitamin A in carrots and leafy greens; vitamin B in bananas, lentil and beans; vitamin C in citrus fruits; vitamin D in eggs and fish; vitamin E in nuts and seeds. Not only are these vitamins more potent from a natural food source, they’re also accompanied by a host of other beneficial nutrients, minerals and antioxidants that you won’t find in most over-the-counter supplements.
A diet is not the only natural way to regulate your vitamin levels either. Researchers found evidence to suggest that three or more hours of vigorous exercise per week increased vitamin D levels. A separate study also found exercise to increase vitamin B12 levels in studies with laboratory rats.
However if you are on a specialist diet, or vegan, then you most likely need a supplement, such as B12. Equally, if you have a medical condition that causes you to be vitamin deficient, supplements can have huge benefits. But the point is that you shouldn’t take a ‘just in case’ approach to medicine. If you think you may be deficient or are feeling lethargic or unwell, speak to your doctor. They will be able to guide you on the best approach to supplements if any are needed and will ensure you only take what your body requires.
Mark Janowski (MD, USA) is an internal medicine specialist at Intelligent Health, a preventative health centre located at Sunset Mall, Jumeirah. The opinions in this column are not necessarily those held by Esquire