What's Up With the Media Attention on Vitamins and Supplements?

Vitamins have taken a beating in the media before, but the current public outcry against vitamins and supplements seems to carry more weight.  Millions of Americans take vitamins or supplements on a regular basis, but are these pills doing more harm than good?  Some recent studies have even suggested that vitamins and supplements may be harmful to your health.  Is it time for you to reevaluate your nutritional supplement regimen?

Taking vitamins and supplements seems benign.  After all, how could getting a little extra Vitamin C be harmful to your health?  We have all been taught from a young age that vitamins are important, so important in fact that many of our parents served us up a daily Flintstone character shaped tablet with our orange juice and cereal before school each morning as children.  Today, however, the safety and efficacy of vitamins is being called into question.  It appears that at best we are simply wasting our money on these substances and at worst they are harmful to our health.   With 56 percent of adult men and 72 percent of adult women taking vitamins or dietary supplements at least once a week, this becomes a public health issue.  

Safety of Vitamins and Supplements Called into Question

Unlike prescription medications, vitamins and supplements are largely unregulated by the FDA.  These substances are not tested for safety and efficacy before they go on the market so consumers can't be certain what they are taking when consuming most vitamins.  Often, vitamins and supplements are manufactured in subpar facilities and are intentionally or accidentally mislabeled.  In 2003, for example, researchers tested supplements found in health food stores in Boston.  These tests revealed potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and arsenic.

In 2012, some mineral supplements sold in New York were found to contain anabolic steroids.  Women taking these supplements began to experience masculinizing symptoms such as lower voices.  The FDA has even found that some vitamins are manufactured in facilities contaminated with rodent feces. In the past, the public has assumed that vitamins and supplements must be safe and harmless but new studies are showing otherwise. 

Are Vitamins and Supplements Effective?

Not only are the manufacturing and labeling practices of vitamins being called into question, the efficacy of these substances is doubtful as well.  Multiple studies have shown that supplemental vitamins are ineffective, they do not help prevent chronic disease or death.  Some studies have indicated multivitamins could reduce risk of certain cancers and lower risk of cataracts, but the research is far from definitive.  While research overall indicates vitamins and supplements have few, and likely no health benefits, its important to note research also shows that taking a daily multivitamin does not cause people to eat worse or neglect their health in other areas.

Most people assume when it comes to vitamins you can't have too much of a good thing.  However, some vitamins can increase risk of certain health problems and interfere with other medications having harmful health effects.  For example, one study showed that supplemental vitamin E increases risk of heart failure.  Another study indicated that vitamin A increases risk of death from lung cancer and can cause birth defects. 

Like prescribed medications, vitamins and supplements have risks.  They can interfere with other prescribed medications.  St. John's wart, for example, interferes with the way the body breaks down birth control pills and antidepressants making them less effective.  Vitamin K counteracts blood thinning medications reducing their efficacy.

Should You Take Vitamins and Supplements?

For most people, eating a healthy diet is the best and safest way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs.  Consuming a healthy diet removes the risk of consuming mislabeled and poorly manufactured supplemental products and also gives your body other nutrients that cannot be manufactured.  A multivitamin cannot make up for poor eating habits.  A well rounded diet heavy in fruits and vegetables will provide your body with the vitamins it needs while also conferring other health benefits like lowering cholesterol.

There are a few exceptions when it comes to taking vitamins.  People with certain health problems or nutritional deficiencies may benefit from taking vitamins.  Pregnant women, for example, are encouraged to take a folic acid supplement to help prevent birth defects.  

How Do You Know Which Vitamins and Supplements are Safe?

If you do need to take vitamins or supplements for a specific health problem, there are some safely manufactured and labeled products available.  Vitamins and supplements carrying the label "U.S.P. Verified" have been inspected by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention.  This entity ensures the supplement contains correctly labeled ingredients without contamination.

Like prescription medications, the risks and benefits of taking vitamins and supplements must be weighed.  It's important to remember that vitamins are not magic pills and taking them does not make up for poor health habits like smoking and unhealthy eating.  Before taking vitamins or supplements, make sure they don't interact with other prescription medications you may be taking and that the supplements you purchase have been safely manufactured. 

 

Will you stop taking a daily multivitamin based on the latest information regarding the safety and efficacy of vitamins and supplements?