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We’ve all seen media claims that supplements can be a “waste of money” while other reports illustrate the dangers of “natural products”. So how valid are these claims? It’s all in the fine print. A catchy fear-inducing headline is sure to make waves, but it’s time to break down the science – and the actual text – of this information. When are supplements actually not worth it, and when can they actually make a difference in your health?
What outcomes are we looking for?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is “What am I looking to achieve?”
There are those who take a multivitamin to help make up for missing nutrients in the diet. Others will take a fish oil or other supplement because they’ve heard it’s good for heart health. Before taking anything, you should know why you’re taking something and if it’s actually been shown to be effective for your particular health concern. For example, some media claims include that vitamins are a waste because they won’t make you live longer. When it comes to standard generic multivitamin formulas, they’re probably right. Taking micro-doses of vitamins and minerals, regardless of quality of diet, probably won’t add extra years to your life; as was shown by a Nurses Health Study.
But if you are prone to chronic infections, colds, allergies or sinus infections, and want to decrease your chance of getting sick, taking a daily zinc or high-dose vitamin C supplement could have a great beneficial effect, decreasing the frequency and duration of illness.
Standard on-the-shelf multivitamins are formulated to meet our required dietary amounts/allowances (RDA). These amounts are generally very low. For example, the RDA for vitamin C is 75–90 mg daily. However, for cold prevention during stress, doses range between 200 and 2,000 mg. Some clinical trials have even used doses as high as 4,000 to 8,000 mg per day. So if you’re at risk of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, or have a diet poor in vitamin C-rich foods, a multivitamin may be helpful. Deficient vitamin C is most commonly found in low-income populations, the elderly, those with eating disorders, and alcohol abuse problems. For those looking for an immune-boosting antioxidant to reduce the duration and frequency of respiratory infections, you’ll need a product that offers effective dosing.
More ingredients doesn’t mean you’re getting a greater effect
You should also be critical of flashy labels on your supplement bottle. For example, a multivitamin with “Good for heart health” on the label should be critically evaluated. These supplements often contain small amounts of cardiovascular-supporting compounds, for example, omega 3 fatty acids. However, the dose is often not high enough to create the same impact seen in clinical trials. We also find this with formulas that contain “extra antioxidants”. Companies will often throw in micro-doses of substances, such as green tea or blueberry powder, as an antioxidant blend, but the amount is so low you’d be better off just eating blueberries or drinking a cup of green tea.
Instead of wasting money on a multi-formula with minuscule amounts of decent nutrients, you’d be better off paying a bit more for a formula with a clinically proven dose of one nutrient.
Which substance and form is effective?
Claims of harms of supplements also need to be scrutinized because again, it comes down to the fine print, and the supplement in question. Remember, not all supplements are created equal, so we can’t generalize about what they are or do. For example, did you know that there are four different types of B 12? Adenosylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin, hydroxycobalamin, and methylcobalamin. These are all technically vitamin B12, but each is a completely different molecule with its own job and function in the body, with different absorptions, interactions, and pathways in the body, so it would be incorrect to treat them as if they were the same substance.
Vitamin E is another example where scrutiny is necessary. There are eight different isomers of vitamin E, yet much of the existing research hasn’t been conducted on the supplementation of the combination of all eight, but instead on isolated isomers like alpha-tocopherol. The body will treat a high dose supplement of an isolated form very differently than when in combination with multiple forms.
This is often what happens when articles claim that a supplement is harmful. It often is due to a specific brand’s product, a specific form of a vitamin or nutrient, or a modified molecule of the original nutrient. We also find that many referenced studies are actually survey studies – researchers ask their subjects to report how often they take, for example, a B-complex vitamin, without any consideration for the form, composition, or combination.
For whom is this effective or harmful?
A claim of harm for a supplement may be related to the population in which it was tested. For example, some antioxidants, including vitamin A, E and B vitamins, can be harmful for smokers. It doesn’t mean supplementing with them is dangerous for everyone.
One study publicized by the media was that vitamin E increases the risk of cancer. In this example, the actual research showed a small increase in lung cancer incidence found only in those who smoke, a very specific demographic. Using the same vitamin E example, another study found benefits and a lowered risk of cancer in non-smoking Chinese women between the age of 40 and 70. However, both studies combined dietary and supplemental vitamin E, and didn’t discriminate between the different isomers or types of vitamin E supplements, a fundamental flaw.
The bottom line is that these claims are never black and white, and in fact many of the issues discussed in research articles and the media regarding vitamins are more complicated than they are presented to be. Any claim that a single nutrient or vitamin is “bad” to supplement with, should be carefully evaluated.
Using Supplements to Improve Health
The bottom line is that, although a multivitamin formula may not extend your life or prevent you from suffering a heart attack, there have been many other amazing health breakthroughs in the research that indicate that taking the right supplements could be making a significant impact in your life, alleviating issues like poor immune function, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and stress.
Of course, one should be mindful when considering a supplement, as you would with any treatment, to ensure you are taking it appropriately. Talk to a medical professional, either your physician or a naturopathic doctor who will be most familiar and up to date with the science and your own specific medical issues. They can recommend the supplements with research-backed doses and forms.
You’ll gain certainty and peace of mind that you’re using only those supplements that are indicated and effective (and of course, safe) for what you’re looking to achieve. After all, nobody wants to waste money and time on an ill-considered vitamin regimen.