|The sale of supplements is an $11 billion dollar business!|
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More Bad Press
I always have mixed feelings about articles reporting on the risks of vitamin supplements and I've blogged on this topic before. On one hand, I think people really need to be careful about taking unnecessary vitamins and I'll talk more about that in a bit. On the other hand, I always feel as though the pharmaceutical companies are cheering on, and maybe even funding, any study that would disprove the ability to improve health without their drugs. But paranoia aside, let's discuss vitamins.
The first article, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, disclosed a higher risk of death among women, ages 55 to 69, who used certain supplements. The highest risk was among those taking iron, especially those exceeding a daily dose of 50 mg per day. This should not be a surprise since women in that age group who are postmenopausal have very little need for supplemental iron. Younger, menstruating women may need to supplement with this mineral as iron is needed to manufacture hemoglobin in red blood cells, but only if they are anemic.
If iron is not needed, the body stores it (this pertains to everyone - men and women). Stored iron produces destructive free radicals (think "rust") and this can lead to heart disease, cancer and accelerated aging. Even if you avoid taking iron supplements, you may still get more than you need from eating fortified cereals like General Mills Whole Grain Total that provides a whopping 24 mg per serving. The RDA for adult men and post-menopausal women is only 8 mg! For more information of iron, see my post of Best sources of iron - how to help avoid iron deficiency anemia and toxicity.
Other vitamins that were associated with an increase of death were vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc and copper. Their link with increased death was not as statistically meaningful as iron. Only calcium was associated with a reduced risk of death of 3.8% but there was no added benefit of taking more than 900 mg per day. Personally, I think taking calcium in the amounts doctors often recommend (often exceeding 1,000 mg per day) is excessive. Too much calcium (especially if you take calcium carbonate which is not as absorbable as calcium citrate, for example) can increase the risk of kidney stones. I have two friends who pop calcium pills as if they were M & M's. They have both had kidney stones and false positive mammograms that were just "calcifications" in their breast tissue. Hey, it's got to go somewhere!
The second article, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found a follow-up of the participants in a cancer prevention trial who supplemented with vitamin E, had a 17% increase in prostate cancer compared to those who took a placebo. This was unexpected since previous animal studies and other findings demonstrated that vitamin E and selenium showed promise in preventing the disease. I was surprised to find that the form of vitamin E used in this study was alpha-tocopherol. Vitamin E is a family of nutrients consisting of alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocopherols. I think the study would have been far more significant if mixed tocopherols were used. Given their choice of vitamin E used in this study, I would recommend they return to the drawing board. In the meantime, gentlemen, eat sunflower seeds- a safe and healthful source of this vitamin!
About Vitamin Supplements
There's a lot to know about vitamins. Whenever a friend comes to visit or I visit them, I always end up going through their vitamin regimen and making some recommendations. Most people put together a random collection of vitamins, minerals and herbs based on a friend's recommendation, a segment on Dr. Oz, or an advertisement in a magazine. But just as you shouldn't take prescription drugs without rigorous research, you shouldn't start taking supplements without a solid reason and a great deal of knowledge. So before you go down the isle of your favorite health food store tossing various supplements into your cart, remember the following:
* Vitamin supplements can be potent. Vitamins can cause extreme reactions in your body, especially when taken in excess. Vitamins can interact with certain drugs and with each other. For example, vitamin E has blood thinning properties and can be dangerous if you are taking drugs like Coumadin. Calcium can significantly reduce iron absorption. These are things you need to know.
* Not all supplements are alike. Some vitamins are synthetic and others are derived from real food and provide a more absorbable "whole food complex". Companies like New Chapter make supplements that are made in this manner and can even be taken on an empty stomach. Synthetic vitamins often are so strong, they can give you an upset stomach.
* Are you deficient? Ask your doctor for a vitamin panel and if your blood tests reveal a deficiency in a certain vitamin, then consider supplementing. Certain drugs and conditions can deplete vitamins. For example, taking statins can deplete coenzyme Q10. Drinking alcohol in excess can cause a deficiency in B-complex vitamins. Taking precautionary supplements in certain situations like these may be beneficial.
* Certain diets require supplementation. If you avoid all animal food, you will need to supplement with vitamin B12, DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids and most likely vitamin D or eat foods fortified with these nutrients.
* See through the hype. The sale of supplements is an $11 billion dollar business and attracts many unscrupulous people. The industry is not regulated and literally ANYONE can make a supplement, advertise in a magazine and sell their product. So make sure you do your due diligence on the company, read the published literature, work with a competent holistic nutritionist or naturopath and make your decision carefully.
Let Food be thy Medicine
The bottom line is this - your best bet is to get your vitamins and minerals from food. It's unlikely that you can eat an abundance of fast food, skip your fresh fruits and vegetables, pop a few vitamin supplements and avoid ill health.
Having said that, there are a few nutrients that I think most people are deficient in - vitamin D, EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike others, the research involving these supplements has shown great promise in preventing many degenerative disorders. But that's a topic for another day!