Bad News for People Who Rely on Vitamin Pills
Many physicians today emphasize to patients that having a healthy diet is better than having supplements. Some doctors have already asked their patients to stop taking vitamin supplements, except pregnant mothers and individuals with a deficiency or impairment that require it.
Not all patients, however, heed the doctor’s advice. Research shows that more Americans are taking multivitamins and dietary supplements making this market a US$20 billion industry.
The Bad News on Vitamins
A variety of information about the risk of using vitamins have appeared on the news. Just a few include the increased cognitive decline with the use of vitamin B12, increased prostate cancer risk with the use of vitamin E and the increased mortality of postmenopausal women who are taking vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, iron, etc.
Many clinicians do not prescribe dietary supplements anymore not only because of the slight increased mortality risk these bring, but because there’s no strong evidence for recommending them in the first place anyway.
What happens is that people are using supplements as insurance. They take a pill because they do not get enough nutrients from their natural diet. They do it thinking that it is safe.
Recent studies suggest a slightly worsening case for patients taking multivitamins, but these studies are not conclusive. Some patients are still given supplements when diagnosed with a particular condition or when trying to prevent a chronic disease that runs in the family.
What Supplements Do Doctors Still Prescribe?
Some of the supplements that doctors generally prescribe are vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and calcium. Prenatal vitamins as well as folic acid are typically given to pregnant mothers.
The use of the supplements mentioned is backed by evidence. Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to the heart according to the GISSI trial. Vitamin D supplementation is necessary as many Americans are lacking in this vitamin. As for folic acid supplementation, many studies show that mothers need it during conception.
All other supplements must be given only in the case of deficiencies. For example, a deficiency in vitamin B12 leads to dementia and other neurological problems. That is why supplementation is needed. Then, there’s vitamin C for treating scurvy and vitamin B12 for treating pernicious anemia.
Who Can Take Vitamin Supplementation?
Anyone deficient in a vitamin can take supplementation. But how do you know if you are deficient in specific nutrients when there are no symptoms indicating the need?
You can consult your doctor who would likely ask about your diet and if you’re taking any vitamin supplements. Children who are succeeding in achieving their growth milestones and adults who have good muscle tone may not need any supplementation.
The frequency of screening for vitamin deficiency may be done annually.
Sad Truth on the Role of Vitamins
Recent studies show that vitamins are not what they were once thought to be. Vitamin E cannot prevent prostate cancer but increases the risk of developing it. Vitamin C does not actually prevent colds and cancer. B-complex vitamins were thought to lower the risk of heart disease, but current trials disprove this. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and lycopene do not help prevent prostate cancer, eye disease and heart disease.
Explanation of Why Research Results Differed?
Researchers don’t know why studies did not show evidence of what the vitamins were supposed to do.
One theory is that vitamins work differently when isolated. For example, the prostate cancer trial used the vitamin E isolate alpha-tocopherol instead of the E-complex vitamins.
Some experts think that in order to get the full potential of benefits offered by antioxidants or phytochemicals, the whole food including the nutrient must be used in the trials.
Therefore, the recommendation of most clinician is to make sure to give patients healthy food and drinks from which the vitamins can be sourced from, not just a pill.
Photo credits: Vitamin packaging by Colin Dunn via Flickr, CC by 2.0