Better Not Take Your Vitamins

“So doc, is there a problem with me, because since I’ve been taking these vitamins, my urine is a very bright fluorescent green and orange, and it just seems kinda…weird.”

I looked over the large bag of multivitamins and supplements that he had brought in and noted that they were definitely not cheap. 

“Hmmm, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, but I’ll bet that you have the most expensive urine on the block. I think that’s where your vitamins are winding up.”

So summarizes the latest research study, just another one of several to show that vitamins and supplements don’t really seem to help the average healthy person. The difference with this study, though, was a warning that the patients who took vitamins actually had a higher mortality rate.

The Medical Study

Published October 10th, 2011, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Finland assessed supplement use in 39,000 women over a 19 year period. They found a slightly higher risk of death in those who did take supplements, by 2.4% over those that didn’t, with the exception of calcium. When iron was included, the risk of premature death went up by 3.9%. The researchers

controlled for factors such as weight, age, diet, smoking, exercise and other existing health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure to isolate the effects of vitamins, so that those factors would not skew the results. 

According to the Nutrition Business Journal, Americans spent about $11.8 billion last year on vitamins and supplements. Over half of the population is estimated to be taking them. With all the marketing firepower from the staggering dollars of sales, the commercialization of public opinion regarding vitamins and supplements is a daunting task for clinicians to deal with.

For instance, vitamin E and vitamin C for decades were considered important to take, but has been proven to be not only useless, but also harmful. Vitamin E can cause an increased tendency to bleed. Yet it still enjoys brisk sales.

When Are Vitamins Necessary?

That doesn’t mean all vitamins are bad, when used for the right reasons. For example, pregnant women need a vitamin B called folic acid to prevent certain birth defects. Some people are deficient in vitamin B12 or vitamin D due to malabsorption, which can lead to certain health problems. And calcium, although not a vitamin, is an important supplement for many older women to protect against osteoporosis if they do not get enough in their diet. The triathlete who watches his diet carefully and may want to supplement those extreme needs, of course, may need something more.

But the vast majority of time, taking a handful of vitamins “just to get a boost” in otherwise healthy people may be as useful as the lady with the fluorescent urine.

“So doc, what vitamins should I be taking?” My patient asked.

I looked up from reviewing his chart. “Uh, why do you ask? You’re already smoking a pack a day, have high blood pressure and cholesterol, break out in a sweat getting the mail, and your diet is whatever the two for one burger or taco sale is of the day.”  

“Well, cause I know I ain’t eatin’ good, so I figured vitamins outa even that out. You know, get the stuff in my system that I oughta have.”

And that’s the real danger of vitamins and supplements. It’s the attitude – thinking we can do something simple and quick to replace old-fashioned hard work.

When you were little, your mom told you to eat your veggies; you didn’t want to. You may have complained, whined, fed it to the dog, but you knew it was good for you. Now that you’re older – hey, how about a vitamin instead?

The fundamentals of health, which is a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fresh meats and dairy products, sunlight and exercise, would give us all the essential minerals and vitamins that we would ever need.  Although this has yet to be drilled down by further research, the theory is that the higher mortality rate in those who take vitamins may not be from the actual product. The attitude that vitamins and minerals may compensate for an otherwise unhealthy diet and lifestyle may be the real problem.

There will always be exceptions, like people with deficiencies who really do need specific supplements. But for the rest of us, maybe mom was right all along.

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