Do multivitamins work, or are you throwing money out the window? People have been supplementing vitamins and minerals for thousands of years. It is a common misunderstanding that our ancestors only ate off of the land, and most people are not aware that ancient cultures treated nutritional deficiencies with whatever crude methods were available to them at the time.
A perfect example of this is how ancient Egyptians identified and treated vision problems associated with vitamin A deficiency. The Ebers Papyrus, the famed medical papyrus of herbal knowledge dating to 1550 BC, discusses at length the techniques used by ancient Egyptian physicians to treat night blindness.
They squeezed the “juices” of a grilled lamb’s liver into the eyes of their patients. Then the patient would eat the liver, which is extremely rich in vitamin A. (1) This example really illustrates the length people were willing to go to sustain their health, doesn’t it!
Dietary Supplements Explained
The use of herbs and animal glands to treat health disorders dates back to six-thousand-year-old clay tablets written by the Sumerians. They were known to use licorice, mustard plants, opium poppy, and thyme as medicine. In spite of this legacy from ancient civilizations, many health experts and researchers have questioned the effectiveness of supplementation and claim that a well-balanced diet is all that we need.
Although it may seem unusual to use lamb’s blood as a supplement, it actually perfectly fits the definition of a dietary supplement. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: (2)
A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A “dietary ingredient” may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- Herb or other botanicals
- Amino acids
- Dietary substances for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing
their total dietary intake
- Concentrates, metabolites, constituents, or extracts
Dietary supplements may be found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders. Some dietary supplements can help ensure that you get an adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients; others may help you reduce your risk of disease.
Vitamin Deficient or Taking Excessive Doses
When public health officials talk about vitamin deficiencies and the need to supplement, they’re talking about specific populations and specific vitamins.
Younger women, for instance, tend to have low iodine, which is crucial for fetal brain development. (3) Another example, Mexican-American women and young children are more likely to be iron deficient. However, even in this population, only 11% of children and 13% of women are affected.
To help answer the question, “do multivitamins work,” it is important to remember that widespread vitamin deficiency is not realistic in our culture and scientists are uncovering that overdosing on vitamins is actually more of a problem. Taking an excess amount of vitamin A, for example, has been known to cause liver damage, coma and even death. (4, 5, 6) Other examples include:
• Vitamin A and E have been known to increase lung cancer risk in smokers. (7, 8)
• Excess zinc is linked to reduced immune function, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, reduced iron and headaches. (9)
• Long-term excessive intake of manganese is linked to iron-deficiency anemia. Symptoms of manganese toxicity shockingly resemble those of Parkinson’s disease (tremors and stiff muscles) and excessive intake has been linked to hypertension in patients older than 40. (10)
• Niacin in excess has been known to cause liver cell damage and a slew of side effects such as flushing, itching, nausea and vomiting (11)
Do Multivitamins Work: Natural vs. Synthetic
All in all, most adverse effects have been reported with pharmacologic preparations of niacin, not typical “fortified” breads and milk. (12)
It is interesting to point out that niacin from natural food sources is not known to cause negative side effects. However, one study noted that people who unknowingly ate vitamin-fortified bagels that mistakenly had 60 times the normal amount of niacin experienced some pretty bad consequences.
Unfortunately, for the average consumer, this whole discussion gets more complicated when manufacturers mix various vitamins and minerals in one easy to swallow tablet because different minerals compete against each other for absorption. You need to be a veritable biochemist to understand what’s good for you nowadays!
Case in point:
• If you take too much calcium, you won’t be able to absorb iron sufficiently.
• If you take too much iron, you won’t be able to absorb zinc.
• If you take vitamin C, your copper levels will drop.
• And the list goes on and on…
The bottom line is that unless you purchase a multivitamin that is specifically designed for you and your unique biochemical individuality, it could ruin the critical vitamin/mineral balance required for health.
So, do multivitamins work? It all depends. Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all approach that manufacturers have taken is woefully incorrect and people who regularly consume multivitamins put themselves at risk of not only vitamin/mineral deficiency, but also taking an overdose!
So, does this mean that multivitamins are not good for us? Well, as clear-cut as it may seem, there’s actually quite a heated debate over this issue.
Do Multivitamins Work: The Debate
On one side of the debate, traditionalists refer back to thousands of years of use and also quote the most recent studies describing how the nutritional content of our fresh fruits and vegetables today pale in comparison to what our parents and grandparents ate. (13, 14)
According to biologist Donald Davis, Ph.D. from the University of Texas Austin:
“Considered as a group, we found that six out of 13 nutrients showed apparently reliable declines between 1950 and 1999…These nutrients included protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid. The declines, which ranged from 6 percent for protein to 38 percent for riboflavin, raise significant questions about how modern agriculture practices are affecting food crops.”(15, 16)
In essence, the argument is, “If our ancestors found the need to supplement when food was full of nutrition, then how much more should we supplement today because our food is deplete of vitamins and minerals?”
On the other end of the spectrum, skeptics like Dr. Eliseo Guallar, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, claims that the data simply doesn’t add up. “We believe that it’s clear that vitamins are not working,” Guallar says. In fact, “The probability of a meaningful effect is so small that it’s not worth doing study after study and spending research dollars on these questions.”(17)
A recent article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” supports Guallar’s theory:
After reviewing 3 trials of multivitamin supplements and 24 trials of single or paired vitamins that randomly assigned more than 400,000 participants, the authors concluded that there was no clear evidence of a beneficial effect of supplements on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.(18)
The Increased Use of Supplements
Multivitamin use has increased among U.S. adults by 10%, despite questionable evidence of no benefit or even potential harm, Today more than 40% of people supplement with multi-vitamins and more than 50% of Americans use some sort of supplement on a daily basis. (19) All in all, we spend a whopping $30 billion a year on supplements.
In the words of Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins:
“I think this is a great example of how our intuition leads us astray. It seems reasonable that if a little bit of something is good for you, then more should be better for you. It’s not true. Supplementation with extra vitamins or micronutrients doesn’t really benefit you if you don’t have a deficiency…You need a balance. The vast majority of people taking multivitamins and other supplemental vitamins don’t need them. I don’t need them, so I stopped.” (20)
Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition – a trade group that represents supplement manufacturers, says:
“We all need to manage our expectations about why we’re taking multivitamins. Research shows that the two main reasons people take multivitamins are for overall health and wellness and to fill in nutrient gaps. Science still demonstrates that multivitamins work for those purposes, and that alone provides reason for people to take a multivitamin.” (21)
So what’s the bottom line? Which side of the argument should we believe? Both sides are passionate in their viewpoints and considering there’s $30 billion on the line, it is easy to understand why.
Do Multivitamins Work: The Conclusion
So, do multivitamins work or are you throwing money out the window?
It's important to note that several of the previously mentioned studies refer to vitamins composed of synthetic isolates, rather than those sourced from whole foods: herein lies the issue. There are two truths to supplementation, one in which resides within the word itself.
Taking additional vitamins and minerals should be SUPPLEMENTAL to an already proactive healthy diet and lifestyle and not used to avoid all the other healthy aspects of your life. Millions of Americans take their “Once-Daily Tablet,” believing they are “protected” and have their nutritional needs “covered.” Dietary additives, combined with proper nutrition, should be the catalyst to healthy living and not the crutch that deters it.
As I mentioned above, the second truth to consider is the source of the nutrients you are taking. Using synthetic vitamins is not only counterproductive; it can also be incredibly destructive. The human body cannot assimilate, nor recognize, synthetically isolated dietetics. Your vitamins should be raw whole foods obtained from Non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) and GMP (Good Manufacturing Processes) facilities.
Look for the following words and acronyms on the labels of your prospective nutritional supplements: GMP, Non-GMO, Raw, Whole Food, USDA Organic, ISO 9001, ISO 17025, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Soy-Free, No Fillers or Binders, No Artificial Colors, Zero Preservatives, Pesticide and Herbicide Free.
And remember, unless the manufacturer obtains their products from real food (e.g., Iodine sourced from kale and not a synthetic culture), Do Not Take The Product.