On Vitamins And Supplements: When Less Is More

Last Updated: May 8, 2015

Most patients I see take one or more vitamin or nutritional supplements. They use them for various reasons, but primarily with the hope that they will preserve health and prevent various forms of chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and so on. More often than not, these supplements cause a significant dent in their finances.

Are these supplements worth the money spent on them? Do they deliver any of these promises? Is there any reason for concern?


On Vitamins And Supplements

Supplements may be detrimental to health.

Last week, the Archives of Internal Medicine published the results of a large study regarding the impact of vitamins and other supplements on mortality. The researchers followed 38,772 older women in the Iowa Women's Health Study from 1986 to 2008 by having them filling questionnaires about supplement use every 10 years or so.

The supplements studied were vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, and calcium.

The results are quite remarkable. Not only did they see no benefit in terms of mortality, but for most supplements studied, they have actually seen an increase in mortality. That's right, an increase in mortality, by about 2.4%. The only exception was calcium, whose use was associated with a decrease in mortality.

How Would Supplement Use Increased Mortality?

The answer to this question is open to some speculation; however, I think some answers are quite apparent.

I think most supplements are not directly raising the risk of death. Rather, by investing their hopes of prevention and increased quantity and quality of life on supplements, many people forget about or find it convenient to avoid placing the necessary emphasis on healthy eating and regular physical activity.

Occasionally, I also see patients who would rather spend their money on supplements than on healthy, nutritious foods. I find this rather disturbing, especially when my efforts to restore their confidence in the adequacy of a healthy diet are not successful. I believe this is the result of the aggressive promotion of supplements, in the context of lack of adequate regulation.

Left face it: It is a lot easier to swallow a few supplements every day, then to take the time to plan, shop, cook, and serve a healthy meal. Similarly, you don't break a sweat by popping down the throat a few capsules of nutraceuticals or diet pills, as opposed to going out and exercising for 30-45 minutes…


If little labour, little are our gains:
Man's fortunes are according to his pains.
- Hesperides 752.

Absorbing a bit too much of some nutrients, like the B vitamins, just results in "expensive urine", because the excess is excreted.
-Kathi Kemper, pediatrician, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

If you want to reap the benefits of a healthy, fulfilling life, you have to be willing to do what it takes. There are no shortcuts or ways around it. Not even supplements.

Dr. Gily Ionescu MS, MD.

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