By Dr. Sarah
We’ve all seen media claims that supplements can be a “waste
of money” while other reports illustrate the dangers of “natural products”. So
how valid are these claims? It’s all in the fine print. A catchy fear-inducing
headline is sure to make waves, but it’s time to break down the science – and
the actual text – of this information. When are supplements actually not worth it, and when can they actually
make a difference in your health?
What outcomes are we
The first thing you need to ask yourself is “What am I
looking to achieve?”
There are those who take a multivitamin to help make up for
missing nutrients in the diet. Others will take a fish oil or other supplement
because they’ve heard it’s good for heart health. Before taking anything, you
should know why you’re taking something and if it’s actually been shown to be
effective for your particular health concern. For example, some media claims
include that vitamins are a waste because they won’t make you live longer. When
it comes to standard generic multivitamin formulas, they’re probably right.
Taking micro-doses of vitamins and minerals, regardless of quality of diet,
probably won’t add extra years to your life; as was shown by a
Nurses Health Study.
But if you are prone to chronic infections, colds, allergies
or sinus infections, and want to decrease your chance of getting sick, taking a
daily zinc or high-dose vitamin C supplement could have a great beneficial
the frequency and duration of illness.
Standard on-the-shelf multivitamins are formulated to meet
our required dietary amounts/allowances (RDA). These amounts are generally very
low. For example, the RDA for vitamin C is 75–90 mg daily. However, for cold
prevention during stress, doses range between 200 and 2,000 mg. Some
clinical trials have even used doses as high as 4,000 to 8,000 mg per day.
So if you’re at risk of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, or have a diet poor in
vitamin C-rich foods, a multivitamin may be helpful. Deficient vitamin
C is most commonly found in low-income populations, the elderly, those with
eating disorders, and alcohol abuse problems. For those looking for an
immune-boosting antioxidant to reduce the duration and frequency of respiratory
infections, you’ll need a product that offers effective dosing.
doesn’t mean you’re getting a greater effect
You should also be critical of flashy labels on your
supplement bottle. For example, a multivitamin with “Good for heart health” on
the label should be critically evaluated. These supplements often contain small
amounts of cardiovascular-supporting compounds, for example, omega 3 fatty
acids. However, the dose is often not high enough to create the same impact
seen in clinical trials. We also find this with formulas that contain “extra
antioxidants”. Companies will often throw in micro-doses of substances, such as
green tea or blueberry powder, as an antioxidant blend, but the amount is so
low you’d be better off just eating blueberries or drinking a cup of green tea.
Instead of wasting money on a multi-formula with minuscule
amounts of decent nutrients, you’d be better off paying a bit more for a
formula with a clinically proven dose of one nutrient.
Which substance and
form is effective?
Claims of harms of supplements also need to be scrutinized
because again, it comes down to the fine print, and the supplement in question.
Remember, not all supplements are created equal, so we can’t generalize about what
they are or do. For example, did you know that there are four different types of B 12? Adenosylcobalamin, cyanocobalamin,
hydroxycobalamin, and methylcobalamin. These are all technically vitamin B12,
but each is a completely different molecule with its own job and function in
the body, with different absorptions, interactions, and pathways in the body,
so it would be incorrect to treat them as if they were the same substance.
Vitamin E is another example where scrutiny is necessary.
There are eight different isomers of vitamin E, yet much of the existing research
hasn’t been conducted on the supplementation of the combination of all eight,
but instead on isolated isomers like alpha-tocopherol. The body will treat a
high dose supplement of an isolated form very differently than when in
combination with multiple forms.
This is often what happens when articles claim that a
supplement is harmful. It often is due to a specific brand’s product, a
specific form of a vitamin or nutrient, or a modified molecule of the original
nutrient. We also find that many referenced studies are actually survey studies
– researchers ask their subjects to report how often they take, for example, a B-complex
vitamin, without any consideration for the form, composition, or combination.
For whom is this
effective or harmful?
A claim of harm for a supplement may be related to the
population in which it was tested. For example, some antioxidants, including
vitamin A, E and B vitamins, can be harmful for smokers. It doesn’t mean
supplementing with them is dangerous for everyone.
publicized by the media was that vitamin E increases the risk of cancer. In
this example, the actual research showed a small increase in lung cancer incidence found only in those who smoke, a very
specific demographic. Using the same vitamin E example, another study found
benefits and a lowered risk of cancer in non-smoking Chinese women between the
age of 40 and 70. However, both studies combined dietary and supplemental
vitamin E, and didn’t discriminate between the different isomers or types of
vitamin E supplements, a fundamental flaw.
The bottom line is that these claims are never black and white,
and in fact many of the issues discussed in research articles and the media
regarding vitamins are more complicated than they are presented to be. Any
claim that a single nutrient or vitamin is “bad” to supplement with, should be
Using Supplements to
The bottom line is
that, although a multivitamin formula may not extend your life or prevent
you from suffering a heart attack, there have been many other amazing health
breakthroughs in the research that indicate that taking the right supplements could be making a
significant impact in your life, alleviating issues like poor immune function,
fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and stress.
Of course, one should be mindful when considering a
supplement, as you would with any treatment, to ensure you are taking it
appropriately. Talk to a medical professional, either your health care
practioner who will be most familiar and up to date with the science and your
own specific medical issues. They can recommend the supplements with
research-backed doses and forms.
You’ll gain certainty and peace of mind that you’re using only
those supplements that are indicated
and effective (and of course, safe) for what you’re looking to
achieve. After all, nobody wants to waste money and time on an ill-considered