We’ve known for a long time that vitamins are good for you. Perhaps the best example is vitamin C, which completely cures scurvy, a disease that has plagued mankind for millenia. (It was described by Hippocratessome 2400 years ago.) Scottish doctor James Lind described how to cure scurvy with citrus fruit back in 1753, but it wasn’t until 1932 that scientists Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Charles Glen King identified vitamin C as the essential nutrient behind the cure for scurvy. (Szent-Gyorgi gave vitamin C the name ascorbic acid because of its anti-scurvy properties.)
Many other vitamins and micronutrients are required for good health, such as vitamins B and D, iron, folic acid, calcium, and potassium. Deficiencies in these vitamins cause all sorts of diseases, some of them very serious.
So it seems intuitively obvious that if a little bit of these nutrients is good for you, then a lot should be even better. Right? This intuition is the basis for the a huge and powerful nutritional supplements industry, which makes billions of dollars each year selling multi-vitamins and high-dose supplements in a bewildering variety.
The problem is, our intuition is wrong. Two separate studies published this past week, involving tens of thousands of subjects, showed that high doses of vitamins and supplements, rather than being helpful, can sometimes kill you.
In the first study, Jaakko Mursu and colleagues followed 38,772 older women for 25 years. The women in the study, whose average age was 62 back in 1986, reported their use of multivitamins and supplements over the years. The news was not good: the risk of death INCREASED with long term use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper. The risk of death only decreased with the use of calcium. They also noted that in other studies, calcium had the opposite effect.
The authors concluded that there’s
“little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements,”
In the second study, Eric Klein and colleagues studied 35,533 men over the past 10 years, looking at whether vitamin E or selenium would decrease the risk of prostate cancer. Both supplements have been claimed to have benefits, so the researchers randomly divided the subjects into four groups, giving them daily doses of (1) vitamin E only, (2) selenium only, (3) vitamin E and selenium, and (4) nothing (in the form of placebo pills).
The result: the risk of cancer INCREASED for the men taking vitamin E, selenium, or both. Although the increased risk is small, it is abundantly clear that neither of these supplements is helpful against prostate cancer.
Not surprisingly, the supplements industry hasn’t taken this news lying down. The Council for Responsible Nutrition is an industry lobbying group representing the supplements industry (don’t be fooled by the name). They released a statement by their vice president, Duffy MacKay (a naturopath, which is a form of quackery I’ll have to treat separately in the future), grasping at the fact that, in the study, the increased risk of cancer from vitamin E plus selenium wasn’t quite as big as the increase from vitamin E alone.
“This reinforces the theory that vitamins work synergistically,” said MacKay.
Aha! So if I take even more supplements, perhaps my risk of cancer will go up only an eensy-teensy bit?
The Council released a second statement about the study on multivitamins, saying
“CRN maintains that nutrients may be robbed of their beneficial effects when viewed as if they were pharmaceutical agents, with scientists looking to isolate those effects, good or bad.”
I see… so the benefits of supplements will disappear if we treat them as drugs: wouldn’t that include taking vitamins and supplements as pills?
The supplements industry (Big Supp?), which is largely unregulated, has a darker side too: countless hucksters, many operating primarily through the Internet, who are making a fortune selling overpriced supplements (and advice on how to use them) that they claim will cure cancer, diabetes, and a host of other diseases. These include internet quack Mike Adams, who posted a response to this week’s studies on his Natural News website, claiming:
“Recent attack on vitamins a fabricated scare campaign.”
In Adams’ response, he starts by arguing that the American Medical Association”has a long and sordid history of openly attacking vitamins and nutrition,” a bizarre claim that has nothing to do with the study results even if it were true (it’s not). He goes on to claim that the
“study data were ALTERED!”
(the all-caps is his) and
“voodoo statistics [were] used to alter the outcome.”
I looked at the numbers he extracted from the paper to support these claims, and he failed – badly – to understand the data. Apparently for Mike Adams, statistics that he doesn’t understand are just “voodoo.”
So I’m afraid the news boils down to this: eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and a balanced diet, and you’ll get all the micronutrients and vitamins you need. Supplements are only needed if you have a demonstrable deficiency. For most people, multivitamins and other supplements are a waste of money, and they might even be harmful. But hey, apples are in season right now, and spinach can be kind of tasty if you prepare it properly.
Steven Salzberg, Contributor