A Vitamin A Day…?
Posted On Apr 25, 2012
Does taking a daily vitamin supplement help keep the doctor away? Or can taking vitamins actually be bad for you? The answer is both.
The idea that taking vitamins is good for you is about as fundamental to the American way of life as apple pie and ice cream. Predictably, then, it sent shock waves through the health industry last fall when a couple of major studies showed that vitamin supplements might be doing more harm than good.
Since then, the debate has raged among doctors, nutritionists, and the $28 billion supplement industry. In the end, most experts still believe that daily vitamin supplements remain an important part of a good overall health regimen—but only if you practice the basic do’s and don’ts.
“Making a blanket statement about whether vitamins are good or bad is overly simplistic at best and irresponsible at worst,” says James B. LaValle, R.Ph., C.C.N., a nationally recognized clinical pharmacist, board-certified clinical nutritionist and founder of the LaValle Metabolic Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. While there are some studies that question the effectiveness of vitamins, “Do I believe that people should consider taking vitamins and minerals?” asks LaValle. “Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind. There are way more studies that show that vitamins have benefits.”
Frederick Vagnini, MD, medical director of the Heart, Diabetes & Weight Loss Centers of New York, considers the studies showing negative effects from vitamins to be flawed, not taking into account the overall diet of the subjects.
“Meanwhile there are a multitude of studies on the effects of multivitamins for high blood pressure, fatigue, neuro-cognitive impairment, and so forth,” says Dr. Vagnini—including a recent study presented by the American Heart Association that shows supplements effectively helped prevent heart disease. Dr. Vagnini also points to the highly successful use of vitamins and supplements to lower cholesterol, reduce oxidative stress, reduce inflammation and in general “to slow down the aging process.” The reason he considers vitamins necessary: The soil our food grows in has been depleted of nutrients.
Supplement, Not Replace
According to Paulette Lambert, R.D., C.D.E., director of nutrition at the California Health and Longevity Institute, adults should take multivitamins that meet the recommended daily allowance, or RDA, and no more. Like many things in life, she says, vitamins are good for you in moderation but not in excess. That means no mega doses, unless you’re found to be very low in a specific vitamin or mineral. The concern, she says, is that taking too much of certain vitamins results in those vitamins becoming pro-oxidants and promoting cancer cell growth.
Instead, Lambert suggests that vitamin pills are best used as a supplement rather than a replacement for a healthy diet and lifestyle. “People correlate taking a multivitamin as a guarantee of good health, but it’s not, because people who take them often take liberty with eating poorly,” Lambert says.
According to Lambert, a good rule for eating healthy—and getting enough nutrients from real food—is to consume seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. When you do that, you get lots of minerals, vitamins and fiber. Nonetheless, she advocates taking daily vitamins. “The average American most probably needs a good multivitamin. A good multivitamin is in the range of the RDA and no more,” she says.
Filling Your Dietary Needs
Despite eating a healthy diet, many people fall short for some essential nutrients. This may be because certain foods are absent from their diets, or because today’s crops, as Dr. Vagnini suggests, are farmed in a way that degrades key micronutrients, or because they are losing vitamins thanks to certain medications or bad lifestyle habits.
“My opinion is that multivitamins are needed for people who have a poor diet and do not eat a balanced diet,” says Sahar Swidan, Pharm.D, a clinical associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Michigan and CEO of The Pharmacy in Ypsilanti, Mich. “If they require a multivitamin, it should be well balanced with all the nutrients needed.”
For such people, a multivitamin can cover the bases. Magnesium, for instance, is an essential mineral commonly found in most multivitamins. “The American public in general is getting below the RDA for magnesium,” LaValle says. “It’s great to say to people, ‘Just get it in your diet,’ but that means that people would have to start eating more responsibly”—which is not always a given.
Medications, lifestyle and environment can also lead to greater needs for supplementation. Commonly prescribed acid-blocking drugs, for example, have been shown to deplete the body of vitamin D and calcium. Studies also show that people who exercise vigorously have a higher risk for vitamin and mineral depletion than couch potatoes.
A True (RDA) Recommended Daily Allowance?
Multivitamins don’t always contain high enough levels of minerals, for example. “You can’t put a high level of calcium in a woman’s tablet because it would be physically too big,” Lambert says. “Postmenopausal women should be having 1,200 mg of calcium [so, they should consider taking a calcium supplement].”
Another example is vitamin D, which is connected with cardiovascular and bone health, as well as a healthy immune system. Not all multivitamins have the new recommended levels, which the RDA has more than doubled from 400 IU to 1,000 IU. “Because we’re wearing sunscreen, we’re not getting adequate vitamin D. And it’s hard to get it in the American diet,” Lambert says.
One thing you won’t see in most multivitamins is omega-3 fatty acid, an essential nutrient for cardiovascular, heart and brain health that’s found naturally in fish oil. Ask almost any doctor and omega-3 fatty acid tops their list of essential supplements. Lambert recommends a daily dose of 1,000 mg of omega-3, made up of a balance of DHA and EPA (two types of omega-3 fatty acids); many doctors recommend two or three times that daily dosage.
“Omega-3 fatty acids have undergone numerous studies, including one by the AHA, showing that they help prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes,” says Vagnini, a board certified cardiologist and author of The Heart Surgeon’s Secret to a Healthy Heart. “We take omega-3 because it acts as an anti-inflammatory.”
According to Dr. LaValle, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another supplement that is hard to get naturally and usually absent from multivitamins. “The research is becoming very compelling that, as we age, our CoQ10 levels drop, and, if those levels drop, our cells don’t have the energy that they should have. That accelerates the aging process,” he says.
However you choose to supplement, don’t forget the basics: keep it moderate. Among the more disturbing findings in the recent research is that high levels of vitamin C may not be beneficial to health; in fact it might help protect certain cancer cells. Another finding is that high levels of vitamin E could increase the risk of both heart disease and prostate cancer.
The answer is to get as much as you can from healthy eating. “Good nutrition is the foundation of health,” says Lambert. “No matter how many vitamins you take or how much you workout, if your nutrition is poor, it’s going to take its toll.”
By: Lisette Hilton