Vitamins are organic substances essential for numerous metabolic functions in our body, required in small quantities. Ideally, one should obtain vitamins and minerals through a diverse diet of unprocessed foods.
Using a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement generally poses minimal health risks and could be beneficial for someone with a limited and unvaried diet. However, substituting these supplements for a nutritious diet is not advisable.
It’s common to misuse vitamin and mineral supplements, often consumed without expert guidance. They are sometimes used to treat common illnesses like colds or to mitigate issues arising from lifestyle factors, such as stress.
Contrary to widespread belief, vitamins are not medicines or magical remedies. They are vital organic components that aid in metabolism. High doses of supplements should only be consumed if prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Vitamins and minerals are obtained from food
Studies suggest that vitamins derived from food sources are generally more effective than those found in pills. Although the vitamins in supplements are chemically identical to natural vitamins, they don’t seem to function as efficiently.
A notable exception is folate. The body absorbs the synthetic version found in supplements or fortified foods more effectively than folate from natural food sources.
Food offers a complex blend of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (compounds found in plants), which all interact synergistically. In contrast, supplements usually contain isolated nutrients. Research indicates that the impact of a dietary component on the body may differ when it’s consumed in isolation as a supplement. This difference may be due to the interaction of the vitamins and minerals with other elements in the food, beyond the primary active ingredient.
Phytochemicals, significant for their role in reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, are another crucial component found in food. These and other beneficial elements present in food are not replicated in supplements. Therefore, relying on vitamin and mineral supplements cannot replace the health benefits of consuming a balanced, nutritious diet.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Our bodies require only small amounts of vitamins and minerals daily, which are typically obtained through a varied diet. However, certain groups may need supplements to address deficiencies, including:
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- People who excessively smoke, consume alcohol, or use illegal drugs
- Those following crash diets or very restrictive diets
- Older adults, particularly if disabled or chronically ill
- Some vegetarians and vegans
- Women with heavy menstrual cycles
- Individuals with food allergies
- People with absorption disorders (like diarrhea, coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis, or pancreatitis).
Folate is critical for pregnant women or those planning pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in babies, such as spina bifida. This B-group vitamin is also added to some fortified foods, including certain breads and breakfast cereals, to enhance nutritional content.
Vegans, especially when pregnant, may need vitamin B12 supplements due to dietary restrictions.
Vitamin pills are not miracle cures
Despite common beliefs, high doses of vitamins are not a panacea. For example, vitamin C is often touted as a cold remedy, and vitamin E is promoted as an antioxidant for heart disease prevention. However, extensive research has not confirmed these claims. In fact, mega-doses of supplements have shown little benefit and may even be harmful when used to prevent or cure major chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Vitamin supplements are often thought to be a remedy for stress, but experiencing stress doesn’t necessarily mean you have a vitamin deficiency, and taking a supplement isn’t a guaranteed way to alleviate stress.
Taking a pill also isn’t a surefire cure for constant tiredness. Factors like stress, depression, lack of sleep, or other issues are more likely causes than a vitamin deficiency. If you frequently feel this way, it’s best to consult a doctor.
Regarding anti-aging, Vitamin E is sometimes touted as a youth-preserving vitamin. However, there’s no proof that high doses of any vitamin can slow down or reverse aging. Nor can they revive a diminished sex drive or treat infertility.
Claims about vitamins treating various cancers are also prevalent. For instance, high doses of Vitamin A (beta-carotene) don’t cure cancer and can be harmful, especially in pill form. Studies have linked it to an increased risk of certain cancers in specific groups, like smokers. Similarly, while Vitamin E might have a minor role in preventing some cancers, it’s also suggested it could hasten other types. However, these claims haven’t been conclusively proven or refuted. High doses of antioxidants might not aid conventional cancer treatments and could even protect cancer cells from these treatments. Research doesn’t support the idea that high-dose supplements of vitamins E or C or selenium reduce the risk of prostate, breast, and lung cancer.
Vitamins and minerals taken as supplements can introduce levels of nutrients that can’t be achieved by eating even the healthiest diet. They often come in large doses that lack the accompanying substances found in food. For instance, provitamin A (beta-carotene) in food is part of a family of hundreds of carotenoids.
Simply taking a vitamin pill isn’t a quick solution for feeling tired or low in energy. The protective benefits come from a combination of compounds in foods, many of which we might not fully understand yet. Isolating one of these compounds and consuming it out of context may not be as effective and can sometimes be harmful.
Vitamin and mineral supplements can also interfere with prescribed medications and medical treatments. For example, taking 100 times the recommended dietary intake can hinder the effectiveness of anticonvulsant drugs used in epilepsy.
Taking higher than recommended doses of some vitamins can be harmful. Fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K can be toxic in high doses. Water-soluble vitamins, such as B6, can also become toxic at high levels. Large amounts of folate can mask vitamin B12 deficiencies, high levels of B6 have been linked to nerve damage, and excessive vitamin C can cause diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, fatigue, kidney stones, and interfere with iron metabolism. It can also provide false results in medical tests. High doses of vitamin A may cause birth defects and other health issues, and high-dose vitamin E supplements have been associated with increased mortality.
Too much of certain minerals can also be harmful. For instance, at just five times the recommended dose, zinc, iron, chromium, and selenium can reach toxic levels. Excessive fluoride can damage teeth, too much fish oil can reduce blood clotting, and iron toxicity can lead to gastrointestinal issues, coma, and even death.
For most healthy adults, if supplements are used, they should be taken at levels close to the recommended daily intake, unless advised otherwise by a medical professional.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are usually a short-term solution. Prolonged use of high-dose supplements can lead to toxicity symptoms.
If you suspect a deficiency, consider altering your diet and lifestyle instead of relying on supplements. Consult a doctor or dietitian for guidance.
Seek professional advice when taking vitamin and mineral supplements
It’s important to seek professional advice when taking vitamin and mineral supplements as they can interact with prescription medications and medical treatments. If advised to take supplements, coordinate with a dietitian and your doctor for personalized dietary advice.
If you do need supplements, it’s generally better to take multivitamins at the recommended dietary level, rather than single nutrient supplements or high-dose multivitamins.
Always inform healthcare professionals about any complementary medicines, including vitamin and mineral supplements, that you’re taking