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What the Dietary Supplement Industry Doesn't Want You to Know

Taking vitamins may actually do you more harm than good.
 
 
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The nutritional supplement industry is big. Real big. Like $32 billion a year big, according to Forbes Magazine. And that amount, says Forbes, is expected to double by 2021. That's a lot of vitamins.  In fact, almost half of the U.S. population takes vitamins. Must be good for what ails you, right? Well, maybe not. Those billions of dollars go very far to enrich the supplement industry, but according to numerous scientific studies, virtually nowhere to enrich your health.  In fact, because your body excretes out many of the vitamins it can’t use, you might say you are literally flushing that money right down the toilet.

A recent study by researchers at Oxford University, and reported in the medical journal The Lancet, tells us that vitamin supplements offer no protection against cancer, stroke, heart disease, indeed ANY disease outside of maybe beri beri and scurvy (so maybe good for 15th century explorers.)  In a controlled study of 20,000 people, over five years, scientists found that those taking vitamins were just as likely to die from any cause as those taking dummy pills.  It also found no protection against heart attack, stroke, cancer, bone disease, brain decline, or eye disease.  Lung diseases such as asthma were as prevalent among vitamin takers as dummy pill takers.  Help with cataracts?  Nope.  Osteoporosis?  Nuh uh.  Professor Rory Collins, lead researcher on the study noted, “'We continued the treatment for five years and we saw absolutely no effect on vascular disease or any cancers.”

David Agus, a doctor and author of The End of Illness summed up a whole bunch of science on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”: “There have been 50 large-scale studies on supplements,” he said, “and not one has shown a benefit in heart disease or cancer. I don’t get it. Why are we taking these?”

Longstanding and understandable distrust of the pharmaceutical industry may partially answer that question.  Americans suspect that money, not concern for health, drives that industry, and to some extent, they are correct.  But it’s possible that Big Vita may be just as profit driven as Big Pharma, Lauren Steicher, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told US News and World Report.

And more ominously, while big drug companies are regulated and overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, consumers have no such protection from the supplement industry, which was exempted from oversight with the 1994 enactment of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.  That act basically allowed the industry to police itself, which is seldom a good idea. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that this law is largely unenforced. "Does the FDA make mistakes?” Dr. Steicher said.  “Yes. But they're the only protection we've got to make sure greed doesn't get in the way of science."  The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research and publishing entity, noted that of 30,000 products rated by them, under one percent were rated highly for safety, effectiveness, and quality.  That’s 300 products out of 30,000.

But beyond just being a waste of money, there is the distinct possibility that vitamins can actually do some harm, if taken in sufficient quantity. “As Americans, we think more is better, but that’s not the case with vitamins,” Dee Sandquist, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told US News and World Report.  In other words, while a little vitamin consumption won’t hurt anything but your wallet, a lot of it can do more.  Much more.

The dangers of the ABCs (the Ds, Es, and Ks too).

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is the stuff in carrots, sweet potatoes, and many other fruits and veggies and in animal products.  Vitamin A aids in eye health, reproductive functions, bone health, and your immune system function.  While supplemental A is advisable for people who are ill with conditions that prevent fat absorption (Crohn’s Disease, celiac disease, pancreatic disease), the vast majority of people do not have Vitamin A deficiencies.  And because A is a fat soluble vitamin, whatever the body does not need, it stores in the liver; if you take A and don’t need it, that’s where is goes.  This Vitamin A buildup in the liver can lead to serious liver toxicity problems, as well as birth defects and nervous system disorders.

At one time, it was thought that a form of Vitamin A, beta carotene, was a factor in preventing cancer.  While that may be true in its natural form (like in a carrot), not so in supplement form.  In fact, just the opposite.  In an important study, the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study conducted by the National Cancer Institute, of male smokers, those taking beta carotene supplements were 18% more likely to develop lung cancer, and 8% more likely to die, than those who did not take the supplement.  “A lot of people don’t know it can be dangerous,” says Gerard Mullin, director of integrative gastrointestinal nutrition services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health. “They think it fights infections."

A little detour into history:  In 1912, Douglas Mawson and a team of explorers were on an Antarctic expedition when they encountered severe weather problems. They were forced to eat their sled dogs to survive. Unaware that the livers of these dogs contained high amounts of Vitamin A, all fell ill.  Mawson survived, while his colleagues died of Vitamin A toxicity. 

Vitamin B Complex

In general, the B vitamins are thought to aid in various aspects of cell metabolism, converting food into energy.  However, the supplement industry pushes the idea that B vitamins can, among other things, help treat acne, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and pre-menstrual syndrome.  Also, don’t forget the improved athletic performance, outdoor sports and bedroom sports (yes, they say it will improve orgasms).  Scientific evidence for these claims are wanting, to say the least.  If you have a true deficiency, which only a small minority of Americans could claim, B vitamins have some benefit.  For the rest of us, well, not so much.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

Vitamin B3 plays an important role in the body’s energy metabolism. In supplemental form, however, doses can be as much as six times more than the body needs. While B vitamins are water soluble, and the body will excrete whatever it does not need, damage from overdose can still occur. 100 mg capsules (about 6 times more than your body needs) can cause nausea, vomiting, flushing, burning, itching and tingling. Higher doses can make the risk greater for stomach ulcers, gout, and vision and liver problems.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 helps in energy metabolism, brain development in infants, and immune function, but if you take more than your body needs, you could risk vomiting, headache, tingling, and decreased appetite.  The National Institute for Health reports that overdosing B6 can lead to possible nerve and brain damage.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, an antioxidant that is important in facilitating certain enzymatic reactions in the body, also aids in iron absorption and collagen production (which helps wounds heal).  We can thank Dr. Linus Pauling for our obsession with the miracle of Vitamin C.  Dr. Pauling was a Nobel winner who, somewhat out of his field of academic expertise (he was a chemist), published a book in 1970 extolling the virtues of C in curing the common cold.  Later, he further pushed C as a cure for cancer.  Linus should have stuck to things he could win Nobel prizes for.  (Ironically, given his belief in Vitamin C, he died of cancer in 1994.  Although, to be fair, he was 93 years old.)  Despite numerous studies, Vitamin C’s abilities to combat colds and other diseases have never been established, and in 2005, a definitive report stated, “the lack of effect … throws doubt on the utility of this wide practice.” 

Even alternative medicine guru Andrew Weil admits that C has been oversold. Still, Linus Pauling’s ghost persists, as orange gummy candies and Vitamin C powder packets proliferate on store shelves, hailing C’s power to cure disease.  Like the B vitamins, C is water soluble, and will be flushed from your body, but too much of it will cause diarrhea, cramps, and nausea.  Worse, says Gerard Mullin, director of integrative gastrointestinal nutrition services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health, “in high-enough doses, vitamin C can cause kidney stones.” Any amount larger than 500 milligrams per day can be enough to cause a problem, he says (75 to 100 milligrams is about the most your body can handle before excreting the rest).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, as we all learned growing up, helps maintain strong bones and teeth by aiding the body in absorbing calcium.  With the modern awareness of osteoporosis (“Got Milk?”), it is no surprise that D has become a go-to vitamin. The primary source for Vitamin D is not from anything you eat, however.  D is a vitamin the body itself can generate from sunlight. A day at the beach (with sunscreen of course) should do you. Popping Vitamin D tabs offer no additional benefit say researchers at Johns Hopkins University, as reported in the American Journal of Medicine. It may, in fact, be harmful.

The leader of the study, Muhammad Amer notes, "Healthy people have been popping these pills, but they should not continue taking vitaminD supplements unchecked. At a certain point, more vitamin D no longer confers any survival benefit, so taking these expensive supplements is at best a waste of money."  Excessive Vitamin D has been associated with hardening of blood vessels and other cardiovascular problems. Philippe Autier, a Belgian epidemiologist at the International Prevention Research Institute conducted a large study, which concluded that D supplements have no effect on a wide range of diseases. 

Vitamin E

Vitamin E has antioxidant properties in the body, helping protect from cell damage, as well as aiding in immune function.  It was considered, at one time, to be a promising cancer preventative.  The idea was that oxidation in the body created rogue molecules which caused havoc in the body leading to cancer, and by getting rid of these rogues (commonly called free radicals), we could stop tumors from forming in the first place.  The National Cancer Institute was hopeful that a study would bear that out.  Nope.  A 2001 study testing whether E could prevent prostate cancer actually found that by taking E you were 17% more likely to get cancer. Then an even larger study was done at Johns Hopkins University.  Study leaders Edgar Miller and Lawrence Appel found again, that your risk of death was increased, not decreased, by Vitamin E supplements.

Vitamin K

The German word for blood clotting is koagulation, from which we get the K in Vitamin K.  While an essential contributor to the blood’s ability to clot, Vitamin K has also been hailed as an anti-cancer agent by supplement fans. Not so, says the American Cancer Society: “Available scientific evidence does not support the use of vitamin K supplements for cancer treatment or prevention.”  According to Dr. Elson Haas, in his book Staying Healthy With Nutrition, while rarely toxic in its natural form, which the body excretes when it has had its fill, Vitamin K can reach dangerous levels when taken in the synthetic form found in vitamin supplements.  One possible side effect from K overdose is red blood cell destruction, leading to anemia.  Other side effects attributed to K toxicity include tightness in the chest, sweating, and flushing.

You have undoubtedly heard it over and over, but it bears repeating: get your vitamins from real food. There are untold other substances in real food that work with vitamins to supply your body with the nutrition it needs.  Evolution has provided us with the marvelous ability to synthesize that food into the things we need to be healthy and energetic.

As Eliseo Guallar, Lawrence Appel, and Edgar Miller wrote in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, “We believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful… These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention.  Enough is enough.”

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and nutrition. He works at Scholastic Inc. in the classroom magazine division on Superscience and Science World.