A year ago many health professionals were gleeful that vitamin supplements had finally been proven useless and maybe even dangerous. That’s because of the Iowa Women’s Health Study (Archives of Internal Medicine, Oct 10, 2011).
Headlines declared, “Are Supplements Killing You?” The simplistic conclusion was that women taking multivitamins were slightly more likely to die early.
In actuality, the women who reported taking multivitamins had better survival rates, but they also had healthier lifestyles than their non-vitamin taking peers. The investigators made statistical adjustments for their better diets and exercise habits and concluded that multivitamins didn’t prolong their lives and may actually have slightly increased their risk of dying early.
Now, a study in men contradicts the belief that vitamin supplements have no value. Unlike the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which left it up to the women themselves whether or not to take vitamins and which ones to take, the Physicians’ Health Study II randomly assigned its participants to take a Centrum Silver or a look-alike placebo daily (JAMA, online Oct. 17, 2012). This type of randomized controlled trial offers the highest quality of scientific evidence.
The researchers recruited more than 14,000 doctors for their study, which started in 1997. The men were at least 50 years old at that time. By 2011, when the study ended, 2669 of the men had been diagnosed with cancer. Those taking the multivitamin were 8 percent less likely to have come down with cancer, a small but statistically significant effect.
Headlines now read, “Multivitamin Use Linked to Lowered Cancer Risk” (New York Times, Oct 17, 2012). Is it any wonder that readers feel frustrated by flip-flops in health advice?
No one is suggesting that popping vitamin pills is a good substitute for a diet rich in vegetables and fruits. But the vitamin naysayers are overlooking two factors.
First, they assume that Americans all eat a well-balanced diet. While many people strive to do so, our hurried lifestyle often leads to people grabbing fast food on the run. Teenagers in particular may eat a lot of high-carb foods (French fries, chips, bread and pizza) that don’t necessarily contain a lot of nutrients.
Second, the medications people take can interfere with the balance of vitamins and minerals. Acid-suppressing drugs like esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec) often interfere with the absorption of vitamin B12 as well as many minerals if they are taken long term. The diabetes drug metformin also depletes the body of this vitamin.
Many blood pressure pills contain diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ). This compound can lead to a loss of potassium, magnesium, zinc and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Statin-type drugs (atorvastatin, simvastatin, etc) also deplete the body of CoQ10, which is an essential nutrient for energy production inside cells.
You can learn more about the importance of medications in affecting nutritional status in our free Guide to Drug & Nutrient Interactions. You’ll find it online at PeoplesPharmacy.com. That’s also where you will find our free hour-long radio show on The Great Vitamin Debate (#876).
The vitamin controversy will probably continue. In the meantime, a multivitamin supplement is an inexpensive way to make sure you are getting elusive nutrients.