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Are Vitamins Helpful or Harmful? Even the Experts Can’t Agree!

It’s no wonder Americans feel as if they are on a roller coaster. A week ago the headlines quoted an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine: “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”  The doctors cautioned their colleagues not to recommend vitamin supplements to patients for preventing chronic conditions such as heart disease or dementia.

This week the headlines did an about face. Now we are told that vitamin E helps Alzheimer’s patients preserve functionality better than placebo or even a pricey prescription medicine. The research, published in JAMA (Jan. 1, 2014) actually showed that the expensive Alzheimer’s drug memantine (brand name Namenda can cost over $300/month) was ineffective for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease compared to placebo. We expect many doctors were surprised to read that 2000 IU of vitamin E daily “was effective in slowing the functional decline of mild to moderate AD [Alzheimer’s disease] and was also effective in reducing caregiver time in assisting patients.”

Why Is There a Double Standard?

We’re not quite sure why so many physicians seem to gloat when a study shows that a particular vitamin is no more effective than placebo to prevent a problem like heart disease and then ignore studies that indicate a benefit. Oddly, when an expensive medication turns out to be no more effective than placebo, there is rarely a big change in prescribing patterns.

Although they were summarizing two research articles published in the same issue of the journal, the editorial writers for the Annals of Internal Medicine selected these studies carefully. They overlooked a recent article demonstrating that men (male physicians) taking a multivitamin supplement reduced their risk of cancer by a small (but statistically significant) margin. The same study volunteers were less likely to develop cataracts if they took a multivitamin rather than a placebo pill, but the editorial makes no mention of that finding, either.

We also find it fascinating that the December editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine stating that vitamins are worthless warned that vitamin E is harmful and should be avoided. The study in this week’s JAMA reported no adverse effects from vitamin E. If anything, the veterans who participated in the study had a reduced risk of dying if they were taking vitamin E, whereas the subjects  taking Namenda were seemingly at an increased risk of dying.

The authors of the new research noted: “Because vitamin E is inexpensive, it is likely these benefits are cost-effective as alpha tocopherol [vitamin E] improves functional outcomes and decreases caregiver burden.”

The Bottom Line

We would never suggest that vitamins are a replacement for nutritious food. We are big fans of farm to table eating. We love to shop at our local farmers market and participate in a CSA (community supported agriculture or community shared agriculture). In these local organizations, customers pay at the start of the season to help the farmer meet the capital expenses of putting in crops. The consumer’s reward is a steady share of the harvest.

We also believe that vitamins can play a vital role in good health. That is especially true for people who have to take medications that may deplete their bodies of essential nutrients. Here is a free Guide to Drug and Nutrient Interactions that will give you a sense of the problem.

We also think that many people are low in magnesium and vitamin D and that even a healthy diet may not be adequate in these nutrients. A glass of orange juice has some vitamin C but is quickly converted into glucose, so it may not be the best way to get your ascorbic acid, another vitamin that might be in short supply for some people.

What is your opinion about the value of vitamin and mineral supplements? We would love to see your comment below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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