The People's Perspective on Medicine

Should You Be Taking Vitamin Supplements?

Many medications can interfere with good nutrition. If you are taking pills for certain conditions, perhaps you should be taking vitamin supplements.
Pills and multivitamins on a dark background closeup

There is growing consensus among health professionals that most people should not be taking vitamin supplements. Their view is that this is a waste of money that will do no more than lead to expensive urine.

Just Eat a Well-Balanced Diet:

The standard advice is to eat a well-balanced diet. No one can argue with that sentiment, but what does it mean? A well-balanced diet is rarely defined beyond a vague idea of eating your vegetables. The USDA suggests that people should eat between five and nine servings of vegetables and fruits daily. For a person who consumes 2,000 calories a day, that works out to around two and a half cups of veggies and two cups of fruit a day. In reality, not many Americans actually manage that many servings of produce.

As a result, many people fall short on the vitamins and minerals they need for good health. This is especially true for people who take medications on a regular basis. The consequence is that many should be taking vitamin supplements, or possibly minerals.

What Minerals Might You Need?

Magnesium is an essential mineral that is frequently low in American diets. The best sources are green leafy vegetables, nuts, fruits such as figs or raspberries and various types of beans.

Do Medications Affect Magnesium Levels?

Even people who do eat fruits and vegetables could still find themselves in trouble if they must take certain pills for heartburn or high blood pressure, for example. Acid-suppressing drugs like esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec) limit magnesium absorption. ACE inhibitors such as enalapril or lisinopril deplete magnesium and zinc. So do thiazide diuretics like hydrochloriothiazide (HCTZ).

Low magnesium levels have been linked to depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and arrhythmias. Symptoms include insulin resistance, severe menstrual cramps, leg cramps, fatigue and migraine headaches.

Think About Zinc:

A word about zinc: most people don’t think about it very much. Low levels can lead to changes in the senses of taste and smell, slower wound healing, diarrhea and hair loss.

Who Should Be Taking Vitamin Supplements with Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is another critical nutrient that may be affected by medication. This vitamin is found in meat, fish, poultry, dairy products and eggs, so people following vegetarian and vegan diets may come up short. The acid-suppressing medications mentioned above can also interfere with vitamin B12 absorption. That’s because the stomach needs acid to absorb vitamin B12 adequately. Older people, whose stomach acid production often drops dramatically, are at risk of vitamin B12 insufficiency.

In addition, the diabetes drug metformin can also lead to inadequate vitamin B12. More than 80 million prescriptions for metformin are dispensed annually. That doesn’t include millions more for combination diabetes drugs like Janumet that include metformin.

Certain antibiotics such as doxycycline, ciprofloxacin and co-trimoxazole can also affect vitamin B12 absorption.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to serious complications such as neuropathy, which can cause burning, tingling and numbness. Low levels can also contribute to cognitive impairment and mood disorders. People who must take such medicines should ask their doctors to monitor their vitamin B12 levels periodically.

More Research on the Benefits of Taking Vitamin Supplements:

There are studies going back several years demonstrating that vitamin supplements can be helpful in certain situations that may be relevant for you. We got this question from a reader in 2014:

Q. Is it true that taking vitamins is a waste of money since they do not improve our health?

A. An editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine (Dec. 17, 2013) titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements” makes this argument. We don’t entirely agree, however.

Some studies have shown that certain vitamins can improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of cancer or lower the chance of getting cataracts (JAMA, Jan. 1, 2014 & Nov. 14, 2012; Ophthalmology, Feb. 2014).

Learn More:

You can learn more about the pros and cons of nutritional supplements and the interactions of drugs and nutrients from Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More. The author is Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, one of the country’s leading experts on dietary supplement and integrative medicine. It is now available in paperback only from

Rate this article
4.4- 22 ratings
About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More

Fortify Your Life gives you the evidence-based information you need to decide whether you need a supplement and which format and dose would be best.

Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.

Showing 8 comments
Add your comment

I am 73 and take no pills of any sort. I think my health has more to do with my genes than anything else. Some people do well with supplements, and others simply pee them out. I have always had the attitude that if you leave your body alone, it will attempt to heal itself. I know this is not true for others, but it’s true for me and my husband.

one important point I left out is that vitamins are not a substitute for food.

I take supplements and have seen a drastic change in my health for the better due to taking them. In fact, I recently tried eliminating SAMe from my regimen for two days and noticed it immediately.

However, if your digestive system is having absorption problems, you truly aren’t going to be able to absorb any supplements. In order to fix that issue for myself, I used fulvic-humic minerals, and after that I noticed the effects of supplements; they actually did what they purported to do, as listed on the container.

I also had to clean up my diet, staying away from chemical and pesticide laden foods, excess sugar, and red meat entirely. I also eliminated my contact with fluoride, chloride and bromide, all of which hinder absorption and metabolism of iodine, which is an essential mineral for detoxification at the cellular level.

unless you have a good knowledge of whatv to eat and youeat fully well balanced meals daily-most of us in this hurry scurry times do need supplements–there have been many studies on vitamin deficencies and the harms they cause

I am 70 and know no one that eats the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. If you can afford a personal home chef then you likely do not need a vitamin. And think of the masses that eat fast good. Until science can prove vitamin suppliments are harmful, I’m going to to take them.

I’m a 60 year old woman with some health issues.
I decided recently to start taking a multivitamin on a hunch it would help improve the dark discolorations on my skin. After a few weeks I noticed a considerable improvement in my skin. I believe I was vitamin deficient. I’m so happy with the results. I will continue to take vitamins because I have seen for myself that vitamins do work!!

I have been taking a multivitamin for years and now take ones for over age 50. As long as they cannot hurt, I decided to keep on taking them.

It was back in the early 1970s when a pharmacist first told me, “As long as you eat a balanced diet, you don’t need to take supplements; you’ll just pee them out.” It took me many years to understand that, because people who take supplements are not depending on prescription drugs to combat their health problems. They are reducing the financial wealth of those involved in the pharmaceutical industry, including pharmacists as well as medical doctors and hospital staff. Now when I hear that old saw about urinating them out, I reply, “And at 71 years old, I am still alive to do so!”

* Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^