If you take dietary supplements you are not alone. As of 2006 over half of Americans did. The list is long and includes vitamins, minerals, herbs, anti-oxidants, fish oil, and more.
That’s because supplementing your diet with needed substances your diet might be missing is a good idea, right?
That’s true if you have a known vitamin deficiency. For example, anemia can be caused by a B12 deficiency. It’s important to treat that particular issue with B12, often in the form of injections.
Or if you’re a pirate and getting a little scurvy, you might want to pop a couple of Vitamin C tablets.
Otherwise, evidence has accumulated telling us healthy, well-nourished adults don't need supplements.
Remember when all women needed to take calcium supplements? Now there is some concern, though we don’t know for sure, that calcium supplementation may increase the risk of heart disease.
Fish oil prevents cardiovascular disease? Not so much.
It’s a common pattern, and this editorial about vitamin D from the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine identifies it perfectly:
“The vitamin D story seems to be following the familiar pattern observed with antioxidant vitamins. Enthusiasm for the health benefits of vitamin supplements is coupled with the belief that “vitamins” are inherently safe and reinforced by observational studies showing, essentially, that healthy people have higher vitamin levels. Then RCTs and meta-analyses proved that the supplements in fact increase mortality (β-carotene, vitamin E), or have no health benefits (vitamin A, vitamin C).”
But aren’t antioxidants different? Reactive oxygen species (ROS), aka free radicals, are the natural results of our metabolism. They bounce around our bodies causing all kinds of havoc. They damage tissues, age us, and make us less beautiful. We all hate the ROS.
To fight them, we look for foods high in antioxidants. Sometimes, for good measure, we take antioxidants as supplements. We want to catch any ROS’s that our dietary antioxidants don’t snag.
But. A balance between oxidation and antioxidation is critical to our health. We call it Redox balance. And when it gets out of balance – in either direction – problems occur.
A recent study of melanoma tumors in mice showed that these solid tumors shed cells into the bloodstream. Fortunately those cells aren’t that good at establishing themselves elsewhere to create metastatic tumors. That’s because ROS’s help kill those stray cancer cells.
So guess what happened to the mice given antioxidant supplementation? They got more metastatic tumors. Bottom line: when we go too far with the antioxidants, we interfere with a critical biological process.
On top of the healthy/unhealthy concern, you can't count on supplement safety. The short version is that the supplement industry is poorly regulated. Ingredients and dosages are often incorrect on the labels. Check out the PBS Frontline special on supplement safety if you want to really dig into the nitty-gritty of the subject.
When we take a substance normally found as part of whole food, isolate it, and take it in large doses, it typically doesn’t work out well. We are built to eat food and allow our complicated digestive process to break it down into a balanced dose of nutrients our body can use for energy and metabolism. More simply put, we need to eat a well-balanced diet of whole foods and then forget about it.
At best we are wasting our money (over $30 billion per year) on supplements. At worst we are creating new health problems for ourselves with them. So on your next trip to the grocery store, avoid the supplement aisle and spend that money elsewhere. Green leafy vegetables, some colorful berries, and maybe some pricey grass-fed cream for your coffee are good choices. Your money will go further, and it will taste a lot better than a potentially dangerous pill.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.