We live in an era where the idea of hacking our health is all the rage. Any time there’s a news story about a potential way of prolonging your life or promoting better health through simple tricks, you’d better believe it’s going to draw a lot of attention.
And everyone today knows the importance of vitamins to our body’s functioning and health. If you get all the vitamins you need, you’re practically guaranteed to run at full capacity.
So, if there was a way of getting all your vitamins for each day in one place as a sort of insurance policy for better health, you’d be crazy not to do it, right?
That’s what multivitamins and other vitamin supplements represent to the millions of Americans who take them every day. That’s what makes dietary supplements an incredible $19 billion-a-year industry.
What Are Multivitamins?
Multivitamins combine many different vitamins normally found in foods or other natural sources into pill form. They may also be used to provide those essential vitamins that aren’t received through regular dieting.
Included in your average multivitamin are, well, multiple vitamins and minerals.
One of the most popular brands, Centrum, has a few different options you can choose from to better meet your nutritional needs. Some of what’s inside each pill includes:
- vitamins C, D, E, K, B6, B12, and A
- lutein and zeaxanthin
- omega-3 fatty acids
- folic acid
That’s…a lot of nutrients. And different people may have different needs for each of these.
If you have a vitamin deficiency caused by an illness, pregnancy, poor nutrition, gastrointestinal issues, or other conditions, you may take a multivitamin to make up for it.
Nearly 40 percent of adults take a multivitamin on a regular basis. They come in regular tablets that can be swallowed or chewed, capsules, or as an oral liquid. They’re typically taken once a day.
Where it starts to get a little murkier is when you start questioning how effective taking multivitamins can be.
Some doctors will wholeheartedly agree that you should be taking a multivitamin every day, some may disagree and say you should take specific supplements to provide you with stronger doses of what you need, and others may leave it up to the patient entirely.
So what can you gain from taking a multivitamin?
The Case for Multivitamins
If you aren’t receiving adequate nutrition, you can suffer some pretty serious health effects.
A study at the University of California, Berkeley, found that deficiencies in many micronutrients could lead to damage to the DNA itself, which could lead to accelerated aging and higher risks of chronic diseases.
If you receive too little vitamin C, you could suffer from scurvy. Too little vitamin D can lead to rickets. Not enough vitamin B1 can cause beriberi.
In a perfect world, everyone would be eating nothing but the most nutrient-dense foods available. Every plate would be loaded with healthy vegetables and fruits, and there would be no processed food item in sight.
But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Our diets tend to be pretty awful, even for those of us who style ourselves as health-conscious.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that Americans eat only around one fruit and at most two vegetables on a typical day. At that rate, it’s obvious why so few people meet their recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals.
Meir Stampfer, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, “When we compare recommendations for vitamin and mineral intakes to actual consumption, many Americans do not even come close to getting what they need for several nutrients.”
Some of these include, but aren’t limited to:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
When you aren’t receiving the right nutrition over time, it can become problematic. Especially if you’re pregnant, a strict vegetarian or vegan, or elderly. You could suffer from anemia, birth defects, nerve damage or faulty cognition.
And it’s okay to admit that we all slip up now and then. Unless you’re in the middle of an intense calorie counting and exercise phase, you’re more than likely going to make the mistake of indulging here and there in some unsavory food choices.
That’s where the idea of a multivitamin makes the biggest impact. So, if you are going to take one for additional nutrition supplementation, what should you know in advance?
What You Should Know About Multivitamins
While you may already be a fan and regularly take a multivitamin, there are a few guidelines you should follow while taking them.
- You should never take more than the recommended dose.
- Consult with your physician about multivitamins, especially if you intend to continue taking one regularly.
- Unless instructed by a physician, do not take more than one multivitamin at a time.
- Overdoses of vitamins A, D, E, or K can cause life-threatening side effects.
- You should never take multivitamins with dairy products, calcium supplements, or antacids that contain calcium because of the way calcium can interfere with absorption of other nutrients.
You may plan to take a multivitamin because you think your diet just isn’t cutting it. But, as far as vitamin intake goes, most people in the United States are receiving all the vitamin A they need from eggs, dairy, leafy green vegetables, and orange or yellow fruit.
Vitamin B requirements are almost certainly being met through just about any modern diet – and any excess you consume through supplementation will likely be flushed out of your body through your urine.
Studies on vitamin E usage tend to vary between showing a lack of any real effect on the body, and actual threat.
One study demonstrated that older men taking selenium supplements were actually increasing their risk of developing prostate cancer, and inhibiting blood clotting.
So, as with any medication and virtually anything else you put into your body, you should be careful. But, even with all this in mind, should you even take a multivitamin in the first place?
Do Multivitamins Actually Work?
For the most part, people who take regular multivitamins have a pretty clear thought process for why they keep taking them: it can’t hurt to take them, right?
But should you keep spending money on them, expecting some health benefits for doing so?
Studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that multivitamins and mineral supplements were no more effective at preventing heart problems, memory loss, or prolonging life than placebo pills.
A professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “We believe that it’s clear that vitamins are not working.”
That’s a pretty strong statement. However, what much of the press around these studies fail to mention is that the people studied were healthy adults receiving adequate nutrition from well-balanced diets.
In each of the three studies, the results showed no significant difference in risk of cancer, cataracts, heart attack, fatigue, strokes, chest pain, blocked arteries, or death, between taking multivitamins and placebo.
So no, until further research demonstrates otherwise, it looks as though taking multivitamins won’t have significant health benefits if you’re an otherwise healthy person.
But, if you have other health issues that could be addressed by receiving higher levels of some of the vitamins present in the pills, you could benefit.
Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said in a prepared statement:
“We all need to manage our expectations about why we’re taking multivitamins. Research shows that the two main reasons people take [them] are for overall health and wellness and to fill in nutrient gaps. Science still demonstrates that multivitamins work for those purposes, and that alone provides reason for people to take a multivitamin.”
Because of how little evidence there has been demonstrating their effect – good or bad – it’s tough to come to an absolute conclusion as to whether or not they work as advertised.
That same study reported in the Annals did point out that “available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms [in the general population] or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup.”
Each multivitamin may also have different formulas, making such conclusions even more difficult to come to. How could we know for a certainty which components in each pill were responsible for the doses?
When someone has too much of one nutrient or another in their diet, how can we know if the pills were responsible, or something else they’ve eaten?
Because of this uncertainty in the scientific and medical community, I can’t really take one side or another as to whether they are truly beneficial.
Alternatives to Taking Multivitamins
If you’re the type of person who isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of relying on a daily medication to receive your nutrition, the number one thing I could recommend is a well-balanced diet.
You can figure out exactly how to do that, specifically for your needs, by taking a look at the official USDA recommendations at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
Other ways of supercharging your diet to ensure you’re receiving everything your body needs is to focus on certain food groups, particularly those called “superfoods.”
The CDC has published research identifying the top most nutrient dense powerhouse fruits and vegetables in a handy list you can use next time you’re perusing your grocery store for healthy foods.
Any of the foods on that list will be guaranteed to provide your body with nutrients you might not have received elsewhere in your diet, in some instances eliminating the necessity of taking a pill.
On top of a healthy diet, you can also do wonders for your health by incorporating regular exercise routines into your schedule. This will help your body process those nutrients and use them to more effectively burn fat, build muscle, and keep you in top physical shape for years to come.
So there it is: multivitamins may be somewhat effective precisely because they are a source of vitamins that you might not be receiving elsewhere.
But they aren’t some magic pill that will provide you with perfect health for the rest of your life as long as you take them once daily.
No, that kind of health, as of today, can only come from a careful diet and staying active.
Ironically, most people interested in taking multivitamins are already well-nourished individuals who care about bettering their health. Those who might benefit the most from the pills, individuals who are seriously malnourished, are probably the least likely to take them.
And I love the idea of a wonder medicine we could take to provide us with everything we need to be healthy. That’s been the dream of nutritionists for decades if not from the beginning of the science – finding that genuine nutrition secret. And maybe one day we’ll find a way of tweaking multivitamins in such a way that they do become that perfect supplement.
Until then, we’ll just have to rely on the science and keep up the good fight of healthy living.