We, that’s the collective we, buy an astonishing quantity of Vitamin supplements each year. To give you an idea, here are some numbers (Sorry I only quote UK stats here, but you can probably extrapolate from that for other locations):
- In the UK we spend about £364 million each year on Vitamin and mineral supplements
- Approx 43% pop these supposed wonder drugs, but as you might expect, its the 55+ folks who are the biggest consumers
So indeed, many not only dose, but mega-dose themselves, but are they simply buying an expensive placebo, or is there a real benefit to be had? or to re-phrase that, is a large proportion of the population deluding themselves, while enriching the manufacturers of these supplements. If you browse everybody’s font of all knowledge, google, you soon discover many of the websites that sell these supplements make claims about the positive benefits of everything they sell, but then they would.
Blindingly Obvious Tip: Discard all such guidance, they have a huge conflict of interest.
The are of course obvious benefits to be had from vitamins, and there are indeed well-recognised instances where vitamin supplements are recommended, so this reality does indeed cloud the issue greatly. In that context, how can we ever come to a conclusion? Well, perhaps one way is to take two simple steps …
- Gain a simple understanding of what a vitamin actually is and where they come from
- Gain a quick overview of what the current medical guidance is for supplements
So lets take both of these steps here and now.
What is a Vitamin?
A vitamin is an organic compound that cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and so it must be obtained from your diet. So, to illustrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a vitamin for humans, but not for most other animals, they manufacture it internally and we don’t, so we can only get it from what we eat.
What is also interesting is that different vitamins act in different ways. Some have hormone-like functions as regulators of mineral metabolism (e.g., vitamin D), Others function as antioxidants (e.g., vitamin E), so don’t think that they all do the same, all they have in common is that they are organic compound you need to get from your diet.
Anyway, the key point is this. If you are taking supplements, why not instead focus on the root of the problem and fix your diet instead; popping a pill will not “fix” a bad diet.
What medical guidance exists for vitamin supplements?
For this guidance I’m turning to the UK’s NHS (National Health Service) website which is here. The guidance reads …
Folic acid supplements
These should be given to all women thinking of having a baby and pregnant women up to week 12 of the pregnancy, to help prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. For more information see the pregnancy care planner: vitamins, minerals and special diets.
Vitamin D supplements
These should be given to all pregnant and breastfeeding women, children aged six months to five years, people aged 65 and over, people with darker skin (such as people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin). They should be given to people who are not exposed to much sun, for example people who cover up their skin for cultural reasons, or people who are housebound (stay indoors) for long periods of time. For more information see What does vitamin D do?
A supplement containing vitamins A, C and D
This should be given to all children aged six months to five years. This is a precaution because growing children may not get enough, especially those not eating a varied diet, such as fussy eaters. Ask your health visitor for advice or for more information see Birth to five: vitamins. You’ll be able to get vitamin drops free if you qualify for Healthy Start vitamins.
Your GP may also recommend supplements if you need them for a medical condition. For example, you may be prescribed iron supplements to treat iron deficiency anaemia.
That is all they recommend because that is what our current scientific evidence (clinical studies) have proven. Any other claims beyond that, without the backing of an actual study, is marketing hype. Be aware, you will find terms such as “Studies have proven …” but not all studies are deemed credible or scientific, so never take such claims at face value.
If you are seriously considering taking the time to start dosing yourself, then do a bit of research first and verify the claims, its your life and your health. Most of us are pre-conditioned these days, and so at the first sign of a sniffle we rush to mega-dose on Vitamin C because we believe it will help … yet many studies have proven that to be a myth. Here are a couple of links on that and other related claims for Vitamin C …
- Colds – The failure of vitamin C supplementation to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population indicates that routine prophylaxis is not justified
- Heart– Clinical trials investigating the use of vitamin C in the prevention of coronary disease or strokes have produced equivocal results, with positive, negative and neutral outcomes. Issues with methodology, patient selection and study design make the results of the studies difficult to interpret
- Cancer – A 2010 review of 33 years of research on vitamin C to treat cancer stated “we have to conclude that we still do not know whether Vitamin C has any clinically significant antitumor activity. Nor do we know which histological types of cancers, if any, are susceptible to this agent. Finally, we don’t know what the recommended dose of Vitamin C is, if there is indeed such a dose, that can produce an anti-tumor response.
Discussing supplements is a vast and complex topic, many studies have been done and many more will be done, so I do hope I’ve not confused you with too much detail. But in essence … unless you are preganent, very young, very old, or housebound … you will not derive any real benefit at all. In fact, you may even run the risk of doing serious harm by overdosing.
If you really wish to derive some true health benefits with a supplement, then why not supplement your diet with an apple a day. There is solid scientific evidence for that, the proof is here from a paper published in nature in 2000. The abstract for that reads …
Vitamin C is used as a dietary supplement because of its antioxidant activity, although a high dose (500 mg) may act as a pro-oxidant in the body1, 2. Here we show that 100 g of fresh apples has an antioxidant activity equivalent to 1,500 mg of vitamin C, and that whole-apple extracts inhibit the growth of colon- and liver- cancer cells in vitro in a dose-dependent manner. Our results indicate that natural antioxidants from fresh fruit could be more effective than a dietary supplement.
So do yourself a favour and start eating an apple each day instead of dosing up on supplements, you will be far better off.
One more thought, you might be tempted to drop a comment that claims, “Ah but my consumption of Supplement X derives real benifit, its been proven“. If so, I’d be interested, but don’t forget to add a link to the research or article that supports the claim.