If you’ve read my prior posts, you know that I recommend supplements and herbs for a wide range of uses, from maintaining strong bones, to staying healthy during the winter.
So, you may have been baffled by some recent reports on whether supplements are actually good for us.
Two recent studies have cast doubt on the usefulness of dietary supplements. One study looked at the use of vitamin and mineral supplements in 38,772 older women in the Iowa Women’s Health Study, concluding that increased use was associated with a 2.4 percent higher risk of mortality when compared to those that did not take supplements.
Another study, The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, found that the use of vitamin E and selenium supplements in 35,000 men slightly increased the risk of prostate cancer in the men taking vitamin E alone, and slightly increased the risk of diabetes in men taking selenium alone, but neither group’s results were statistically significant.
When headlines like these hit the newsstands, the details are in the fine print. In the women’s study, the only supplement that seemed to help reduce the risk of death was calcium. Others, like Vitamin A and D, had no effect.
However, we should also consider such variables as the population studied and the supplements used. For example, the Iowa Women’s Health Study only looked at older white women, so we have to be careful to apply such conclusions to the general population.
In the men’s study, the vitamin E supplement that was used contained solely alpha-tocopherol, only one of multiple the types of vitamin E produced in nature.
So, can we really say that taking a synthetic, non-representative vitamin E supplement would have the same effect on health as a natural mixed-tocopherol supplement?
We cannot make blanket statements on a vitamin without understanding the type that was used.
In contrast to these reports, prior research has clearly shown the scientific benefit for certain supplements:
- Calcium and Vitamin D help prevent osteoporosis.
- Folic acid helps prevent birth defects.
- Omega-3 fatty acids help improve cellular communication, prevent cardiac arrhythmias, reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin help prevent age-related blindness, known as macular degeneration.
To this list, I will add vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans, who may not be getting enough in their diets, and patients chronically taking either a proton pump inhibitor, an acid reducer used for acid reflux, or metformin, a drug used to treat diabetes.
Patients with celiac disease may have trouble absorbing vitamins from their food, as will persons with malabsorption syndrome from other causes such as food intolerance and leaky gut syndrome.
The elderly and alcoholics are also at higher risk for vitamin deficiencies and will benefit from vitamin supplementation. If you feel a cold coming on, research has shown that zinc can help reduce the duration of your illness.
Studies have shown that the American diet and our food supply fall short of supplying all the vitamins and nutrients we need. In fact, a study that analyzed seventy diets found that all subjects tested were short of the minimum recommended by the RDA for at least one or more key micronutrients.
- So how do we sum up the parts? My recommendations are:
- Take a high-quality whole-food based multivitamin, multi-mineral formula.
- For bone health, women should take Calcium citrate 600mg twice a day.
- For its multiple health benefits, take Vitamin D 1,000 – 2,000 IU daily.
- If you’re concerned about maintaining cardiovascular health, take an EPA and DHA-containing Omega-3, 1,000 – 2,000 mg daily.
Vincent Pedre, M.D. is an integrative, Holistic General Practitioner and Board-Certified Internist in private practice in New York City. Follow Dr. Pedre on Facebook and Twitter.
 Jaako Mursu, PhD, et al. Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women, The Iowa Women’s Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(18):1625-1633.
 Lippman, Scott M., MD, et al. Effect of Selenium and Vitamin E on Prostate Cancer and Other Cancers. JAMA, 2009; 301(1):39-51.
 The Lewin Group. (2006). An evidence-based study of the role of dietary supplements in helping seniors maintain their independence. Prepared for: The Dietary Supplement Education Alliance.
 Shanker, A. H. & Prasad, A. S. (1998) Zinc and immune function: the biological basis of altered resistance to infections. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 68 (suppl. 2): 447S–463S.
 Misner, Bill. Food Alone May Not Provide Sufficient Micronutrients for Preventing Deficiency. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006; 3(1): 51–55.