Are vitamins simply "lucky charms" for your health? - (4/20/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Jed was in the pharmacy, poking around the dietary supplement aisle. He went up to the pharmacist and said, "Doc, do you think vitamins help you to live longer?" The pharmacist has been asked this question before, leading him to ask why people take vitamins in the first place. After all, if we do not know when our time to leave this world arrives, how would we know if that expiration date can be extended by choking down handfuls of vitamin pills? 

"But aren't vitamins like fuel for my body?" Jed asked. "Food is fuel for your body," the pharmacist replied. "Food not only contains nutrients like vitamins, carbohydrates, fats, proteins – such as your beloved cheeseburgers – and minerals. Vitamins are essential for growth and are required to maintain good health. Typically, your body cannot make vitamins itself." "I have a great diet," said Jed. "I eat fruits and vegetables. I love seafood. I only have a burger once a month. I have always thought that taking a daily multivitamin would keep me healthier." "What you are doing is keeping the multivitamin industry healthy with incredible profits," replied the pharmacist.

"What do you mean, Doc?" Jed asked. "Won't vitamins protect me from a slew of diseases, like cancer and heart attacks?" "Not to be a total egghead about it," the pharmacist laughed. "But the clinical studies say otherwise." The pharmacist gave examples:  A 2018 study of 450,000 people found that multivitamins did not reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease. A 2019 assessment of 21 clinical trials that included more than 80,000 subjects revealed that vitamin D supplements did not lower stroke or heart attack risk. A 12-year study that tracked the effects of vitamins on cognitive functioning in 5,947 men found that the pills did not reduce the risk for memory loss.

"But I feel funny not taking a daily vitamin," Jed argued. "It's not like they are going to hurt me." The pharmacist explained that high doses of vitamins are unsafe. The scientific community once believed that antioxidants in vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene prevented cancer. Yet, subsequent studies showed that high levels of these substances, taken as supplements, may boost the risk of certain cancers, such as esophageal, stomach, and colorectal tumors.

"Well, you sell vitamins, Doc. Isn't that being hypocritical?" Jed chimed back. "Oh, I have given this speech before," the pharmacist responded. "I caution people about their vitamin intake, but some folks have terrible dietary habits or are too busy to stop and have a salad. Yes, there are vitamin chain stores who, in my opinion, go way overboard with products that claim they will do this and that." The pharmacist went on to say that vitamins are neither drugs nor miracle cures. "You can say they are simply lucky charms for people like you, Jed, who eat well and are healthy." 

There are exceptions: Folic acid for women of child-bearing age prevents neural tube defects in newborns when women take it before and during early pregnancy. Folic acid is the cornerstone in the formulation of prenatal vitamins. Also, while vitamin D is not present in most foods, sunlight can give you the boost your body requires to prevent osteoporosis and colon cancer. But winter stifles the daylight hours. In this case, a vitamin D pill will help. Ask your pharmacist for the dose you need, which is based on your age. 

"What should I do now?" Jed lamented. Instead of vitamin C, eat an orange. Toss the antioxidants, eat berries. Skip vitamin E. eat spinach as a replacement. "Good! I hate taking pills!" exclaimed Jed.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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