Are you on the fence about wanting to start on a multivitamin but are confused about why or if you should take them? No doubt you may have heard recent reports that multivitamins are completely unnecessary or that they may even be dangerous.
After two studies and an editorial were published in 2013, medical experts behind the research began to urge the American public to abandon multivitamins and supplements altogether. They demonstrated that multivitamin and mineral supplements were no better than placebo pills (which contained no vitamins or minerals). The media got a hold of this information and had a field day. Of course this got Americans into a frenzy and since then I have fielded numerous questions from my patients about whether they should continue on their prescribed supplements. The answer to this question is of course “YES!”
Bad Research Has Caused A Negative Stigma Associated With Multivitamins
Let’s take a look at the studies that were published next. When you actually look deeper into the research you will find out that the methods used were flawed and the conclusions that were drawn were completely off base. For instance, one study examined the cognitive benefits of a low potency multivitamin in aging males. The researchers questioned the value of a multivitamin on cognition. The multivitamin that was used in this study had extremely inadequate nutrient concentrations – it contained just 60mg of vitamin C, 25mcg of vitamin B12 and 20mcg of selenium. These are RDA values, enough only to prevent deficiencies of these particular nutrients and certainly not to cause any substantial health benefits including cognitive improvement. The subjects were also classified as adhering to their regimen if they took their supplement just 2/3 of the time – so if they took their multivitamin just 8 months out of 12 they were deemed to be adhering to the supplement. Obviously, if you do not take a vitamin, you will not get any benefit from said vitamin! Clearly, it is hard to conclude there is no cognitive benefit to taking a multivitamin if the supplement contained very small amounts of vitamins and minerals and was taken approximately 2/3 of the time. Lastly, it was shown that subjects actually did report having a small amount of cognitive improvement after 2.5 years of taking the low potency multivitamin – so the supplement albeit in small amounts actually DID work.
In another study, subjects with a previous history of heart attacks were given a multivitamin or placebo (sugar pill) and monitored for about 4.5 years for cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, death). The study actually showed that multivitamins reduced cardiovascular risk. However, the investigators set up the study in a way to ignore anything but a miraculous reduction in cardiovascular risk. They therefore questioned the benefit of multivitamins to help with cardiovascular disease.
Some Research Has Shown Favorable Results From Taking Multivitamins
Other research has showed favorable results in vitamin supplementation to reduce many different chronic diseases in human subjects. For example, one study showed an 8% reduction in cancer incidence and 12% reduction in cancer death after 11.2 years of follow up. This same study also showed that those who take multivitamins had a 39% reduction in fatal heart attack risk. Another study found that men who supplemented with a multivitamin had a 31% lower risk of developing cancer.
Benefits Of Taking Multivitamins
Reducing the risk for major chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and cancer, is certainly a huge benefit to taking multivitamins. What are some of the other benefits to taking a daily multivitamin? One of the main reasons I recommend multivitamins to my patients is to assist in improving deficiencies of specific nutrients. Occasionally, I run comprehensive nutrient analyses on my patients (click here to learn more about this type of testing) where it is determined that they have not only one nutrient that is lacking but multiple nutrients that are deficient. A multivitamin would be a great idea in this type of case as it can clear up multiple deficiencies at the same time rather than taking each individual nutrient separately.
Did you know that most of the soil found in the United States is extremely deficient in the vitamins and minerals that were found there centuries ago? As the land in the U.S. has become over-farmed, turned over each season to grow another round of crops, this leaves our food supply devoid of many of the nutrients that are supposed to be contained within. Many critics of supplementation claim that you can get all the vitamins and minerals that you need from the food that you eat. This unfortunately is not the case. Multivitamins are a great way to supplement the diet with those nutrients that may be missing from your diet. That’s not to say that some food isn’t grown better than other food making it more nutrient-dense and lowering the need for multivitamin supplementation. Eating a diet rich in mostly organic fruits and vegetables will usually get you the majority of the vitamins and minerals that you need. However, most people tend to eat the same things over and over again, possibly missing out on some nutrients from eating a variety of different foods.
I also tend to work with a variety of special diet types in my practice. These include vegetarians, vegans and those in the paleo community. While most vegetarians and vegans should have no problem getting all the nutrients they need from a diet rich in plants, you would be surprised at just how many of these individuals end up badly deficient in many vitamins and minerals. Again, this has to do with eating a variety of different foods and also using proper food combining. The most common deficiencies that vegetarians and vegans end up with are vitamin B12, iron and folate, all abundantly found in animal products. Here is another instance where vitamin supplementation in general would help prevent these types of issues from happening in the first place.
What Kind Of Supplement Should I Buy?
So which multivitamin should you take? Well, I should start by saying that not every multivitamin is created equal. I have found this to be true over and over again in my clinical experience. Patients literally bring in grocery bags full of supplements that they have bought from the health food store, only to find that after running labs, that they were not beneficial in the slightest or were actually causing more harm than good. I think people tend to self-diagnose and treat more and more these days. Supplements that they heard about on Dr. Oz or from an infomercial commonly end up in their medicine cabinets. But I wonder if they know just what is in these products and if they are wasting their hard-earned dollars on supplements that contain nothing at all.
Way back when I was receiving my Masters degree in Nutrition, we did a very simple experiment in one of my classes. This class in particular was two hours long. At the beginning of the class we took three beakers each filled with vinegar. Vinegar has roughly the same pH as the inside of your stomach. It is that pH that helps to break down food in the stomach. In each beaker we placed a different vitamin. In the first beaker we put Centrum tablet, the second a tablet vitamin from One-a-Day and in the third a vitamin in a vegetable capsule. We then let the vitamins soak for the entire two-hour class period and observed what happened at the end of class. What we found was that the Centrum and the One-a-Day didn’t do ANYTHING while the vegetable capsule was completely broken down and the liquid turned yellow, the color of B vitamins. Here is the problem with these types of once per day multivitamins – they have so much stuff packed in them to make it a one a day supplement and have so much, what we call “pill pressure,” that literally your stomach acid can NOT break them down. They go right on through the stomach and the rest of your digestive tract and eventually out into your poop! Talk about flushing your money down the toilet!
When it comes to purchasing a good quality supplement, any multivitamin supplement that is contained in a once daily tablet should immediately be disregarded. Tablets are not all bad though, just as long as these products are taken in split doses as multiple capsules. I tend to only prescribe vegetable capsules in my office as they seem to break down the best and get the best results when working on my patients’ health concerns.
Be Cautious Of Purchasing Supplements At Health Food Stores
People also walk into health stores and get information or specific supplement recommendations from untrained individuals who are merely there to sell product. This is very common at places like GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Vitamin World and Hi-Health. I would be very leery of taking ANY recommendations from someone who isn’t a naturopathic doctor or without an advanced degree in nutrition. Do you really want to take your life into a 20-somethings hands that only have an interest in nutrition but without any credentials to back up their recommendations? I certainly wouldn’t!
Importance Of Testing And Regulation Of Supplements
Similarly, many products at these establishments do not have a third party go into their manufacturing facilities and make sure that their products meet specific requirements to be sold to the American public. For instance, does the product actually contain what it says it contains? More importantly, is the product free of harmful chemicals, additives or heavy metals? Despite the fact that the supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, the FDA does not regulate supplements – yet. This is good for practitioners who use high quality nutraceuticals to assist their patients in achieving their health goals, but not so great for the American public who feel that taking any old supplement and sold by an uncredentialed individual from GNC will help them but could be causing them harm or have no clinical benefit whatsoever. One thing you can look for when purchasing supplements is the GMP logo on the side of your supplement product. This means that a company has a routine system in place to ensure that their products are consistently produced and controlled according to practice standards. Most companies out there do not have GMP certification. The first reason is that it costs money to have third party evaluators come into their facilities to assure that their operation is up to snuff. Your average mom and pop operation is not going to fork over the big bucks to make this happen. Secondly, if products were tested by a third party evaluator, many companies would be shut down for producing products without any viable nutrient content or products that are harmful to the American public. For all you know, these companies could be selling you very expensive sawdust (yes, this does actually happen!)
So — Should I Take A Multivitamin?
So when it comes to the question of whether or not you should take a multivitamin, the answer is a resounding YES. The benefit of taking multivitamins clearly outweighs any perceived risk. However, please only buy supplements from trained professionals (naturopathic doctors, integrative medical doctors) who sell only high quality supplements that have undergone rigorous quality assurance testing.