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Nutritional Supplements: Necessary or Dangerous?

Bottle of Supplements

Stories about health and nutrition are a regular part of the daily news cycle. Controversy generates attention; sensational reports that provoke an emotional response or challenge conventional wisdom boost website traffic for publishers. It’s not hard to find conflicting stories on many health-related topics, but it is important to look past the headlines when possible to examine their sources in greater detail.

You’ve probably seen reports citing research studies declaring that MVMs (multivitamin and mineral supplements) are not beneficial. One journal article by two nutritional “experts” from Baltimore concluded:

“Are they beneficial in reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as ischemic heart disease, cancer, and stroke? The answer is most likely NO. The results of large-scale randomized trials in the past two decades have shown that for the majority of the population, MVMs are not only ineffective, but they may be deleterious to your health.”

There seems to be a steady stream of jibes coming from critics, with some pushing the sentiment that vitamins being consumed create nothing but “expensive urine.” Despite the negative publicity, the public continues to “vote with its feet,” purchasing about $11 billion worth of supplements each year.

There are thousands of excellent human studies confirming the benefits of MVMs, with a growing body of evidence supporting their use for just about every health concern, especially cancer and heart disease.

In 2012 there was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association proving that daily MVM use cut the risk of cancer. The Physicians’ Health Study was the first long-term, randomized control trial that tested the effects of MVMs in preventing cancer and other diseases. In the study of almost 15,000 physicians, there was an 8% lower risk of cancer, with a stronger effect seen in men over 70 years old. There was also a 27% lower risk of a recurrence for those with a history of cancer. In other words, if you have a history of cancer, simply taking a multivitamin mineral supplement reduces your risk by about one-quarter.

In a 2005 study based on a “meta-analysis,” Johns Hopkins University scientists indicated that vitamin E capsules actually decreased longevity. Published in a major medical journal and accompanied by an aggressive publicity campaign, the story generated significant attention and focused negative attention not only on vitamin E but the entire supplement industry. Now thirteen years later, there are thousands of websites repeating the information distilled from this meta-analysis.

There are over 25,000 scientific publications on vitamin E in PubMed, the database maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Many of these articles show tremendous benefit for survival, yet the scientists from Baltimore acted as if their report was the final word on vitamin E, based only on their interpretation of selected studies. The meta-analysis only looked at 19 clinical trials from 1993 to 2004, involving 136,000 people. One of the remarkable facts about their analysis is that 18 of the 19 trials found no statistically significant increase in total mortality in the vitamin E group. Even when all trials were combined there was no significant increase in total mortality. What I find interesting is that there were about 13,000 articles referencing clinical trials of vitamin E published in that time period, yet this study cited only 19 and excluded those that found vitamin E to be safe. The two studies that used a higher dose of vitamin E (2000 iu per day) showed fewer deaths than those whose subjects didn’t take vitamin E. This important information was ignored in the Johns Hopkins publication.

In 1996 the National Institute of Aging followed 11,000 elderly people for seven years, and those that took vitamin E had a death rate that was one third that of those not taking it. And adding vitamin C – another important antioxidant – further lowered the death rate. During the follow-up period, there were 3,490 deaths. Use of vitamin E reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 34%, and risk of coronary disease mortality by 47%. Vitamin E usage was also associated with reduced risk of total mortality compared to those who did not take any vitamin supplements.

A 1993 Harvard University study of 40,000 male health professionals found that just 100 iu per day of vitamin E for two years resulted in one-third fewer heart attacks compared to the control group. That same year, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study with 87,000 participants found an even greater reduction in heart disease when it compared those taking the lowest amount of vitamin E with the highest.

Dr. Edgar Miller from the Hopkins study said, “We don’t think that people need to take vitamin E supplements; they get enough from the diet,” but he ignored the fact that the average American eating a standard diet gets only about 10 iu a day. When the Hopkins analysis was published, several writers questioned the findings, but sales of vitamin E supplements fell by 33% that year and continued to drop the following year. Upon further review, later analysis of the Hopkins study did not confirm the sensational headlines, and two German biostatisticians wrote:

“The causal relationship of vitamin E supplementation and increased mortality is questionable -- none of these results can be regarded to supply evidence in a statistical sense. In particular, high dose vitamin E supplementation cannot be regarded proved to increase mortality.”

It’s striking that the “health scare” research regarding vitamin E has been cited 2,434 times by other scientific papers, but the “corrective” publication by the German biostatisticians has been cited only 74 times. This indicates the unfortunate preference in the media for sensationalized anti-supplement articles.

Despite the scary stories in the news and social media, I believe that vitamins are not only safe but necessary and important. The bulk of evidence shows that in combination with a healthy diet, nutritional supplements are highly beneficial for maintaining optimum health and helping to slow down the aging process.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2018. Nathan Zassman is a trained nutrition practitioner and the owner of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.