The Vitamin Myth — Are Your Vitamins Worthless?
Vitamins are worthless, so say many studies that have formulated the “vitamin myth”. I review the studies, cite contrary evidence, and suggest we combine nutrient dense, antioxidant rich food, along with some vitamins, and call it a day.
IT WOULD be surprising if you didn’t bump into at least one article or newscast reviewing a spate of studies that seem to confirm that vitamins are useless at best, and may even be unhealthy.
I was unhappy to read the summaries of such studies. Doing so stuck my nose into a universal truth for us humanoids:
We resist new information that threatens anything in which we’re invested.
And when it comes to the proposition that vitamin supplements are worthless, my world view does feel a bit threatened. Over the years, I’ve spent many thousands of dollars feeding my habit of taking scores of “vitamins” nearly every day. (Sunday’s my day off.)
Among my friends, I’m known as the pill-popping-health-nut.
(Well, actually, I never heard anyone call me that… but such a label wouldn’t surprise me.)
A week rarely passes when someone doesn’t call me to ask about CoQ10, or Alpha-Lopic-Acid, or some other supplement.
Just the other day, my friend Terry called:
“Joe, it seems that my mercury detox program has worked pretty well. I now wanna tackle my low testosterone. What was that supplement you mentioned that you’re taking”?
When I sit down for dinner with my sister and her daughter, which I do regularly, the custom is that before we eat, I pull a handful of vitamins from my pocket and place the pile on the table, keeping them covered by my hand. My sister and Isa look at each other and then each guess their number. It usually varies by two or three, and my ten-year old niece delights in the guessing game.
Obviously, I’m invested in taking supplements.
I underscore my bias to emphasize how I struggle when reading about the studies that defame vitamins, the so called “vitamin myth”.
My aim is to be objective. I want to let the data inform my behavior. I want to be fact-based. So, what do I do when I read that my thirty-year old practice intentionally honed, and at great expense, is not only worthless, but may be doing me harm?
Is the vitamin myth true?
Let’s dig in to find out just what’s happening. The rest of this post is about how I’ve framed this issue concerning the relative worthiness of vitamin supplementation.
My aim is not only to steer a course of action for myself, but for you too. For those of you who do not wish to read further, I encourage you to do some research.
Go to LEF.org or Examine.com and read up on whatever vitamin you’re currently using or are considering.
And if you’re really serious, consider buying the Supplement Goals Reference Guide (affiliate link). The Guide will help you make the right supplement choices and thereby save you a bunch of money.
If Linus Pauling Was Wrong, Aren’t You?
We could pick a number of articles that summarize various studies that say vitamins are useless, maybe even bad for you. The one I’ll use is Paul Offit’s The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Vitamins, published here in The Atlantic.
Mr. Offit’s intro sets the stage:
“Nutrition experts contend that all we need is what’s typically found in a routine diet. Industry representatives, backed by a fascinating history, argue that foods don’t contain enough, and we need supplements. Fortunately, many excellent studies have now resolved the issue.” (Source)
Interestingly, the article first dives deep into the scientific life of renowned, two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling.
We get introduced to Linus Pauling’s brilliance and the work that led to the Nobel Prizes, followed by his gradual fall from grace as his assertions about the health miracle of Vitamin C get debunked by the very same scientific establishment that once lauded him.
Mr. Offit writes:
“[Pauling] was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.” (Source)
It seems that Mr. Offit uses Linus Pauling’s story to erect the proposition that if a man of his brilliance could be hoodwinked into thinking that vitamins are good, so can we mere mortals.
Now softened up and humbled, we get presented the studies with their various pronouncements, which pretty much distill down to…
Vitamins are worthless; unhealthy even.
The Vitamin Myth — The Research
Here are summaries of the studies presented in Mr. Offit’s article, all pretty damning, all in support of the vitamin myth.
In 1994, Finland’s National Public Institute and the National Cancer Institute studied 29,000 Finish smokers, all men older than 50 who were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither.
Conclusion: Those taking vitamins and supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those who didn’t take them.
In 1996, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studied 18,000 people who had been exposed to asbestos, and thereby had an increased risk of lung cancer. They too received vitamin A, beta-carotene, both, or neither.
Conclusion: The study was quickly dropped when investigators realized that the supplement-takers were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28 and 17 percent higher, respectively, than those who did not.
In 2004, the University of Copenhagen studied 14 randomized trials involving more than 170,000 people who took Vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene to determine if antioxidants could prevent intestinal cancers. Again, antioxidants didn’t live up to the hype. Conclusion: The supplements seem to increase, not prevent, overall mortality, finding that death rates were 6 percent higher for vitamin users.
In 2005, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine reviewed 19 studies covering more than 136,000 people who were given vitamin E.
Conclusion: An increased risk of death associated with supplemental Vitamin E.
In 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association evaluated more than 9,000 people who took high-dose vitamin E to prevent cancer.
Conclusion: Those who took vitamin E were more likely to develop heart failure than those who did not.
In 2007, the National Cancer Institute examined 11,000 men who did or didn’t take multivitamins.
Conclusion: Those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.
In 2008, a (not cited) review was conducted of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants.
Conclusion: Vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
In 2011, the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women who consumed various supplements or did not.
Conclusion: Those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron died at higher rates than those who did not.
In 2011, the Cleveland Clinic published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E, selenium, both, or neither.
Conclusion: Those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent greater risk of prostate cancer. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said,
“The concept of multivitamins was sold to Americans by an eager nutraceutical industry to generate profits. There was never any scientific data supporting their usage.” (Source)
I’ve never met Steve Nissen, but, as you shall see, I have met a lot of scientific data that support specific supplements conveying specific health benefits in most people tested.
It’s interesting to note that most of the studies summarized above that debunk the usefulness or healthiness of vitamins involve:
- Just a few, specific vitamins, not all vitamins,
- Taken by the elderly or people with specific health issues.
Nonetheless, with all this evidence, dear reader, can there be any doubt whatsoever that we supplement users, along with Linus Pauling, have been sold a bunch of crap?
Well, you cannot convince the multi-billion dollar nutraceutical (aka vitamin/supplement) industry that what they sell is crap. After all they, like me, are invested, right?
One hundred percent of every science-minded person on the planet could accrue every existing shred of evidence to show that all supplements are crap and the nutraceutical industry would still say, “bullshit”.
It’s in their vested interest to do so. Their shareholders would expect them to.
But for me, and hopefully, for you – well, we want the truth, whether invested in the falsehoods or not, and so the first question to ask is if there’s any dissent among those in the scientific community to the hypothesis that vitamins are crap?
In other words, do any scientist who study the matter disagree with the vitamin myth?
Yes, there are hundreds of studies that examine specific supplements and report on their benefits. There are literally thousands of concoctions that could be termed “vitamins” or “supplements”, and among them are those that might improve your health and others that will not.
Not all vitamins are created equal. The vitamin myth is not so easily confirmed or denied. The key is to know what the science has to say about the supplement you may want to use.
7 Vitamin Myth Busters
I know of no study that extols the benefits of all vitamins for all people, and doubt if any with credibility exist.
The reciprocal is also true — none of the studies cited above refute the value of all vitamins. Instead, they mainly study specific vitamins used by a specific subsection of the population.
In a couple of instances, specific vitamins used by a representative subset of the general population were evaluated, but a subset of representative vitamins was not tested on that group.
As a heavy-duty supplement user, what I want to know about is the effectiveness of the specific supplements that I consume. I want to know their potential for both good and bad, and how my particular attributes – age, gender, health, etc. – may affect the outcome.
Certainly, given the studies referenced above, we may be disinclined to supplement with Vitamin E. But what about those vitamins you take?
Next up are studies that cover seven supplements that I believe are good for the average Joe. They are among dozens that I’ve cycled in and out of over the years, most of which I could have also presented to you as beneficial, given that the solid research indicating their efficacy.
I’m not saying that these seven are the best supplements of all time, but they are a sample of some I use and believe have been useful to me.
Despite Steve Nissen’s claim, these have solid science behind them, as you shall see.
The seven are:
2. Alpha Lipoic Acid
5. Vitamin D
7. Superoxide Dismutase
Do yourself a favor by checking yours by reviewing the research at LEF.org or Examine.com.
The rest of this section plows into all the supported attributes of these seven supplements, which frankly is overlong (but I’m trying to make a point), so feel free to scroll down to “Are Antioxidants Healthy?” and “Summary and Conclusions”.
An amino acid synthesized in the liver and kidneys from lysine and methionine, Acetyl-L-Carnitine’s biochemical function is to facilitate the transport and metabolism of long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria for beta-oxidation and energy generation. (Source)
1. Treats age-related macular degeneration (human)
2. Reduces metabolic abnormalities induced by alcohol (animal)
3. Reverses biochemical and behavioral parameters of brain aging
4. Maintains myocardial function (animal)
5. Ameliorates oxidative damage, enzyme activity, substrate-binding affinity, and mitochondrial dysfunction (animal)
6. Improves metabolic function while decreasing oxidative stress (animal)
7. Normalizes age-dependent disturbances such as membrane lipid metabolism and/or composition (animal)
8. Reduces age-associated deterioration in auditory sensitivity and improves cochlear function (animal)
9. Reverses the age-related decrement in the mitochondrial pyruvate metabolism (animal)
10. Benefits various cognitive functions in the middle-aged and elderly and is a metabolic cofactor (review-human)
11. Has a beneficial effect on the neuromuscular junction and on muscle fiber structure in ageing or after nerve crushing (animal)
12. Reverses age-related decrement in mitochondrial carnitine-acylcarnitine exchange activity (animal)
13. Enhances spatial acquisition in of rats with age-related behavioral impairments in a novel environment (animal) Two Studies.
14. Has positive effects on the brain NMDA receptor system (animal)
15. Theoretically useful in Alzheimer’s (review) (animal)
16. Preserves, at least partially, learning and memory from the natural decay occurring with age (animal)
17. Has a neurotrophic action on the peripheral nervous system with possible applications in age-related peripheral nerve changes (animal)
18. Has a positive effect on age-related changes in the dopaminergic system (animal)
19. Rescues aged neurons may be by increasing their responsiveness to neuronotrophic factors in the CNS (animal)
20. Shows improvements in spatial memory (animal)
21. Acetyl-L-carnitine is a precursor of acetylcholine.
22. Attenuates certain age-related cognitive deficits and may have a beneficial effect on longevity (animal)
23. Being investigated as a determinant of neuronal longevity
24. Reduces the age-dependent loss of glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus (animal)
25. Mainly affects the inner membrane protein composition of cerebellar mitochondria (animal)
26. Improves cognitive performance, ameliorates age-related deficits (animal)
27. May be the first agent suitable for clinical use in the prevention of neuronal death after peripheral nerve trauma (animal)
28. May assist treatment of peripheral neuropathy in patients on antiretroviral therapy
29. Positively affects spatial memory and nerve growth factor levels (animal)
30. Rescues neurons from beta 25-35-induced neurotoxicity (animal)
31. Exerts a neuroprotective effect and decreases stress exposure in the CNS (animal)
32. May have a role in counteracting degenerative disease
33. Restores choline acetyltransferase activity in the hippocampus (animal)
34. Considered useful as a therapeutic agent in neurodegenerative disorders (animal)
35. Significantly elevated beta-NGF (nerve growth factor) (animal)
36. Has neurotrophic properties (animal)
37. Restores choline acetyltransferase activity (animal)
38. Important in the development of therapeutic strategies to counteract degenerative diseases of the CNS
39. Abolished the age-associated reduction of a specific mRNA levels in the basal forebrain of old animals (animal)
40. Compared to Alzheimer’s patients on placebo, acetyl-L-carnitine-treated patients showed significantly less deterioration in their Mini-Mental Status and Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale test scores. (human)
41. Has a neuroprotective effect
42. Suggests a neurotrophic property exerted on those central cholinergic pathways typically damaged by aging (animal)
43. Long-term treatment completely prevents the loss of choline acetyltransferase activity in the CNS of aged rats (animal)
44. Preserves and/or facilitates the functionality of carnitines, the concentrations of which are diminished in the brain of old animals (animal)
45. Stimulates nerve growth factor receptors (animal)
46. Doubled the number of aged neurons treated compared to controls (animal)
47. Rescues aged neurons by increasing their responsiveness to neuronotrophic factors in the CNS (animal)
48. Increases choline acetyltransferase activity and of nerve growth factor receptor expression in the striatum (animal)
49. Chronic treatment prevents some age-related impairments of CNS (animal)
50. Improves cognitive performance of aged rats, ameliorates these age-related deficits.
(2) Alpha Lipoic Acid
An enzyme found in the mitochondria, alpha-lipoic acid is considered to be a powerful antioxidant, and has an important role in the production of glutathione, one of the chief antioxidants produced directly by the body. (Source)
Alpha Lipoic Acid supplementation:
1. Improves several indices of metabolic activity
2. Lowers the degree of oxidative stress
3. Reverses the declines in oxygen consumption and mitochondrial energy production that are commonly observed with aging
4. Enhances mitochondrial energy levels
5. Elevates levels of glutathione and ascorbic acid suggesting that it helps protect and/or recycle these antioxidants and contributes to the overall capacity of the body to neutralize free radical damage
6. May be helpful in patients with diabetes
a. Promotes the production of energy from fat and sugar in the mitochondria
b. Enhances removal of glucose from the bloodstream
c. Decreases insulin resistance
d. Treats peripheral neuropathy associated with diabetes.
e. The American Diabetes Association has suggested that alpha-lipoic acid plus vitamin E may be helpful in combating some of the health complications associated with diabetes, including heart disease, vision problems, nerve damage and kidney disease.
7. May help to protect the brain from damage following a stroke.
8. Prevents cellular damage (from free radicals)
9. Reduces oxidative stress
Here are 70 Alpha Lipoic Acid Abstracts.
Extracted from salmon, microalgae, and Pfaffia (a yeast), Astaxanthin is a fat-soluble, oxygenated pigment called a xanthophyll. Astaxanthin has 100-500 times the antioxidant capacity of Vitamin E, and 10 times the antioxidant capacity of beta-carotene. (Source)
1. Interferes with proinflammatory substances
2. Blocks nitric oxide enzyme activity
3. Is a powerful antioxidant
4. Astaxanthin bioavailability is increased by some long chain triglycerides
5. Protects beta-cell function in diabetes
6. Reduces glucose toxicity
7. Limits exercise-induced cardiac and skeletal damage in mice
8. Protects against DNA damage from UVA rays
9. Reduces stress-induced lipid peroxidation
10. Helps prevent atherosclerosis
11. Slows growth of H pylori infection
12. Inhibits tumor growth
13. Controls cancer cell proliferation in colon cancer
14. Controls cancer cell proliferation in bladder cancer
Here are 44 research abstracts reviewing the effectiveness of Astaxanthin.
Present in the mitochondria of all cells, CoQ10 (also known as ubiquinone) functions as part of cellular system that generates energy from oxygen (in the form of ATP) for all body processes. Research indicates that it may slow the aging process; increase energy; strengthen the heart; improve immune function; promote weight loss; enhance endurance and aerobic performance; and lower blood pressure. (Source)
Coenzyme Q10 supplementation has been shown to:
1. Reduce systolic blood pressure
2. Reduce oxidative stress
3. Be an effective treatment for hypertension
4. Be effective in managing chronic heart failure
5. Be effective in managing angina
6. Improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
7. Increase mitochondrial functioning
8. Prevent migraines
9. Increase well-being in fibromyalgia sufferers
10. Reduce apoptosis (cell death) following eye surgery
11. Improve exercise tolerance
12. Be an effective antioxidant, combating side effects of HIV drugs
13. Be an effective treatment for nephrology
14. Regenerate plasma vitamin E levels
15. Suppress atherosclerosis
16. Prevent ischemic injury
17. Treat ischemic injury
18. Improve myocardial tolerance to aerobic stress
19. Reduce brain neuron damage from free radicals
20. Decrease atherogenesis
21. Prevent and treat hyperlipidemia
22. Prevent and treat coronary artery disease
23. Combat negative effects of beta-blockers
24. Stabilize erythrocyte, reticulocyte, and leukocyte counts after radiation
25. Prevent striatal lesions in Huntington’s disease
26. Slow weight loss in Huntington’s disease
27. Improve symptoms in mitochondrial myopathy, encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes (MELAS)
28. Improve endothelial function in Type II diabetes
29. Increase mitochondrial production
30. Improve energy production
31. Prevent lipid peroxidations
Here are 43 research citations reviewing the effectiveness of CoQ10.
(5) Vitamin D
A fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin D actually functions as a hormone in the body. It is produced in the skin and released into the blood to affect the bones. Its main function is to maintain levels of calcium in the blood, which may seem trivial when compared to a spate of recent research that indicates Vitamin D is among the most important supplements that you can take, as I outline in 30 Reasons to Take Vitamin D. (Source)
Vitamin D supplementation:
1. Maintains calcium levels in the body
2. Reduces cancer risk
3. Controls prostate cancer
4. Reduces prostate cancer mortality
5. Reduces blood pressure
6. Improves blood glucose levels in diabetics
7. Improves glucose intolerance
8. Improves rheumatoid arthritis
9. Can improve symptoms of multiple sclerosis
10. Vitamin D deficiency affects insulin secretion and action
11. May prevent fractures in general population
12. Prevents fractures in postmenopausal women
13. Prevents hip fractures
14. Reduces risk of colorectal cancer
15. Is necessary for normal fetal growth and development
16. Increases bone density
17. Reduces risk of type I diabetes
18. Prevents ischemia-induced brain damage
19. May help prevent inflammatory bowel disease
20. May help prevent cardiovascular disease
21. Is a treatment for hyperparathyroidism
22. Contributes to death of breast cancer cells
23. Prevents rickets
24. Is treatment for psoriasis
25. Promotes tooth retention
26. Increases immune function
27. Treats seasonal affective disorder
28. Treats acne
29. Treats ichythyoses
30. Treats skin cancer
The trademarked name for a powder made from the French Maritime Pine tree, Pyncnogenol is a water-soluble flavonoid, or polyphenol, complex with powerful antioxidant properties and ability to reduce blood clotting. As an antioxidant, Pycnogenol is thought to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, cancer risk, improve blood vessel strength, reduce inflammation/swelling, and reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. (Source)
1. Improves sexual function in men with erectile dysfunction
2. Reduces blood glucose levels
3. Effectively manages chronic asthma
4. Is a free radical scavenger
5. Is an antioxidant
6. Is an antiinflammatory
7. Stops mast cells from releasing histamine
8. Reduces gingival bleeding when utilized in chewing gum
9. Improves capillary resistance
10. Reduces reactive oxygen species apoptosis
11. Reduces retina leakage
12. Protects and regenerates vitamins C and E
13. Protects against UV radiation
14. Effective in treating inflammation in lupus
15. Reduces platelet aggregation in smokers
16. Is a mild antihypertensive
17. Relieves cramping in PMS
18. Improves cognitive function in ADHD
Here are 35 Pycnogenol Abstracts that review its health benefits.
(7) Superoxide Dismutase
Known by its abbreviation, “SOD”, Superoxide Dismutase is a metal-containing antioxidant enzyme that reduces potentially harmful free radicals created during normal metabolic cell processes and can play a key role in moderating the ageing process. SOD is used to treat arthritis and other joint disorders, prevent side effects of cancer treatment, prostate problems, and Peyronie’s disease. (Source)
Superoxide dismutase supplementation:
1. Reduces ishemia reperfusion injury
2. Protects against ishemic brain injury
3. Helps heal corneal ulcers
4. Reduces brain swelling after traumatic brain injury
5. Protects organs following burn injury
6. Speeds healing following burn injury
7. Reduces long term damage from burn injury
8. Is effective in treating inflammatory diseases
9. Prevents lipid peroxidation
10. Prevents smoke inhalation injury
11. Protects from radiation injury
12. Reduces periodontal inflammation
13. Prevents side effects from cancer drugs
14. Treats inflammation from arthritis
15. Reduces inflammatory bowel disease
16. Is an effective antioxidant
Here are 61 Superoxide Dismutase Citations.
Note that one thing these seven supplements have in common is that they all have superior antioxidant attributes. Which begs the next question.
Are Antioxidants Healthy?
In the last part of Paul Offit’s “Vitamin Myth” article, he stomps on the holy grail of the supplement world, antioxidants.
Referring to the studies that suggest supplemental antioxidants are harmful, Mr. Offit explains that free radicals may not be as harmful as advertised, that we need free radicals to kill bacteria and cancer cells, and that there’s term for this – “the antioxidant paradox”.
To conjure an opinion about whether or not antioxidants are healthy, we need to remind ourselves what they are, and what they do.
Oxidation is a natural process of cellular life. Examples of oxidation include a cut apple turning brown, rancid fish and a skin cut becoming inflamed. To help combat oxidation, Nature has given us antioxidants.
Mostly, there’s a balance between oxidation and antioxidants. About 98% of cells metabolize oxygen very efficiently, but approximately two percent get damaged during the metabolic process and turn into free radicals.
Free radicals describe damaged cells that can be problematic. They are “free” because they are missing a critical electron, which compels them to pair with another electron. They do that by robbing that missing electron from an atom of any nearby molecule.
When the attacked molecule is robbed of that electron, the DNA gets damaged, thus injuring the cell. The cell mutates. It grows and reproduces abnormally and quickly. This triggers a chain reaction, wherein lies the problem with free radicals.
A free radical oxidizes a fatty acid, making it a free radical, which then oxidizes another fatty acid and so on. Eventually, the body’s natural free radical defenses get overwhelmed, which may lead to an assortment of chronic, debilitative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s.
Antioxidants counteract the oxidative damage that happens to DNA and cell membranes when cells go about their metabolic business. But the question now being debated among scientist who study such things is,
When are antioxidants not only worthless, but also unhealthy?
It seems clear to me that there’s some balance between free radicals and antioxidants that needs to be achieved. The problem is, however, that for any particular individual, like you, this question is pretty much unknowable, unless your willing to submit yourself to living the life of a lab rat.
My answer, then, to the question, “are antioxidants healthy?” is yes, with some qualifiers, which will be offered in the Summary and Conclusion.
Summary and Conclusion
If you’ve read everything in this post so far you’ve learned:
- There’s a debate among the scientific community about the healthiness of vitamins, which fuel the vitamin myth.
- Certain studies among certain people using certain vitamins extrapolate that vitamins might not be healthy.
- Studies examining specific vitamins show many (I listed seven) that demonstrate health benefits.
- Antioxidants may be overused, but unless you take many supplemental antioxidants and have an amazing antioxidant-rich diet, you’re probably OK, better off, even.
- Those who exercise produce more free radicals and should probably focus on ingesting antioxidants from food, or supplements or both. (Watch the video below.)
My parting words present three suggestions:
1. Examine your diet, part 1. If you’re not eating foods rich in antioxidants and are unlikely to do so, add antioxidant supplements to your diet.
2. Examine your diet, part 2. If you’re willing to add antioxidant foods to your diet, lookie here.
3. Consume more antioxidants if you exercise. If you exercise, know that it increases your free radical load, so consume antioxidants thereafter. This video by Dr. Micheal Gregor tells the tale:
I’m taking my own three suggestions to heart. I will continue to consume supplemental antioxidants, but will be more judicial about which and how much. I will continue to emphasize antioxidant rich food, many of which find there way into my morning veggie/protein smoothie.
Comments? Questions? Have at it in the Comments Section below.
Ciao for now.