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Essential Science: Does popping vitamin pills actually work?

Back in 1999, the U.S. National Institutes of Health undertook a $2.4 billion study in search of evidence about vitamin pills, based on the research question as to whether taking vitamins improves health or has no significant benefit. The end of this inquiry, as reported by Pharmaceutical Manufacturing, is that there is very little evidence in favor of taking vitamin pills.

The reports look at new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, titled “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements: What Clinicians Need to Know.”

Vitamin pills vs healthy diet

The research was not looking at whether the human body needs certain vitamins; the focus was more with the mechanism for getting the necessary chemicals. The outcome was that researchers involved could not to produce much in the way of evidence that vitamins raise health levels compared with a healthy diet that contains vitamin-rich foods.

Vegetables on sale in a market in Bohol  Philippines.

Vegetables on sale in a market in Bohol, Philippines.
Wikimedia Commons / Jasper Greek Golangco

This needs to be seen in the context of the habit of taking vitamins. In the U.S., 68 percent of people over the age of 65 have stated they take a vitamin. In addition, with older adults, 29 percent apparently four or more supplements of any kind, according to a Journal of Nutrition study which was published in 2017 (“Dietary Supplement Use Was Very High among Older Adults in the United States in 2011–2014”). Moreover, the U.S. nutrition market is saturated with over 90,000 different dietary supplements.

Too many vitamins can be bad for you

A further point is that taking too high a dose of certain vitamins can be detrimental to a human health. As an example, taking so-called “mega doses” of beta carotene has been connected to higher instances of lung cancer, for those who are regular smokers (see the research paper “Beta-carotene and lung cancer in smokers: review of hypotheses and status of research”).

Various vitamins in a bowl

Various vitamins in a bowl
bradley j (CC BY 2.0)

Despite the new research building on earlier studies that question the health benefits of taking vitamin pills, it could well remain that the erroneous assumptions around the health benefits remain embedded in societal consciousness. Shifting public perception is a slow and even process. This phenomenon has been explored in the research article “The Supplement Paradox: Negligible Benefits, Robust Consumption.” Here the detailed research found “a steady stream of high-quality studies evaluating dietary supplements has yielded predominantly disappointing results about potential health benefits, whereas evidence of harm has continued to accumulate.”

The research additionally finds that people who consume high quantities of fish, for example, showed fewer instances of heart problems due to the rich levels of omega-3 fatty acids contained in the fish. This does not mean, however, that taking fish oil pills leads to increased health benefits.

Multiple factors equal good health

The researchers argue that other factors need to be taken into account. For instance, those who eat a lot of fish are less likely to heat large amounts of processed red meat. Hence, if a person who eats a lot of processed red meat adds fish oil pills to his or her diet the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids will be not counter the health risks associated with red meat consumption (see, for example, the study “Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus.”) To add to this, is the importance of taking regular exercise to keep healthy.

File photo shows a man stocking shelves with vitamins and diet supplements at Vibrant Health in San ...

File photo shows a man stocking shelves with vitamins and diet supplements at Vibrant Health in San Francisco, California on April 6, 2009
Justin Sullivan, Getty/AFP/File

According to Liz Szabo (from Kaiser Health News), writing in The New York Times, one reason that drives growth in vitamin pills is due to first-stage studies that suggest a certain food has health benefits. Instead of people modifying their diet, this can lead to a switch towards supplements. In addition, many preliminary studies are later shown to be unfounded.

She writes: “Often, preliminary studies fuel irrational exuberance about a promising dietary supplement, leading millions of people to buy in to the trend. Many never stop. They continue even though more rigorous studies — which can take many years to complete — almost never find that vitamins prevent disease, and in some cases cause harm.”

There remains a strong case for dietary supplements in parts of the world, or impoverished communities, without sufficient funding or access to a wide range of food. Dietary supplements are widely used and offer the potential to improve health if appropriately targeted to those in need, as borne out in the research paper titled “Dietary supplements and disease prevention — a global overview”. For more affluent communities, a balanced diet should provide the necessary nutrients.

There are, however, some medical reasons why a person should take vitamin pills. If a medical doctor has advised that supplements are taken this should continue and those in doubt should seek a consultation with a medical professional.

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at the very modern physiological issue of ‘text neck’. Here Spinal surgeon Dr. Ken Hansraj has defined postural implications for humanity. In newly published research he describes the impact of text neck, backpack forces, and gender specific data on belly size, along with breast forces, on the spine.

The week before we found out how surfers and others who like aquatic sports have been given a new problem to consider. New microbiological research indicates that surfers and body-boarders harbor higher levels of potentially dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts compared with non-surfers.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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