One third of Americans regularly take vitamin or mineral supplements, but two independent studies have recently raised concern about their safety. Suddenly, evidence suggests that the benefits of taking vitamin supplements are minimal, and they may even be detrimental to your health. With an abundance of vague and conflicting information circulating, it can be hard to figure out who should be taking vitamins and which vitamins are safe?
In one of the studies, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio analyzed data from nearly 39,000 women who took part in the Iowa Women’s Health Study and found that dietary supplements were connected to an increased risk of death. The vitamin supplements associated with this increased risk included copper, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and multivitamins. Women who took any of these supplements had a two and a half percent higher mortality rate than those who didn’t take any.
In a separate study, researchers analyzed data from 35,000 men and found that men who took vitamin E on a daily basis were slightly more likely to get prostate cancer than those who didn’t. This data came from the Select trial, which was conducted at the Cleveland Clinic in order to find out if taking selenium and vitamin E either together or individually could lower the risk for prostate cancer. The trial was stopped in 2008, when researchers reviewed the data and concluded that not only was there no benefit of taking vitamin E or selenium, but vitamin E seemed to increase the risk of prostate cancer slightly. The most current data, based on a followup review, shows that the men in the study who took vitamin E were 17 percent more likely to get prostate cancer than those who didn’t.
These two studies seem to suggest that taking too many vitamins can lead to serious health complications. At the same time, some vitamins and minerals are necessary for overall health. How can we make sense of these contradictions? Here's some advice from experts:
Get Most Of Your Vitamins Through Food While it’s possible to take too many vitamins in supplement form, it is impossible to overdose on the nutrients you get through food. Vitamins and minerals are no substitute for eating a nutritious diet. Depending on your diet, you may need to add certain nutrients to your daily intake. Talk to your doctor about what you’ve been eating and what supplements you’re taking to see if it’s necessary to change your regimin.
Adjust Your Vitamin Intake To Your Age People need different vitamins and minerals at different points in their lives. After menopause, women generally benefit from taking calcium to protect their bones. Additionally, anyone over age 50 should think about adding vitamin B12, since older people tend to not produce the amount of stomach acid required to absorb the vitamin B12 in food. In general, the recommended vitamin D intake is 600 International Units per day for those under age 70, and 800 IU for those who are older.
Be Particularly Wary Of Iron In the Finnish study mentioned earlier, the women who took iron supplements showed the highest risk of an earlier death. In some ways, this is no surprise, since too much iron has been associated with certain types of heart disease. Women who have gone through menopause are usually no longer at risk for iron deficiency, so taking iron supplements only increases the risk of overdoing it. Just make sure to keep your diet rich in greens and other foods that naturally contain iron.
Don’t Freak Out Not all experts are convinced that vitamins are bad for you. If you are deficient in a nutrient and have been prescribed supplements by your doctor, it’s best to follow his or her instructions. The conclusions drawn from these studies is that supplements do not make you healthier, and in high doses they can cause harm. But more research is needed to discover why this is, and what the healthiest alternative is. For now, make sure to keep your diet full of fresh vegetables, fruits and protein to ensure that you’re getting the majority of your nutrients through food.