Supplements

To my mind there is no question that the supplement industry is just another product of our industrialized world. Once again science and industry are have successfully installed a dogma that is well entrenched, this is the belief that our health is reliant on the inclusion of carefully developed nutrients derived from highly intelligent, well educated, groups of people in a sterile laboratory that can bottle an easy answer, or shortcut, to wellbeing.

Working on the notion that we are vitalistic beings that are part of a whole living system’s functionality, a multivitamin pill simply cannot effectively resonate within this system. It stands to reason that a vitamin that is obtained from the consumption of a whole food will be balanced with all that is needed for the body to effectively utilize that vitamin. This theory continues to apply regardless of the class of nutrient the multivitamin is sourced from, be it natural, synthetic, food cultured, etc. In all classes the vitamin has been isolated from nature and reintroduced in an artificial setting.

The notion has existed for many centuries that the addition of certain nutrients may assist the body’s innate intelligence in overcoming periods of ‘dis’ease. Manuscripts recovered from Egypt dating back as far as 2000BC talk about the use of castor oil, aloe, mint, myrrh, copper, lead, salt, cedar, and opium, although it would appear that remedies used without magical words were valueless or failed to have their full effect [1]. It was not until very recently however, that orthomolecular therapy, (orthomolecular meaning ‘right molecule’) became the therapy of choice for countless millions.

It was Linus Pauling in 1968 who introduced the concept of Orthomolecular Therapy. He was sure that the isolation of vitamin C would be effective for the treatment of the common cold. He postulated that people’s needs for vitamins and other nutrients vary markedly and that to maintain good health, many people need amounts of nutrients much greater than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) [2]. Whilst Pauling’s findings may have indeed been accurate, it was and is the method of delivery that is questionable.

Approximately 1500 years before Pauling, Hippocrates is famously said “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates revolutionized the practice of medicine by shifting western medicine from the religious to the “rational.” He believed doctors should analyse symptoms on a case-by-case basis, instead of having blanket causes and/or cures for each disease [3]. In contrast to this philosophy the supplement industry is proposing a blanket ‘cure’ for one ‘dis’ease, e.g. Vitamin C for a cold, B vitamins for stress, or a multi-vitamin as a general health insurance policy. This model of treatment is very mechanistic and deviates greatly from the notion of treating people on a case-by-case basis.

 

Current research [7] has shown that the vast majority of people, who take multi-vitamin supplements, tend to be those that are doing so as an addition to a multi-focused approach to health. They tend to be people from more affluent and better educated demographics, who generally have more nutritious diets. With this in mind it is not hard to see that they may in fact be healthier than those that don’t take multi-vitamins, however the fact that they are taking these supplements is not necessarily the reason for their being healthier.

A recent article entitled Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements [4] cites several long term studies looking at the efficacy of multi-vitamin use:

First, Fortmann and colleagues [5] systematically reviewed trial evidence to update the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation on the efficacy of vitamin supplements for primary prevention in community-dwelling adults with no nutritional deficiencies. After reviewing 3 trials of multivitamin supplements and 24 trials of single or paired vitamins that randomly assigned more than 400 000 participants, the authors concluded that there was no clear evidence of a beneficial effect of supplements on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer [4].

Second, Grodstein and co-workers [6] evaluated the efficacy of a daily multivitamin to prevent cognitive decline among 5947 men aged 65 years or older participating in the Physicians’ Health Study II. After 12 years of follow-up, there were no differences between the multivitamin and placebo groups in overall cognitive performance or verbal memory [4].

Following several other researcher’s conclusions, the authors of Enough is Enough, concluded that “multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases” [4].

Contrary to the above conclusion, it is not difficult to find research papers that promote the use of multi-vitamins due to finding that support their efficacy. A Randomized Trial of Multivitamin Supplements and HIV Disease Progression and Mortality concluded that Multivitamin supplements delay the progression of HIV disease and provide an effective, low-cost means of delaying the initiation of antiretroviral therapy in HIV-infected women [8]. This being the case there may be sound evidence that supports the use of multi-vitamins in the case of chronic illness, however the use of these supplements as a preventative therapy in general use seems to be a pointless exercise.

To my mind, the use of multi-vitamins is an elaborate marketing ploy used by the supplement industry aimed to make us think that we need multivitamins in our diets for good health. All the evidence and research found, does not sway me from the belief that getting micro-nutrients from our food is the most effective way to maximise our health. There are common, and mostly justified, concerns around the availability of micro-nutrients in our food supply. Awareness of this and education about the sorts of foods we should be eating will be far more beneficial to our world’s health than taking multi-vitamin supplements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

  1. http://www.wrf.org/ancient-medicine/belief-and-the-healing-arts-of-ancient-civilizations.php
  2. http://nutritionhistory.org/dark-side-of-linus-paulings-legacy/
  3. http://www.ediblewildfood.com/bios/hippocrates.aspx
  4. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1789253&wvsessionid=wve819a412370b453ba2ca0d2c02bf3cc6
  5. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1767855
  6. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1789250
  7. http://www.nutritionj.com/content/13/1/14
  8. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa040541

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