Read this before you reach for the vitamin bottle
Forty years ago, my swim buddy Ashley (not her real name) was working too hard, worrying, smoking and drinking too much.
Concerned that the stress was “ripping” her health, she began a multivitamin/multi-mineral supplement “to bump me up.”
Years later, she drove off the road. Overnight, she stopped drinking, smoking, stressing and allowed her gray hair to show. But one thing she never stopped: her vitamins.
“Not that they make me feel any different,” she said. As a matter of fact, at the dosage the company website recommended – four tablets with each meal – she was getting severe flushing. “Now I take four tablets a day. I feel fine.”
I don’t like to argue with success. It’s like winning a seed-spitting contest at a watermelon festival – I see a lot of spitting and very little bragging. Besides, 40 percent of Americans take vitamin supplements.
She showed me her vitamin bottle. There's every “micronutrient” including all 13 vitamins at very bizarre concentrations. For example, each tablet contains 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D, 833 percent of Vitamin B12, 1,398 percent of vitamin C. At the company-recommended 12 tablets daily, she takes enough vitamin C for 168 people.
What’s the big deal?
Vitamins are essential nutrients, and we rely on food for adequate intake. They help enzymes. Imagine our body as a kitchen, enzymes are the chefs; vitamins, the sous-chefs.
We need small but specific amounts of vitamins. Our bodies tightly regulates their blood level. Once the cells are saturated, the extra is excreted. A colleague of mine calls vitamin supplements "expensive urine."
Generations ago, vitamin deficiency was common. Now vitamins are added to processed foods. For example, white flour is enriched with folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, iron and sometimes calcium.
Also we don’t need “daily” vitamins daily. An extreme case is vitamin B12. Even without intake, our body has enough reserve for five to 20 years.
Except in special circumstances, like pregnancy, medical experts don’t recommend vitamin supplements to well-nourished individuals.
While studies show that people who eat healthfully are healthier, study after study shows that vitamin supplements alone cannot extend life, reduce heart attack, lower cancer risk, or improve dementia.
So what? If vitamin supplements can’t make us wiser or healthier, what’s the harm in taking them – just in case?
There’s a trend toward increased mortality with beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high-dose vitamin A supplements. Last month, a large, long-term study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that male smokers who use vitamin B supplements have triple the lung cancer risk compared to nonusers.
In her book “Vitamania,” Catherine Price said this about taking things to excess: “Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.”
The best and safest way to get vitamins: eat nutrient-dense foods. Forget the pills.
Today, Ashley, 74, is the apple pie of good health. It’s hard to imagine she ever had a wild bone in her body. We swim our separate ways on vitamin supplements. But exercise and eggplant – those we both believe in.