Viking Blog – December 13, 2021
Multivitamins – A “Golden Ticket” to Better Health?
Take a step through the automatic doors of any grocery store or pharmacy, and within a few aisles, you'll find yourself in a well-curated, colorfully-labeled wonderland of vitamins, herbs, minerals, and supplements. Bottle after bottle of tablets, capsules, powders, liquids, and gummies stand at the ready. There are formulas for all age groups; specific to men or to women; endless variations geared towards brain health, better sleep, higher energy, healthy hair, skin, and nails; there are vegan and vegetarian formulations; even the size of the pill itself-- “minis” or “Women's Petites” to name just two. Buzzwords abound: “raw,” “natural,” “bioactive,” “plant-based,” and, perhaps most popularly amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, “immune support.” Willy Wonka would surely be impressed by such a wide array of appealing and inventive goods. But, is spending your money on any of these products any more of an investment in your health than buying an Everlasting Gobstopper?
Multivitamin formulas first began to appear in the early 1900s, joining the fray of health and wellness aids along with patent medicines, tonics, and other concoctions. The “one-a-day” multivitamin came into use in the 1940s, and their popularity only increased from there. While many of the head-turning, highly questionable remedies were regulated out of existence, multivitamins stuck around. The scientific concepts on which they were created are solid—severe dietary deficiencies were common problems for much of history.
In addition to the more familiar “macronutrients”-- fat, carbohydrates, and protein-- the human body requires micronutrients, also known as minerals and vitamins. While macronutrients can be thought of as the fuel and building blocks of the body, micronutrients facilitate the processes that allow our bodies to break down and utilize those macronutrients, and support the growth, maintenance, and healing of the cells, tissues, and organ systems that make up the body.
A lack or absence of micronutrients can wreak havoc on a person's health. Some micronutrients, such as vitamin C, biotin, and chromium, cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through dietary sources. An historical example of vitamin deficiency familiar to many is scurvy, a devastating illness that plagued seafairers who traveled for months at a time with no access to fresh produce. The body needs vitamin C (a.k.a. ascorbic acid) to maintain its connective tissues, and without a dietary source, will deplete its existing stores. Connective tissue breakdown begins to occur, causing leakage from blood vessels, gum inflammation and loose teeth, non-healing wounds, and progresses to nerve, bone, and organ damage, hemorrhage, and even death.
Other micronutrients can be synthesized within the body, but deficiencies of these minerals and vitamins can cause health problems as well. Calcium, for example, is required for an enormous amount of cellular function throughout the body. A low supply of free calcium in the bloodstream can trigger the body to leach the mineral from bones, potentially leading to osteoporosis. Low iron can disrupt healing and recovery by decreasing the concentration of oxygenated red blood cells and interfering with protein synthesis.
In addition to maintaining these regular bodily functions, we also hope to decrease our odds of developing a disease that will prematurely end or significantly decrease the quality of our lives. According to CDC data on mortality in the United States in 2019, the top two causes of death were heart disease at number one, and cancer at number two, with cerebrovascular disease/stroke at number five, and Alzheimer's disease at number six. So it seems reasonable that Americans would strive to do whatever they can to avoid these conditions, including, perhaps, supplementing with vitamins and minerals.
So, is taking a daily multivitamin an easy way to support our bodies, improve our health, and avoid the scourge of disease? Overwhelming data indicates that our money is better spent in the produce section of the grocery store.
Numerous studies have failed to show any link between the use of multivitamins and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease or death (including heart attack, stroke, and other thrombotic conditions such as pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis). Nor have they provided evidence to indicate that multivitamins help to prevent memory loss, cognitive impairment, and dementia. Studies of cancer risk and multivitamin use vary in their results, as cancer can affect any system, organ, or tissue of the body, but most studies show little to no relationship between multivitamin use and one's risk of cancer.
A cross-sectional study published in the British Medical Journal's BMJ Open compared self-reported overall health of study subjects with measurable clinical health information (a history of 10 chronic diseases, the existence of any of 19 health conditions over the previous 12 month period, a person's need for assistance with daily needs, and an assessment of psychological distress). While participants who reported taking a daily multivitamin self-evaluated their well-being as approximately 30% better than those who did not take a daily multivitamin, there was no correlation between these self-reports and actual improved physical or psychological health. Whether the multivitamin users have an overall more positive viewpoint or whether some placebo effect is at play, the perceived benefit of taking a multivitamin is just that—perception.
If you still feel that you might benefit from taking a daily multivitamin, talk to your doctor. If you take prescription medications for health conditions, it's critical to be certain that any vitamins or supplements you plan to take will not interact adversely with those medicines. We think of vitamins as benevolent, and while they do each serve important purposes, they can also cause problems. For example, Vitamin K is necessary to help your blood clot in response to injuries to blood vessels. Taking a supplement that includes vitamin K can interfere with the anticoagulant medication warfarin (also known as Coumadin and Jantoven), which is used to decrease the likelihood of dangerous clots. Zinc, another common ingredient of multivitamins, can affect the absorption of oral antibiotics like cephalexin, decreasing their effectiveness. Folic acid can potentiate the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs, increasing the likelihood of nerve damage, bleeding, and anemia. Bloodwork and physical examination are needed to determine whether you are lacking vitamins or minerals, and to figure out the cause for any deficiencies.
While prescribed vitamins or minerals may be indicated in treating certain conditions, adding them on your own could worsen some health conditions that you already have. Barring a diagnosed deficiency, your best bet is to include a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains into your diet. As appealing as the idea of an easy, one-a-day multivitamin might be, your body, your health, and your budget are all better-served by obtaining your micronutrients through your diet.