9 Things You May Not Know About Vitamins and Supplements

Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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“Doctor, what vitamin or supplements should I be taking at my age?” It’s a good question, and one I hear often.

When you pick up a prescription medication you receive the long list of potential side effects and ingredients, along with proof that it worked and was safe before it was approved. On the other hand, with vitamins and supplements it is important to remember they are unregulated and untested as to their safety and their efficacy (whether or not they work).

It is unpopular to criticize supplements, which many think are “more natural,” but for those who are harmed every year by unregulated, untested, and easily available supplements—and spend money on them—here goes.

  1. Supplements and vitamins are a 34 billion dollar a year business.
  2. Many megavitamin companies are owned by pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer owns the huge megavitamin company Alacer).
  3. There is medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work and the best way to figure out which is which is by looking at scientific studies. Supplements and vitamins don’t have to prove they work before they are sold to you.
  4. A large percentage of adults take supplements and vitamins they deem more “natural” and reject medications made by big pharmaceutical companies—when really most megavitamin companies are owned by big pharma. Just know that.
  5. Whether or not you need to take a multivitamin, some individual supplements—vitamin E, vitamin C or vitamin A for example—have been studied for years.
  6. The vitamin E studies done year after year show an increased risk of heart failure and cancer in the groups taking vitamin E. Please know this. Just as one example: in 2010 the Cleveland Clinic published results on a huge trial done on 36,000 men where they studied vitamin E and selenium (either alone or together) and found a 17% increased risk of prostate cancer in the group taking the vitamins.
  7. With exception of folks with vitamin deficiencies (gastric bypass patients, celiacs, low vitamin D) not a single public health organization recommends the routine use of vitamins or supplements in most adults. This is because studies have never shown them to be effective and in some cases they are harmful.
  8. Vitamins and minerals can make claims about safety and effectiveness without evidence and the FDA does not approve herbal products before sale. The only change occurred in 2007, where the FDA can make sure a product contains what the label says it contains. When they started doing this, at least half of those inspected had problems and didn’t contain what they said they did.
  9. Most adults do not need a daily multivitamin. Of course there are situations where vitamins and supplements are helpful, and you and your doctor can discuss these. Examples include: AREDS eye vitamins for those with early macular degeneration, fish oil supplements for dry eyes, iron replacement for those with iron deficiency anemia, etc.

Dr O.

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