Are Vitamins and Supplements Really Important?

Most people fall into one of two categories: Those who faithfully pop their daily vitamin/mineral supplements, or those who feel guilty because they don’t. Well, according to a recently published study, taking vitamin supplements may not just be overrated, it could actually be damaging to your health.

The study, recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that older women who took a vitamin supplement everyday had higher death rates than those who didn’t. Lead author of the study, Jaakko Mursu, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, reported that women who took multivitamins were 6% more likely to die over a 19-year period, compared to women not taking supplements. Moreover, those who took a vitamin supplement, even if it was just a multivitamin, had a higher risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The study throws the spotlight on concerns regarding the use of vitamins and supplements by individuals who do not suffer from any nutritional deficiencies. The researchers believe that their findings “add to the growing evidence demonstrating that certain supplements can be harmful.”

Mursu concludes, “I think the main message is researchers are finding very little benefit from these substances. Other studies have not shown the mortality risk our study shows, but those studies have not seen any positive effect either.”

The research utilized data from the IOWA Women’s Health Study to inspect the possible link between habitually taking vitamin and mineral supplements and the death rates among a total of 38,772 women who had an average age of 61.6. The participants in the study answered questionnaires regarding their use of supplements in 1986, 1997 and 2004. Of the 15 supplements that they examined, the researchers associated 7 with increased mortality risk.

They found that regular use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, all supplements that many older women take to prevent chronic diseases, were associated with a higher risk of death. The study also revealed that this link between supplement intake and risk of death was most strongly pronounced with taking iron. On a more positive note, they noted that taking calcium supplements, usually taken to prevent osteoporosis, was actually associated with a reduced risk.

Nearly half of adults in the U.S. take a multivitamin every single day according to industry data. The annual sales of vitamin and supplements now total more than $20 billion. According to the researchers however, vitamins and mineral supplements need to be used with a strong medically based cause and not just for prevention.

Montefiore Medical Center’s Director of clinical nutrition in New York, Mirriam Pappo suggests however, that the new study be taken with a grain of salt. “I wouldn’t conclude from this that you stop taking a standard multivitamin. Very few people eat the required amount of fruits and vegetables a day. It’s best to get your daily needs from food, but few people do that,” she said to Time magazine. Still, many experts agree that if you eat well, you don’t need vitamin supplements.

Of the 38,772 women who participated in the study in 1986, 15,594 died within 19 years. The participants also reported a substantial increased in supplement use from 1986 to 2004: 62.7% of women reported using at least one supplement daily in 1986, 75.1% in 1997 and 85.1% in 2004.

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