Many people take dietary supplements (sometimes called “vitamins” or simply “supplements”) each day to help bolster their health or improve some facet of their body. These vitamins make many claims, from improving your immune system to giving you thicker, fuller hair. But do these claims live up to reality? With the value of the vitamin industry anticipated to reach around $230 billion by 2027, there are a lot of question marks over the actual value of the supplements that many of us take each day. Do they live up to the hype or could they actually be dangerous?
How Vitamins Help
The claims that many dietary supplements make generally circle around one line of thinking — the vitamins and nutrients in each supplement have scientific backing to improve your health. While we may have been able to get many of these nutrients through our diets, most Americans don’t get enough vitamins through their diets. In fact, much of our normal diet tends to be energy-rich, but nutrient-poor, meaning there are a lot of calories but very few vitamins and minerals to make the food healthy. In recent United States Dietary Guidelines, it was noted that most Americans aren’t getting enough Vitamins A, C, and E, along with some pretty important nutrients like potassium, calcium, fiber, and magnesium.
By picking up the slack left by your diet, supplements can prevent nutrient deficiencies.
The problem lies not only with people who eat too much unhealthy food, but also some of the most diet-cautious among us. Many diets (like gluten-free or low sugar) focus on what you shouldn’t be eating, instead of what you should. This can lead to a deficit in the nutrients that you’re accidentally leaving out of your diet. These deficiencies can lead to a host of negative symptoms and conditions from restlessness to a weakened immune system or worse. This is where dietary supplements come into play. By picking up the slack left by your diet, supplements can prevent nutrient deficiencies, with some even claiming to improve your health beyond this preventative benefit.
But, Do They Actually Do Anything?
This becomes the crux of the issue, however. Do dietary supplements live up to the claims on the bottles? In some cases, they actually may. A study by the National Eye Institute found that taking supplements for vitamins C and E along with beta-carotene and zinc could significantly lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration. Others believe that supplements may be an alternative to medication for bad headaches and migraines. And other studies have found that taking vitamin D supplements can lower your risk of all-cause mortality and help you live longer. Unfortunately, that’s kind of where the benefits end.
Eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle are much more influential, with the review stating that there is no shortcut to good health.
In recent years, there have been a few big studies that debunked many of the largest claims of dietary supplements, like preventing mental decline and heart disease, or cancer. A Johns Hopkins review concluded that these supplements had negligible or no effect, with the exception of folic acid in pregnant or potentially pregnant women. Eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle are much more influential, with the review stating that there is no shortcut to good health. In fact, the American Heart Association proposes that you should aim to get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals from your diet instead of supplements.
Unregulated and Potentially Dangerous
So what if vitamins aren’t fully proven to always benefit your health? There’s a chance that they could help you, and it’s not like they can hurt you, right? Well, that’s not necessarily true. In recent years, certain vitamin supplements have been linked with some really dangerous risks. Vitamin E supplements were found to increase your risk of heart failure and premature death. The Mayo Clinic has also reported that overindulging in vitamin B-6 supplements can lead to symptoms like seizures, numbness, and gastrointestinal issues. These were not found in overindulging B-6 from dietary sources. Other supplements that should be avoided (unless instructed to by a health care professional) include beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E.
The FDA is not authorized to review supplements for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed to the wider population.
One of the biggest issues facing the dietary supplement industry, in regard to health and effectiveness, is the lack of oversight and regulation. The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is not authorized to review supplements for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed to the wider population. At the same time, supplement companies are not required to research or prove both factors. Only the seriously harmful side effects are required to be reported to the FDA. This has allowed tainted and potentially dangerous supplements out into the market, sending thousands to the emergency room. When faced with little to no health benefits to the common person, some experts are now saying that you shouldn’t waste your money on supplements.
Are There Exceptions?
As with anything in life, there are exceptions to the common thread that supplements aren’t necessary. Generally, all of these deal with a proven nutritional deficit or health condition you may have. For example, while the American Heart Association states that you should get your nutrients from a balanced and healthy diet, they also note that people with heart disease or high blood pressure may want to consider omega-3 supplements under a doctor’s discretion. After checking with your doctor, you may also want to try the supplements we mentioned in relation to age-related macular degeneration. Conditions worsened by a lack of a certain nutrient, like osteoporosis and calcium, may have a doctor recommending nutritional supplementation. Patients with conditions like Crohn’s Disease or Celiac Disease, which make it harder for the body to absorb certain nutrients, may also need certain supplements.
If you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, there is every chance that you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to work well.
Do you notice the common thread in those exceptions? There is a medical need for the supplements, and they’re done with a medical professional’s suggestion. If you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, there is every chance that you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to work well. While taking a multivitamin may not hurt you (there’s simply too little evidence to say conclusively either way), you should check with your doctor before taking any regularly and try to find dietary sources of the nutrients first.