Why Take a Multivitamin?

Do you take a multivitamin? If you’re like 40 percent of adults in the United States you do. Most people who take multivitamins do so to ensure they are getting adequate amounts of vital nutrients and vitamins, but would you be surprised to find out that you may actually be harming your body? Some studies have recently shown that taking a multivitamin daily may be more harmful than good to our health, but opponents of the findings suggest that the study is flawed and that taking a multivitamin every day is, in fact, a good idea.

The topic of multivitamins has been a controversial one for hundreds of years. The point of contention seems to be exact amounts of each vitamin that the body needs for optimal performance. When vitamins were first discovered in the 1800s, it was thought that the amount of vitamins one should take is in direct correlation to the amounts needed to prevent diseases that were prevalent at the time such as scurvy, beri-beri, rickets and pellagra. Since then, however, it has been suggested that a broader approach to taking vitamins may be a better way to go. This is because deficiencies in certain micronutrients can damage our DNA. This damage at the cellular level has been shown to lead to conditions such as vision loss and serious, life-threatening diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

The Benefits of Multivitamins

The best way to get vitamins is through a healthy diet that is rich in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and good-quality protein may provide enough essential vitamins and nutrients for a healthy person to functional optimally. However, the reality is that most of us don’t eat a healthy enough diet. And when it comes to the micronutrients mentioned earlier, it is estimated that nearly 90 percent of Americans do not eat a healthy enough diet to get them in adequate amounts. Vitamin D is a prime example of this, particularly in climates where sunlight is in short supply during certain times of the year. Moreover, certain segments of the population (such as elderly people) cannot adequately absorb vitamin B12 from food. For them, it is recommended that a supplement be taken.

Speaking of B vitamins, another B vitamin is essential for good health for women in their reproductive years: folate. Also called folacin, this B vitamin has been shown to reduce the risk of having a baby with spina bifida or other neural tube defects. Because folacin is at its most effective when taken during the very early stages of pregnancy – often before a women even realizes she is pregnant – it is recommended that a woman of childbearing age takes the recommended amount of folic acid every daily (approximately 400 micrograms per day). A multivitamin formulated for women’s health is generally formulated to include a appropriate amount of folic acid and is therefore a good option.

In short, taking a daily multivitamin is a good insurance policy for those who are otherwise generally healthy. They offer a safe way to ensure that we are getting adequate amounts of essential vitamins and minerals for optimal overall health.

The connection between multivitamins and lifespan

A study out of Iowa revealed that women over the age of 55 who took multivitamins were at a higher risk of mortality than those who did not take one. Similarly, it was found that women who took folate, vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc and iron were living longer than those who did not. The study is flawed, however, because it did not exclude women who were already sick at the time of the study or indicate how long they had been taking supplements. Were the women already taking vitamins when they became ill? Or did they start taking the vitamins after they had already become ill? Multivitamins are a boon to health in healthy people; for those who are already sick with chronic serious illness it is unlikely that vitamins can lower their risk of death.

What the Iowa study did show, however, was regarding supplemental iron. High amounts of iron can be harmful to the body, a fact that is particularly true of women who have a genetic condition that makes it more difficult for them to absorb iron into their systems. Women in the study who were taking iron supplements tended to die earlier, but it is unclear whether this was from the effects of the iron itself or from the underlying reason the women were taking the iron in the first place, such as to assist in the recovery from injury or surgery or from conditions such as anemia. Although taking an iron supplement is indicated for menstruating women it is counter-indicated for postmenopausal women and for men, unless a doctor has diagnosed these patients with having a specific case of iron deficiency.

Opponents of multivitamins often point to studies that appear to show harm caused by taking them. One such study, a frequently cited study of antioxidant supplements that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study that showed that taking supplements of beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E can shorter a person’s life spam. The trouble with this study is that many of the test subjects were already suffering from a serious illness from which they may have died regardless of whether they took the vitamins or not. Further, a fair comparison among the subject was not really possible because there was so much variance among the types of supplements, the dosages taken and the length of time for which they had been taking them.

In sum, there is little irrefutable evidence that supports the idea that multivitamins (or moderate doses of individual nutrients) can be directly attributable to an increased risk for contracting major diseases or to a shortened life span. In fact, many reputable studies show that the very opposite is true, that in fact taking a multivitamin can actually offer protection against many conditions such as heart disease and some forms of cancer. Women who take multivitamins for more than 15 years have been shown to have lower odds of getting colorectal cancer than those who do not take multivitamins and these same women also had lower odds of developing precancerous intestinal growths, and a further study has shown that women who take folate (folic acid) have a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

It has been shown in recent years that there is a correlation between drinking alcohol and the development of an increased risk for breast cancer. This risk can be mitigated, however, by taking multivitamins, research has shown. There is some speculation that the particular component of multivitamins that is responsible for this risk reduction is folic acid.

All of this is not to suggest that there are no risks to taking multivitamins. High doses of any supplement can potentially be harmful. For example, large doses of iron can pose a threat to the organs and men who take too much zinc may be at an increased risk for developing prostate cancer.

What it boils down to is this: Taking a multivitamin is generally a good idea for healthy people and those who need a little nutritional insurance policy. Although some scientists do not believe that there is enough evidence to either support to advocate against taking a daily multivitamin, an analysis of the evidence that is available does seem to point to a conclusion that says that the potential health benefits associated with taking multivitamins generally outweigh the potential risks to most people. This does not include those who have pre-existing conditions that would mitigate this conclusion, nor does it mean that one should take a “more is better” approach to vitamins. The key to using vitamins as part of a healthy lifestyle is to use them in conjunction with a healthy whole foods diet and in proper amounts and combinations.

The fortunate thing is that it is not an expensive proposition to start taking multivitamin supplements. There is no need to go for high-end designer vitamins or even a name-brand variety. Any store-brand is likely to be just fine, although if you are questioning which one may suit your needs based, you can always ask your doctor or pharmacist. In terms of what to look for in vitamin supplement, look for one with an indication on the label of the percentage of the recommended daily allowance of each element contained within. Also, look for one that has been approved by the United States Pharmacopeia. Finally, ensure that your multivitamin contains enough vitamin D. Typically, you should be getting about 1,000 IU (International Units) of vitamin D daily, and many multivitamins don’t offer this amount. You may need to supplement your multivitamin with additional vitamin D. And in fact, people who live in higher latitudes (and who will therefore experience longer winters and less sunlight), people who have darker skin tones or those who do not get much sun exposure should take even more vitamin D – somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 IU daily.

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