By Bunmi Sofola
Vitamin pills are big business – from chewable ones for children and tablets especially tailored for women going through the menopause to essential oils for dodgy joints and high dose Vitamin C to pep up your immune system, there’s a supplement for everyone.
But can vitamins actually be =bad for your health?
It seems that your daily pill can do more harm than good.
Indeed, about a year ago, there was the revelation that fish oil capsules have been linked to high levels of prostate cancer – a shock for the millions who take fish oils or omega-3 fatty acids everyday in the quest to ease joint pain, improve heart health and fight mental decline.
A study of more than 2,000 men found that those with the highest levels of omega-3 in their blood were 71 percent more likely to develop low-grade prostate cancer.
And it’s not jut omega-3 that is under scrutiny. According to Dr. Alan Kristal, who led the study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, there is surprisingly little evidence that any vitamin or mineral pills prevent disease – unless people are suffering from a nutrient deficiency.
“As we do more and more of these studies, we find high doses of supplements have no effect or increase the risk of the disease you are trying to prevent”, he said. Yet millions of busy hopefuls take vitamins to compensate for a poor diet.
One of three of us takes a supplement, and we spend tons of millions of Naira a year on vitamin pills. The message from experts is not to panic. For most people, who take multivitamin and mineral supplements at the recommended dose is safe.
So amid all this confusing and sometimes contradictory advise, which supplements work and,more importantly which ones are safe?
Multivitamins: While they might be the most wide-ranging supplement -providing 100 percent of our daily allowance of everything from vitamin B to copper – there is little evidence that they do any good.
In 2010, French researchers followed 8,000 volunteers who had taken either a multivitamin or dummy placebo pill for six years, they found that those who popped the vitamin pills were just as likely to suffer heart disease or cancer as those taking the placebo.
That work followed a 2008 major review of 67 studies – involving 230,000 people – which found no evidence that multivitamins prolonged life. Some studies have even suggested that high doses could do more harm than good.
In 2011, the Iowa Women’s Health Study looked at the health of more than 38,000 older women and found that women who regularly took multivitamins were 2.4 percent more likely to die over the 19 years of the study.
Their research also showed that use of vitamin B6 increased the risk of death during the study by 4.1 percent, folic acid by 5.9 percent, iron by 3.0 percent, magnesium by 3.6 percent, zinc by 3 percent and copper by 18 percent.
However the study didn’t take into account the fact that many people start taking heavy doses of vitamins only when they develop serious diseases such as cancer.
But Dr. Kristal says:’Dozens of studies of multivitamins show that they do absolutely nothing at the recommended doses
So if your diet contains plenty of fresh food and your five-d-day, it’s unlikely multivitamin pill is essential.
Vitamin C: Doctors have known since the 1750s, when British sailors were first issued with limes, that Vitamin C is essential for health. It helps to heal wounds, strengthens the body’s connective tissues and keeps cells healthy.
But despite the many health claims, made about vitamin C, there is little evidence that it does much good as a supplement.
While it does appear to shorten the duration of colds, there is little real proof that it staves off illness, Dr. Kristal says. And the high doses recommended by some supporters of alternative medicine may do more harm than good.
In February, an 11-year study of more than 23,000 men found that those who took high doses of the supplement -typically 1,000mg – were twice as likely to develop kidney stones compared to men who took no pills.
A 2002 study showed that 1g doses of vitamin C and vitamin E almost trebled the risk of premature death among post-menopausal women in any year.
The Department of Health says adults need 40mg a day but does up to 1,000mg a day are unlikely to cause harm.
Anyone who is worried about their intake should make sure whether or not they are exceeding their safe daily dose.
For example, the effervescent vitamin drink brocade contains 476mg.
One tablet of a supplement like this, combined with a diet of fresh fruit, could tip you over the safe dosage.
Vitamin E: Found in nuts, germs wheat and oils, vitamin E is vital for healthy cells. According to the Department of Health, most adults need between 3mg and 4mg a day.
Studies have shown that foods rich in vitamin E may protect against heart disease. But there is little evidence that vitamin E pills do the same – and some say they may do harm.
In 2011, U.S. Researchers at Cleveland Clinic found that men who took a ‘high strength” 268mg vitamin E pill each day during the seven years student were 17 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer than men who did not take the supplement.
And, in 2005, a seven-year study of 4,000 people found it increased the risk of heart failure by 13 percent. While the Department of Health says taking 540mg or less a day is unlikely to do harm, the prostate cancer study published by Dr. Kristal also looked at the effect of daily 400mg vitamin E doses.
Dr. Kristal says: ‘It increased the risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent. We don’t know why. But one thing to remember is that, unlike vitamin C, it is soluble in fat and so levels build up in the body over time.’
Experts say that one egg or 28g of almonds a day should provide all the vitamin E you need – making it unlikely that any of us need a supplement.
Calcium: Calcium is often taken by middle-aged and older people to protect their bones. There is also evidence that it can prevent the recurrence of bowel polyp? Growths that may develop into cancer.
However, calcium supplements could increase the risk of heart disease in men, according to a study in February from the U.S. National Cancer Institute. A study of 388,000 people found that men who took more than 1,000 mg or 1g a day in supplements were at greater risk of heart problems – and had a 20 percent higher risk of death.
Women were not at greater risk, the Journal of the American Medical Association found. Scientists believe that high calcium levels harden the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Food Standards Agency recommends adults have 700mg of calcium a day. One yoghurt and a 300ml glass of milk would meet your daily calcium limit, so it’s unlikely you would need a supplement.
Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral found in seafood, meat and grains. It is essential in small doses, and selenium deficiency is linked to mental decline, impaired immune systems and premature death.
But although it is commonly recommended to help prevent heart disease, too much can be harmful. Medical experts advice that men need 0.075mg a day, and women 0.06mg in their diet. But after looking at data from 20,000 adults, Warwick Medical School researchers found that it did little to lower the incidence of heart disease in people with a good diet
High doses were linked to type 2 diabetes, the authors reported in the Cochrane Library journal.
Beta Carotene: Beta carotene is a pigment that gives yellow and orange plants colour. The body converts beta carotene to vitamin A, which we need for good vision, healthy skin and a strong immune system.
Beta carotene is a natural antioxidant and is usually taken to prevent cancer. But there is no evidence it works, and plenty to show that high doses can be harmful.
In 1994, researchers found that smokers who regularly took a large 20 mg dose of beta carotene a day were 8 percent more likely to die from lung cancer than people who did not take the supplement.
As well as all this, beta carotene can also give while skin an orange tint, and can trigger upset stomachs, join pain and dizziness.