There are vitamin pills in just about every bathroom cupboard across the country – but do we really need to take these supplements?and can taking too many vitamins actually be harmful? Recent research offers some interesting findings.
There are many fallacies about taking vitamin and mineral supplements and the health benefits they offer. For most people, it is best to get the vitamins our bodies need from eating a balanced diet.
What vitamins do we actually need?
The body needs 13 different vitamins in order to function effectively. These vitamins can be divided into two groups: fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and water-soluble vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, pantothenic acid, folate, biotin and vitamin C). We also need minerals and macronutrients, such as calcium, iron, magnesium and protein.
When would we need a supplement?
Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, we often don’t eat as well as we should all the time, and for some people, daily vitamin supplements may help with balanced nutrition. However, vitamin supplements will never replace a well-balanced diet.
Some common misconceptions
It has been said that vitamin E has a positive effect on the heart, but several large-scale reviews have conclusively found no evidence that vitamin E supplements prevent death from heart disease.
Several long-term studies have shown that prostate, breast and lung cancer risk are not decreased by taking high-dose supplements containing vitamins E, C or selenium. In fact, people taking high-dose vitamin E supplements have been found to have higher rates of early death.
Vitamin C is thought to help prevent the common cold or reduce the symptoms of one. Yet, despite exhaustive research around the world, there is still no strong evidence to prove this. Some studies have shown that taking large doses of vitamin C (greater than 1000mg per day) taken continuously or at the start of a cold may ease some of the symptoms and the duration, but it does not prevent you catching a cold.
Also, large doses of vitamin C may cause fatigue, abdominal cramps, headaches, nausea, kidney stones and diarrhoea. It may also interfere with your body’s ability to process other nutrients – for example, it can lead to dangerously raised levels of iron.
Vitamin A has often been thought to assist with cancer treatment, but in large doses it does not cure cancer and can be toxic, particularly if taken as pills rather than food. Vitamin A (betacarotene) has been linked to an increase in others, such as lung cancer in smokers, if taken in supplement form. Too much vitamin A can cause birth defects.
Vitamins in isolation
According to the Better Health Channel a proper balance and adequate levels of essential nutrients is important for a range of complex processes in our body, but when vitamins are taken as supplements, they are introduced to the body at levels that could never be achieved by eating the healthiest of diets. They are also sent in ‘alone’. When they occur in food, vitamins have many ‘companions’ to help them along the way.
When it comes to vitamins: less is more
In the case of vitamins, it is better to follow this rule: ‘less is more’. The vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble, which means if you have too much it can be stored in the body.
Some of the water-soluble vitamins can also cause side effects in high doses. For instance, vitamin B6 has been linked with nerve damage when taken in large doses.
For a healthy adult, any supplements should generally only be taken at levels close to the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI). High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.
Are some supplements OK – sometimes?
Supplements do have a role to play for some people. For instance, people on medically approved long-term weight-loss diets or people with malabsorption problems, such as diarrhoea, coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis or pancreatitis, can benefit from supplements. Ask your doctor, dietician or Aboriginal health nurse before you start taking vitamin supplements.