Should I or Shouldn’t I take Vitamins?

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Should I or Shouldn’t I take Vitamins?

Posted 20 Aug 2018

Health & Wellness

Dr. Ross Walker

Should I or Shouldn’t I take Vitamins?

For many years there has been a raging debate between conservative medical researchers and the complementary medical world around vitamin supplementation. The argument presented by conservative medicine is that we obtain all the vitamins we need from a modern diet and we no longer see “deficiency diseases”, such as scurvy, to any great extent.

The second component of the argument is that most randomised controlled clinical trials using vitamin supplementation have not demonstrated any clinical benefit, and in some cases, have even trended towards some degree of harm.

I, however, believe there is a strong argument against this position, but it does come with caveats!

1. We don’t get the nutrients we need!

Less than 10% of modern society ingests 2-3 pieces of fruit per day and 3-5 servings of vegetables per day which is the recommended dosage of our major source of micro nutrients. Thus, most people living in the modern world do not get an adequate number of vitamins, minerals and trace metals from their diet.

2. Supplements are a long-term commitment; they do not work overnight like pharmaceuticals

Most of the randomised controlled clinical trials have a follow up period of 5 years or less. This may be long enough for strong synthetic drugs but for lifestyle changes or natural supplements, it is not long enough to show a significant clinical benefit. I make the analogy between a high-performance motor car and a bicycle. A high-performance motor car will get you from A to B very quickly but with the potential for an accident causing harm and possibly death and thus the need for seat belts, safety mechanisms within the car and very strong road rules to minimise harm. Lifestyle interventions and natural supplements are like a bicycle. It takes much longer to get from A to B, but you also get some exercise along the way and the rules and safety precautions for the bicycle do not need to be anywhere near as rigid as for the high-performance motor car.

3. Not all vitamins are created equal

In Australia, which is where I am based-natural supplements are made to pharmaceutical standards and thus what it says on the bottle is actually in the bottle, with no contaminants.

American supplements are made to food standards and thus there is a stronger potential for contaminants and for inaccurate dosing. This, of course, is not always the case but it is always better to source vitamins that have been made to a pharmaceutical grade.

In addition, most studies suggesting no significant benefit or possibly harm are likely to have used poor quality, synthetic supplements; had too short a trial length; or attempted to correct abnormalities in people with advanced disease i.e. too little too late.

4. Vitamin supplements are just that: supplements!

Supplements are not strong enough to work against poor lifestyle habits. You cannot take a supplement that will counteract the effects of smoking, excessive drinking, unhealthy eating, or drug taking. To see the real benefits of vitamins requires having a healthy lifestyle to accompany it. Supplements will only be effectual when you use them as just that: supplements to your healthy lifestyle.

5. Commitment is key!

A Harvard study has shown significant benefits from taking a daily multivitamin, but only in a long-term scenario. In the study, a group of doctors and nurses took the multivitamin daily, and after ten years, taking a multivitamin every day showed no actual benefit.

However, in the people who took a multivitamin for ten years or more there was an 8% reduction in common cancers and cataracts. The observational data at 15 years showed a 75% reduction in bowel cancer, 25% reduction in breast cancer and a 23% reduction in cardiovascular disease. When the data was analysed at 20 years there was a 44% reduction in cardiovascular disease.

However, the control group studied were a group of affluent physicians: doctors and nurses. This is a group of people that would be predisposed to taking better care of their health than most other groups in society. Though multivitamins would have been a huge help in the reduction of various diseases, the role of lifestyle and healthy living would have played a significant part too.

So what does this all mean?

The problem with this entire debate is the difference of opinion between conservative, cautious scientists and those who take a more holistic, open-minded view.

When you examine the long-term benefits for supplementation, in my view, these are very clear. However, they do require a long-term commitment to swallowing pills or potions not always recommended by mainstream medicine.

Fortunately, it is your choice – you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy supplements. It’s up to you to make that choice for your body and your wellbeing.

Yours in good health

Dr. Walker


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2 people have commented this blog.

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Rebecca says:

8 months 1 day ago
Are there any specific brands and vitamins you recommend out of the millions on the grocery store shelves to choose from?

robert says:

8 months 5 days ago
Askin the Doc! Could it be a mind process where those taking vitamins or herbal supplements over a period of time actually think they are healthier and stronger, and therefore manifest that condition in their own mind and body? Rob

Dr_Ross_Walker says:

8 months 5 days ago
Hi Robert, There is no doubt that the placebo response may have a powerful place in medicine. The same can be argued for pharmaceutical therapy or vitamin supplementation. But, if a person with an open mind objectively reads the scientific literature, there is clear evidence for the benefits of long-term vitamin supplementation and its effect on the body and functions. Dr Ross

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