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Vitamins -- A False Hope?

Ever since the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Linus Pauling first promoted “megadoses” of essential nutrients 40 years ago, Americans have been devoted to their vitamins. Today about half of all adults use some form of dietary supplement, at a cost of $23 billion a year.

But are vitamins worth it? In the past few years, several high-quality studies have failed to show that extra vitamins, at least in pill form, help prevent chronic disease or prolong life.

The latest news came last week after researchers in the Women’s Health Initiative study tracked eight years of multivitamin use among more than 161,000 older women. Despite earlier findings suggesting that multivitamins might lower the risk for heart disease and certain cancers, the study, published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, found no such benefit.

Last year, a study that tracked almost 15,000 male physicians for a decade reported no differences in cancer or heart disease rates among those using vitamins E and C compared with those taking a placebo. And in October, a study of 35,000 men dashed hopes that high doses of vitamin E and selenium could lower the risk of prostate cancer.

Of course, consumers are regularly subjected to conflicting reports and claims about the benefits of vitamins, and they seem undeterred by the news — to the dismay of some experts.

“I’m puzzled why the public in general ignores the results of well-done trials,” said Dr. Eric Klein, national study coordinator for the prostate cancer trial and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. “The public’s belief in the benefits of vitamins and nutrients is not supported by the available scientific data.”

Everyone needs vitamins, which are essential nutrients that the body can’t produce on its own. Inadequate vitamin C leads to scurvy, for instance, and a lack of vitamin D can cause rickets.

But a balanced diet typically provides an adequate level of these nutrients, and today many popular foods are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals. As a result, diseases caused by nutrient deficiency are rare in the United States.

In any event, most major vitamin studies in recent years have focused not on deficiencies but on whether high doses of vitamins can prevent or treat a host of chronic illnesses. While people who eat lots of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables have long been known to have lower rates of heart disease and cancer, it hasn’t been clear whether ingesting high doses of those same nutrients in pill form results in a similar benefit.

In January, an editorial in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute noted that most trials had shown no cancer benefits from vitamins — with a few exceptions, like a finding that calcium appeared to lower the recurrence of precancerous colon polyps by 15 percent.

But some vitamin studies have also shown unexpected harm, like higher lung cancer rates in two studies of beta carotene use. Another study suggested a higher risk of precancerous polyps among users of folic acid compared with those in a placebo group.

In 2007, The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed mortality rates in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements. In 47 trials of 181,000 participants, the rate was 5 percent higher among the antioxidant users. The main culprits were vitamin A, beta carotene and vitamin E; vitamin C and selenium seemed to have no meaningful effect.

“We call them essential nutrients because they are,” said Marian L. Neuhouser, an associate member in cancer prevention at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “But there has been a leap into thinking that vitamins and minerals can prevent anything from fatigue to cancer to Alzheimer’s. That’s where the science didn’t pan out.”

Everyone is struggling to make sense of the conflicting data, said Andrew Shao, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a vitamin industry trade group. Consumers and researchers need to “redefine our expectations for these nutrients,” he said. “They aren’t magic bullets.”

Part of the problem, he said, may stem from an inherent flaw in the way vitamins are studied. With drugs, the gold standard for research is a randomized clinical trial in which some patients take a drug and others a placebo. But vitamins are essential nutrients that people ingest in their daily diets; there is no way to withhold them altogether from research subjects.

Vitamins given in high doses may also have effects that science is only beginning to understand. In a test tube, cancer cells gobble up vitamin C, and studies have shown far higher levels of vitamin C in tumor cells than are found in normal tissue.

The selling point of antioxidant vitamins is that they mop up free radicals, the damaging molecular fragments linked to aging and disease. But some free radicals are essential to proper immune function, and wiping them out may inadvertently cause harm.

In a study at the University of North Carolina, mice with brain cancer were given both normal and vitamin-depleted diets. The ones who were deprived of antioxidants had smaller tumors, and 20 percent of the tumor cells were undergoing a type of cell death called apoptosis, which is fueled by free radicals. In the fully nourished mice, only 3 percent of tumor cells were dying.

“Most antioxidants are also pro-oxidants,” said Dr. Peter H. Gann, professor and director of research in the department of pathology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In the right context and the right dose, they may be able to cause problems rather than prevent them.”

Scientists suspect that the benefits of a healthful diet come from eating the whole fruit or vegetable, not just the individual vitamins found in it. “There may not be a single component of broccoli or green leafy vegetables that is responsible for the health benefits,” Dr. Gann said. “Why are we taking a reductionist approach and plucking out one or two chemicals given in isolation?”

Even so, some individual vitamin research is continuing. Scientists are beginning to study whether high doses of whole-food extracts can replicate the benefits of a vegetable-rich diet. And Harvard researchers are planning to study whether higher doses of vitamin D in 20,000 men and women can lower risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.

“Vitamin D looks really promising,” said Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, the chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an investigator on several Harvard vitamin studies. “But we need to learn the lessons from the past. We should wait for large-scale clinical trials before jumping on the vitamin bandwagon and taking high doses.”

13 Responses
Avatar universal
Did not mean to editorialize with my subject heading. The title of the NY Times article was "Vitamin Pills: A False Hope?". I was simply truncating it. As the article suggests lots of conflicting opinions, but one thing that did pop out is how for example some vitamins may feed cancer tumors, obviously the opposite of what a cancer patient would want. How it works with the virus I have no idea other than things don't often work the way we think they do. Nature has it's own unique logic.

Funny, thinking recently of o getting some potassium supplements as I started a mild diuretic for my bp. Also thinking of getting some SAMe for some tendon problems that could be an early sign of arthritis. After reading the article I think  I'll research both a little more .

-- Jim
Avatar universal
I think there is PLENTY of research showing the benifits of Vitamin D to various patients. I think it can play an important role in those with HCV who are non-responders because it affects the immune system. Research is turning up the fact that many with liver disease are vitamin D deficient. Is there a link with nonresponders?

Here are some links
"The Role of Vitamin D and Calcium in Type 2 Diabetes"

Look up NCT00804752  at  http://clinicaltrials.gov

Vitamin D and Its Role in Cancer and Immunity: A Prescription for Sunlight  

Avatar universal
Yuk, potassium supplements. I'd rather load up on the too-often maligned potato. A banana or two will also do you, as will a host of other foods. It's easy to increase low potassium levels for most of us, even with diuretics.

I saw the article when it first appeared and liked it. Now if I can get hubby off his niacin kick before he gets gout. I wonder when something bad will emerge about co-enzyme Q10, which is currently as unassailable as soy was before the breast cancer connection was established.
Avatar universal

I didn't write the article nor did I take a position other than to keep an open mind about the issues this article raises.


Whoops. I upped my CoQ today a bit LOL Yeah, I remember the soy craze (part of it for awhile) then read about a link between soy and memory loss, but can't remember where I saw it :)

-- Jim
Avatar universal

I like Lucy's spin.
315996 tn?1429057829
still going to lean towards HR's nutrient suggestions for helping the liver fight you-know-what
388154 tn?1306365291
proffesing to be wise, they became fools!!!!
rom 1:22
315996 tn?1429057829
I think that is speled "professing".

Avatar universal
That I love Lucy episode is a classic LOL Thanks for posting. Again, for anyone who missed it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlRRQ81ZRJs
233616 tn?1312790796
I'm glad you brought this up Jim...this is actually why I stopped using fatty supplements 30 years ago. Although, I think the real culprit here is not the oils themselves but the condition of said oils. Fresh oils and vitamins are good for us in moderation
but with oil especially the rancidity factor is the big culprit.

Originally, it was well known that oils degrade, and when oxidized they smell and taste bad so people knew to avoid them. However when research proved that long before most could taste the rancidity, it was there. The body, and liver especially have to process this partially rotten oil..and it leads to the formation of free radical cells which are of course the precursors and causative agents of cancerous cellular growth

So oil from a freshly caught fish...good oil...oil sitting in a warehouse for months and then in a vitamin store for more months....not good.

Oil also degrade and oxidizes in light (yet most oils are sold and stored in well lit stored.
Oil should be cold pressed, kept refrigerated and used rapidly. Buy small bottles more often.
I also add BHT to my oils....a harmless antioxidant the health foods nut made the oil industry remove from our food oils because it was a "preservative"  ooooooowww...
bad word...lets see, anti-oxidant preservative...or cancer...which is worse?
They really blew it on this one.

HELPFUL household hints..
1.buy olive oil in small cans...no light has gotten to canned oil
store all but the weeks worth in the fridge...
2or else don't eat it...better yet.
3.But if you do use it sparingly.
4.If in doubt, pour some on your cat's food or dogs food...if they refuse to eat it, it probably rancid even if you cannot smell it. Animals sense of smell is much better than ours and they detect bad oil long before most of us do.
5.Buy OTC BHT at the health food store or online...funny, they don't want it in their oil, but they still sell it in their stores....and add a capsule to each bottle of oil you buy.
6. try going to your local Mill store and buying freshly ground flour and baking your own bread, also a revelation. Wheat germ oil goes rancid in only ten days so much of our bread supply is bad for us..
7. If you cannot store oil refridgerated then at least find the coolest place in your home to store it, and somewhere where no light hits it if it is bottled.

Even HR admitted when I asked him that the oils he recommended needed to be fresh and stored cold to remain beneficial.


Avatar universal
For bringing up The Lucy Episode? I agree with you completely.
Avatar universal
As one who has almost religiously ( or superstitiously) bought and consumed a wide range of supplements over the decades, I will offer my layman's opinion that the supplement 'industry' is probably the biggest unscientific, unsubstantiated, and questionnable multi-billion dollar business out there.  I still buy some supplements, even though my logical mind, after reading study after study, says that it is a lot of hooey, pushed by the same type of people who would also be selling you great real estate in the central American jungles, or selling OTC pills that "Extend Your Sexual Oragns!!!", increase your memory, or smooth your skin, or peddling the next great real estate forclosure  mega-millionaire do-it-yourself books so that you can make $100,000 a month, with no capital at all in the bank, and know brains either!  

There are a handful big, successful industries out there that peddle 'snake oil' under the friendly watchful eye of the FTC, FDA, and other governmental agencies.  Even though I sometimes feel foolish for all the money spent on these little placebos, I have to say that I think the whole thing is a huckster's dream, a racket, a con game......the concept just took off and grew, and now countless entrepreneurs jumped in and are now mega-rich, happy, tanned and very healthy as a result.  HEY, the darn pills really DO WORK!!!!  (for the people selling them)

That's just my very frank opinion.  Now, I have to go...GNC is closing soon.......

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