Ask The Doctor

Reassess Your Daily Vitamin Intake

Dear Dr. Garner,

My sister swallows vitamins like they are candy. You can name any vitamin, and I guarantee that she takes it.

She doesn’t go to the doctor, and I am afraid that all these pills could be harming her.

She is 57 years old and basically in good shape. Do you think she could be harming herself?

Worried Sister in Staten Island


Dear Worried Sister,

Most Americans have become accustomed to taking vitamins. The latest figures show that more than half of all Americans take some sort of nutrition supplement or vitamin.

Most believe they are safe and have been carefully reviewed by the FDA. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The drug companies that make these products are pretty much left to their own designs and quality assurance practice. They decide the composition of their pills.

It is difficult to make a blanket statement on the value of vitamins. Some people have special requirements, which dictate they take extra amounts of specific vitamins. For example, a pregnant woman needs to take folic acid to protect the developing fetus. Someone who has had stomach surgery may need to take extra vitamins as they may not be absorbed properly from food. Postmenopausal women may need extra vitamin D and calcium to keep their bones strong.

Studies of wide varieties and numbers of patients have found little evidence that multivitamins, the most common type of vitamin pill taken, prevent chronic disease in healthy people.

In 2006, a study was performed by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate evidence that vitamins and supplements could prevent chronic disease. The conclusion was that evidence for this was just not there. Those taking vitamins and supplements did not have less chronic disease than those not taking them. There was no evidence for beneficial health-related effects for supplements and vitamins.

Even antioxidants, which include vitamins A, C, E and beta carotenes, have not lived up to expectations. They supposedly work by fighting harmful elements in the body known as free radicals. These free radicals, it is claimed, damage cells and contribute to aging.

It turns out that in a 2007 study of 232,000 people, the vitamins failed to protect against heart disease, stroke and cancer and that they actually increased the risk of death.

It’s not clear why they do this, but studies at Sloan Kettering have found some disturbing links between supplemental antioxidants and increasing risk of cancer. Apparently, some of the antioxidant pills make cancers grow faster and may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy. It seems that vitamins may actually make cancer cells grow more quickly.

Despite the possible risks of vitamins and cancer, about 80 percent of cancer survivors swallow a daily dose of multivitamins each day.

Why do Americans spend $25 billion a year on supplements? Vitamins provide a powerful psychological crutch for us. One might reason that he or she doesn’t have time to work out, but by popping a pill, it will take care of everything. This is totally false thinking but feels good.

I urge your sister to stop her harmful practice. She should discuss her medical condition with her doctor and decide what, if any, vitamins she needs.

For the rest of our readers, the message is not to say that all vitamins are unnecessary but rather that they are medications that should not be taken lightly. Speak to your doctor and see if there is any reason you should be taking these pills. There are some legitimate reasons to take supplements and vitamins, but in the vast majority of cases, they are not needed.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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