Faculty Editor: Professor Jeffrey DaCosta
Lining the shelves of the health aisle in convenience and grocery stores are brightly colored bottles with promises designed to draw in browsing customers. Prevagen claims to help improve memory1, while Nature Made’s SAM-E Complete tablets are advertised to “naturally support a healthy mood and emotional well-being.”2 These vitamins and supplements can these supplements can be expensive, and if somebody designs a regime with multiple supplements the price can become exorbitant. One bottle of Prevagen, with just 30 capsules, costs upwards of $60 on Walgreens’ website3.
Even scrolling through Instagram, individuals can not escape the onslaught of advertisements proclaiming the benefits of one pill or another. Companies such as “Persona Nutrition” and “Care/Of” offer personalized vitamin regimens. After taking a quiz detailing health concerns and goals, the consumer is presented with a package of different vitamins and minerals that can be conveniently shipped to their house. They claim to “believe in the power of technology, science, and human empathy to make the journey simpler,” as stated on Care/Of’s website.4 They boast that their powders and pills will make you more energized, happier and healthier.5 These subscriptions charge exorbitant amounts of money, with one month of Care/Of easily costing upwards of $40.
The promises these products make are tempting. After all, it isn’t really possible to put a price on better memory or mood. However, these bold claims have little, if any, evidence supporting them. Underneath the bold claims, colorful bottles, and modern websites, the fine print further demonstrates this fact. Printed across the bottom of the bottles and hidden on the bottom of Care/Of’s website the following disclaimer is printed: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease4.” Supplemental vitamins have weak scientific evidence supporting their use, and with little regulation from the FDA, may even harm the individual.
Most Americans have adequate levels of necessary vitamins that promote good health.6 Excess levels of these vitamins will not offer any additional health benefits, no matter what vitamin companies may advertise. Even if a person has a deficiency of a certain vitamin, it is better for them to change their eating patterns than to compensate by taking supplements. While often times being cheaper compared to supplements, a healthy diet has the additional benefit in that it doesn’t offer detrimental side effects that vitamins have been shown to cause8. For example, those who have low levels of iron should eat more lean meat, chicken, and seafood.7
At their best, taking vitamins is often seen as a benign practice; even if they don’t offer benefits, they probably won’t cause harm. However, this is not always the case. Estimates suggest that there are around 23,000 visits to the emergency department each year due to adverse reactions from vitamins.8 The visits are often prompted by accidental overdoses and reactions to toxic substances that can be found in some vitamins and supplements, such as steroids, heavy metals, and stimulants.
In addition, certain vitamins can cause adverse reactions when combined with prescription medications, or alter the effectiveness of the drug.9 Even all-natural substances, more often regarded as safe in the public’s eye, can interact dangerously with medications. For example, St. John’s Wort, an herbal supplement taken to treat depression, has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills.10 This further demonstrates the importance of taking caution and consulting a doctor before taking any supplements.
Vitamin C, a supplement often touted for improving immune system health, was shown to be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease when taken over extended periods of time.11 Furthermore, it was found that Vitamin C supplements do not decrease the risk of contracting the common cold, contrary to popular belief.12 Interestingly, consuming Vitamin C from food did not carry the same risk of detrimental effects that taking supplements did.13 This further demonstrates the benefits of obtaining one’s vitamins from eating healthy foods, rather than popping pills.
There are select populations for which vitamins are necessary and appropriate. Pregnant women, individuals with osteoporosis, and those with a measured deficiency of B12 can benefit from supplements, however, even people in these categories should consult their doctor before adding any vitamins to their routine.14
For most people, vitamins are little more than a waste of time and money. For others, they may even result in detrimental health effects, contradictory to their intended purposes. Unless explicitly recommended by a doctor, most people should put down the pills and pick up healthy foods to get their vitamins and minerals
- https://www.walgreens.com/store/c/prevagen-extra-strength-capsules/ID=prod6196143-product 1,3
- https://www.walgreens.com/store/c/nature-made-sam-e-complete-200-mg-tablets/ID=prod1034546-product 2,
- https://takecareof.com/?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=ggl&utm_campaign=brs&utm_content=combinedfunnel&gclid=CjwKCAjwo9rtBRAdEiwA_WXcFiFJK1FEmcnwQjjvegoigmlixEYUJlhrCUZOxUR3cMSZrlN3NC3B6RoCHQYQAvD_BwE 4,
- https://www.personanutrition.com/advisor_m/medication.cfm?cid=D7C1C3F900F18D01F256F6356C7844CC 5,
- https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/ 6, 7
- https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2720139, 8, 14
- https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/mixing-medications-and-dietary-supplements-can-endanger-your-health 9,
- https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/ataglance.htm, 10
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241405/, 11, 12, 13