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Sunday August 20 2017

Re-examining the “Miracle Pill” – Vitamins and Health Supplements

There’s nothing quite like the crisp sound of sinking teeth into the fleshy surface of an apple. Or perhaps the authentic tang of citric smell, issuing from a freshly peeled orange? As constantly busy individuals, the market for health supplements (read: shortcuts) has exploded in recent decades. In the U.S. alone, Americans spend $12 billion a year on vitamins. It’s certainly understandable – in the whirlwind of work and responsibilities, we forget to eat healthy every day. So we turn to artificial means of maintaining these healthy thresholds.  

A recent study issued from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says that there is not enough established evidence to conclude that health supplements will lower the risk of heart disease or cancer. For example, beta-carotene found in carrots and tomatoes, has long been championed to protect against heart disease and cancer, but the study shows that continued beta-carotene use can actually increase the risk of lung cancer. Another report shows that regular vitamin D and calcium supplements may not prevent fractures in otherwise healthy men and women.

Although these results are only based on a review of 26 studies conducted from 2005-2013, this most recent report confirms the Task Force’s release in 2003, which said along similar lines that there is not enough evidence to recommend vitamin A, C, or E supplements to prevent heart disease or cancer. It’s important to note that these results were based on experiments conducted on otherwise healthy people, so it’s unclear if the supplements can affect the state of those who are more ill, for better or for worse.

You may be wondering if this report is basically condemning all sorts of edible flora that have been the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle for as long as humans have existed; this is certainly not the case. The report speaks to the consumption of vitamins in isolation – that is, taken in a man-made pill form. Many scientists hypothesize that the reason vitamins found naturally in fruits and vegetables are beneficial is because they are presented in addition to other helpful molecules that could possibly aid in their absorption. As one of the authors wrote in their report published in Annals of Internal Medicine, “The physiologic systems affected by vitamins and other antioxidant supplements are so complex that the effects of supplementing with only 1 or 2 components is generally ineffective or actually does harm.”

Increasingly, health practitioners are reversing the mantra of encouraging supplements that had been becoming increasingly dominate. Another report indicates that fish oils that include omega-3 fatty acids – long associated with a lower risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s – actually may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer by a staggering 43%. This result was obtained by measuring the levels of marine-derived omega-3s in the blood of a group of men. In a TIME article, statistician Andrew Vickers says “The problem comes when you take components of a diet and put it in a pill.” He points out that omega-3fatty acids may increase oxidative damage to prostate cells, which would normally be counteracted by anti-oxidants that are a part of a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that like most things, balance is key. While health supplements seem like a quick and easy fix for busy days, constant use of only these artificial doses of minerals and vitamins seems to be detrimental.

By Ronald Leung

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References:

1)      TIME.com. Vitamin D and Calcium Supplements May Not Prevent Fractures | TIME.com. [Online] Available from: http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/26/vitamin-d-and-calcium-supplements-may-not-prevent-fractures/ [Accessed 13 Nov 2013].

2)      Webmd.com. No Good Data For or Against Taking Vitamins, Experts Say – WebMD. [Online] Available from: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/news/20131111/no-good-data-for-or-against-taking-vitamins-experts-say [Accessed 13 Nov 2013].

3)      TIME.com. Hold The Salmon: Omega-3 Fatty Acids Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer | TIME.com. [Online] Available from: http://healthland.time.com/2013/07/11/hold-the-salmon-omega-3-fatty-acids-linked-to-higher-risk-of-cancer/ [Accessed 13 Nov 2013].

4)      Newsweek. Take Your Vitamins, Or Don’t: Study Shows It May Not Matter. [Online] Available from: http://www.newsweek.com/take-your-vitamins-or-dont-study-shows-it-may-not-matter-3151 [Accessed 13 Nov 2013].

5)      TIME.com. Want to stay healthy? Don’t rely on vitamins. [Online] Available from: http://healthland.time.com/2013/11/11/want-to-stay-healthy-dont-rely-on-vitamins/ [Accessed 13 Nov 2013].

 

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The Meducator is McMaster University’s undergraduate Health Sciences Journal. It publishes pieces that critically address current issues with a high degree of scientific rigor, but in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.

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