Myths and Facts about Vitamin Supplements

Scientists still disagree on the effectiveness of multivitamins. Your best bet is to get needed nutrients through food and to remember that dietary supplements are intended to supplement your diet, not replace it.

There are varying views on the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements to your health. Can zinc limit the duration of colds? Will vitamin D build bone and boost immunity? Do B vitamins help combat the effects of stress?

It can be challenging to tell the difference between science and fiction when it comes to supplements. There’s little federal regulation, a lot of misinformation and tons of controversy. So how can you stay on top of your family’s health?

Before you buy more supplements, let’s look at the myths.

Myth: Multi-vitamins can make up for a poor diet and prevent disease.

Reality: Scientists still disagree on the effectiveness of multivitamins. While some research suggests multis protect against premature death, other studies show no benefit at all. Most agree that it is best to get needed nutrients through food. Nature packages vitamins and minerals in perfect combinations and benefits our bodies with yet-to-be-discovered nutrients. Dietary supplements are intended to work with your diet, not replace it.

Myth: Supplements are safe, because they are natural.

Reality: Even though nutrients come from nature, they become unnatural when manufacturers process them into pill-form. And natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective. Everything that is potentially healing also has the potential to be harmful. Arsenic is natural, for example, but it is known to cause cancer.

Myth: You can’t get too many vitamins. 

Reality: If your diet includes fortified cereals and power bars, which often contain 100 percent or more of the recommended daily allowances for certain vitamins and minerals—and you are taking a dietary supplement—you could damage vital organs. Too much vitamin A can affect your liver and, in pregnant moms, can lead to birth defects in their babies.  Excess vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage. And, overdosing on vitamin C can cause diarrhea and cell damage.

Myth: Regulations ensure supplements are safe.

Reality: he U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are safe and effective before they hit the marketplace—so you are taking the word of the manufacturer. That doesn’t mean there aren’t safeguards in place. Once a dietary supplement is on the market, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) monitor label information to ensure product claims aren’t misleading, but the process is slow and damage can be done before these agencies get involved. A small group of watchdog organizations offer seals of approval for products that are manufactured properly and contain the ingredients listed on the label. These organizations, however, do not determine if the products are effective.

Myth: Supplements are always unnecessary.

Reality: Dietary supplements may be beneficial for certain populations and to help manage various conditions. Examples include:

  • Someone on a calorie-restricted diet 
  • Someone who is allergic to milk who may benefit from calcium and vitamin D
  • A vegan who may benefit from taking vitamin B12
  • Pregnant moms who benefit from taking folic acid

Most experts believe supplements are only helpful if you’re deficient in a given nutrient. Women who lose a lot of iron due to heavy menstrual bleeding, for example, might need an additional iron supplement. Similarly, those going through menopause may need extra calcium and vitamin D.

Myth: Supplements don’t clash with other medications.

Reality: Certain supplements, including vitamin K (which helps blood clot), zinc (which is said to boost immunity) and omega-3s (which thin the blood), may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Whether you’re taking a daily aspirin to protect against heart disease or you’re on an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, the supplements you’re taking could interfere with or magnify the effects of your medications. To help avoid these negative interactions, you should always provide your physician and pharmacist with a complete list of the supplements you are currently taking. 

Myth: Vitamins should be taken on an empty stomach. 

Reality: Many vitamins are water soluble—meaning they dissolve in water and will be absorbed by the body at almost any time of the day, regardless of your stomach contents. The four fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E and K—can only be absorbed with fat.  So, if you are taking a multivitamin that contains A, D, E or K vitamins, it’s best to take it with a little food that contains some fat. Also, many find that taking a supplement on an empty stomach makes them nauseated.

Myth: Supplements enhance each other.

Reality: Some supplements work well together, such as vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron. Others actually work against each other. Calcium, for instance, blocks the absorption of iron, and zinc blocks the absorption of copper. So taking high doses of one nutrient can cause a deficiency in another. It’s best to let your doctor know about every supplement you’re taking, even if you think it’s harmless. Many vitamins and minerals, as well as herbal supplements, have side effects ranging from a rash to stomach upset. They can also negatively interact with medications and other vitamins.

Questions

Do you take vitamins and other supplements? Have you found any to be particularly helpful? Let us know in the comments below.

Eating one or two servings of fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids per week, like salmon or tuna, decreases your risk for heart disease and even heart attack.