Recently, I was watching the news and saw headlines that suggested taking vitamins could be dangerous for our health. I was alarmed. Truthfully, it annoys me that snippets about this study get any media coverage at all. I don’t know a single person who has been harmed by taking nutritional supplements! Since I scour the news every day – online, print and television – I have seen firsthand the sensational headlines intended to invoke fear in our society, and drive more people into the arms of the big pharmaceutical industry. Certain people in positions of power are working their hardest to either ban certain supplements or make them available only by prescription.
According to an article in The Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal I normally respect, supplementing with vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc or copper might hasten our death! Another recent article in Consumer Reports did its best to demonize the supplement industry. This is just ridiculous, and I hope my article shows you how easily statistics can be manipulated.
Do you really think vitamins and minerals are suddenly bad for you? By that token, you would have to believe that eating vegetables, fruits, and nuts are bad too, because they contain the same nutrients as those proposed to be deadly in this study! C’mon people! Should we all go on a lollipop diet? That’s right, I just want to suck lollipops all day, those must be safe because there are no studies to prove that they’re harmful. (Yet!)
When you hear bold headlines, it is important to consider what the strong points and the flaws of the study might be. Does something sound too good to be true? Or, were the percentages skewed in a certain direction by including (or excluding) a particular arm of the study trial? If you massage numbers enough, you will be able to conclude all sorts of interesting things. You’ll see that below in Point #1.
It’s sad when Mother Nature is questioned, and vitamins are condemned based on weak and disconnected statistics, yet other therapies that include myocardial infarction (a.k.a. heart attack!) as a side effect remain on the market. This scary fact doesn’t get any airtime. Now, I’ll go through some of the reasons I feel these studies should be ignored.
Point #1: Numbers are a very fun thing to play with, as you can skew them any way you want and draw different conclusions. If I take the same Archives of Internal Medicine study, and massage the data by accounting for age and energy intake (ignoring the other numbers that account for disease, lifestyle and dietary habits) then the news about vitamins would be good! I’m showing you that data can be presented in all sorts of ways, depending on what you want to prove. I found out from Health Ranger Mike Adams that the following POSITIVE associations with vitamins occurred:
- Vitamin B complex was associated with a 7% reduction in mortality
- Vitamin C was associated with a 4% reduction in mortality
- Vitamin D was associated with an 8% reduction in mortality
- Magnesium was associated with a 3% reduction in mortality
- Selenium was associated with a 3% reduction in mortality
- Zinc was associated with a 3% reduction in mortality
Point #2: The conclusions drawn in this study were not based upon an actual clinical trial that offered a double-blind, placebo-controlled analysis. Not that nutrition research needs to always have a research clinical trial associated with it, but if you are going to draw conclusions about death rates, then certainly it’s reasonable to expect one!
Point #3: The University of Minnesota researchers had 38,722 older women fill out questionnaires. These women said they took vitamins for 20 years. Key word: “said”. That’s it! Should scientists draw sweeping conclusions about something as serious as mortality based on what people “said” in questionnaires? Have you ever filled out a long survey and fibbed a little, maybe you were in a hurry or thought what you wrote down would affect the way you were treated? Can you remember if you took a supplement 20 years ago, or for what period of time? I can’t remember what I took last month, much less 20 years ago! The death rate in this study could be due to any number of factors, not necessarily because a vitamin was taken. Let’s talk more about that death rate now.
Point #4: Women who said they took supplements experienced, on average, a 2.4% increased risk of dying over the course of two decades, compared with women who didn’t take supplements, after the researchers adjusted for factors including the women’s age and calorie intake. Here’s how they got that number. Let’s use the example of a plain multivitamin. Of the 12,769 women who took a daily multivitamin (keep in mind, this is all based on a self-reporting system), 40.8 percent had died by the end of 2008, whereas 39.8 percent of the 10,161 women who had not taken a daily multivitamin had died. Wow! 40.8 % vs. 39.8%. Seems like somebody is playing with numbers here. It’s really just a 1 percent difference, but it sounds scarier to skew the stats and tell people there was a “2.4 % increase”.
Point #5: What was the baseline health status of the women? Remember that they were 62 years of age or older back in 1986 when the trial began. They were followed for about 20 years and during that time some of them may have had simmering health issues (like high blood glucose, cholesterol or undiagnosed kidney impairment) that they were unaware of. Further, what if these ladies failed to take vitamins in their youthful years, or took poor quality ones? Did they exercise in their youth or as adults? What was their cholesterol, insulin, Lp(a), body mass index, homocysteine levels and CRP levels? Did they have digestive problems? Who knows? Well-informed scientists would never assign sole blame to vitamins when the data is being extracted from seniors who almost always often have multiple health concerns and take numerous prescription drugs.
Point #6: Nutritional status was never objectively evaluated. How did they eat? Did they smoke? Were they exposed to pollution or UV radiation, two well-known causes of free-radical damage? What if they ate a poor diet? For all we know they were taking dietary supplements in between cheeseburgers and fries, rather than as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. It’s irresponsible to blame vitamins for death when the women may have been ill to begin with, and may have been deficient in key nutrients.
Point #7: What was their medication profile like? This was the most obvious gap in the article as far as I’m concerned. I suspect there was a lot of drug mugging going on! These ladies could very well have been so nutritionally depleted that they died of some other reason? Studies show that a CoQ10 deficiency can be a contributing factor in congestive heart failure. Did you know that there are hundreds of medications that suppress CoQ10 in our body? What about magnesium? This is a mineral important for heart rhythm. It’s absolutely crucial and dozens of medications are drug muggers of this mineral. My point? Not one of the participants was ever given a Cardio-ION, Genova or SpectraCell blood test to determine baseline micronutrient status. Ever. Over 150 drugs rob your body of vitamin B6. Run low on it and your levels of toxic homocysteine will climb, raising risk for hypertension, heart attack and stroke! So how did these scientists sort out whether these elderly women were deficient of a particular vitamin, or died from taking one? They didn’t. For more on drug nutrient depletion, read my book Drug Muggers.
Point #8: This was not a clinical trial with a placebo arm. This was what is called a “survey study” or an “observational study.” Any conclusions drawn from these types of studies are very limited, as you cannot determine cause and effect from these types of studies. It’s never good to draw conclusions from observations. For example, my observation is that some people who get admitted to a hospital pass away. Shall we therefore conclude that hospitalization contributes to a higher death rate?
Point #9: Vitamins and minerals are just supplements that fill a nutritional gap, and if you refer to Point #1, you’ll see all the positive findings that were not provided in this study. Your cells are hungry for nutrients; they make all your biochemical reactions go off without a hitch. I used to tell my kids that vitamins were a “salad in a pill” providing them with some nutrients that come from good food. Now, with that said, I firmly believe that it’s best to get nutrients from eating living plant-based foods. This is your best source of healthy nutrients, and enzymes. Use dietary supplements to fill those nutrient gaps, or to restore what your medication may be depleting. There’s nothing wrong with that in my world.
But if you believe the recent hype, you might start to believe that the very nutrients extracted from foods and put into dietary supplements are bad too. From that you might also conclude that eating healthy foods would then be bad too! See how nonsensical this is? You would never conclude that because we know certain foods are good for us (organic fruits and vegetables, nuts, etc.) and certain foods are bad for us (trans fats, artificial ingredients, additives and processed foods).
Remember my friends, dietary supplements are regulated by the DSHEA Act of 1994, through the FDA. They are intended to SUPPORT adequate nutrition, not to prevent disease, and certainly not to prevent death. If you have concerns, it’s always best to ask your healthcare provider(s) and your local pharmacist what is right for you. And because vitamins do have an impact on the body, it’s ideal to customize your regimen based on your activities, age, gender, medication profile and dietary habits.
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Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.