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by Dr. Daniel J. Heller
As we discussed in our last post asking “Are Vitamins Bad For You?”, a number of studies on supplements are getting a great deal of attention in the press lately. As usual, it’s negative attention. For some reason, the medical and mainstream media seem to ignore studies that find health benefits as a result of nutritional supplements, but they sure make a ruckus when there’s even a whiff of bad news. The three most recent studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine are being trumpeted all over the web and the airways as bad news for dietary supplements. Our post points out that that is a misguided conclusion, unsupported by the scientific evidence.
A couple of years ago there was a similar hoopla, and the same sources were making it sound like nutritional supplements are unscientific, a waste of money, and often bad for you. At that time, we interviewed one of the world’s foremost experts on nutritional medicine, Dr. Alan Gaby, to see if he agreed with the conclusions others were drawing about those studies. You can read his responses to see that, in fact, the studies were flawed, and the judgments delivered by the media were faulty.
Now, the media is again telling us that a succession of studies have found that supplements have either no health benefit or possible negative health consequences. We decided to examine some of these recent studies, and we again solicited Dr. Gaby’s opinion.
One of the oft-cited studies, from the November 2012 Issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed nearly 15,000 American male physicians who were fifty or older when the study began, with an average age of 65. They were followed for a period of 14 years during which they took either Centrum Silver® or placebo (sugar pill) daily. At the end of the study, the multivitamin had no effect on preventing heart disease or heart attack and stroke.
Of course, a study like this isn’t applicable to women, especially younger women. It does show that older men who begin taking a low potency multivitamin late in life shouldn’t expect too much benefit from it.
And, as Dr. Gaby points out, the product used in the study contains (according to the label) the non-nutritive additives crospovidone, butylated hydroxytoluene, FD&C Blue 2 Aluminum Lake, FD&C Red 40 Aluminum Lake, FD&C Yellow 6 Aluminum Lake, polyethylene glycol, polyvinyl alcohol, sodium aluminum silicate, sodium benzoate, talc, and titanium dioxide.
Dr. Gaby reminds us that
“It would be surprising if none of these chemicals were harmful with long-term use, and it is possible that one or more of them negated a beneficial effect of the nutrients.”
Even given the shortcomings of the product used in the study, among the men in this study who had already had cancer, those taking the multivitamin had a significant 27% reduction in new cancers. The men taking a multivitamin were also 6% less likely to die from any cause compared to those taking placebo, though this result could have been from chance, and would need to be more clearly demonstrated in another study. The men taking the multivitamin were 8% less likely to develop cancer during the study. Furthermore, a study using the same product was undertaken in China, where people are more likely to suffer from nutritional deficiency. In China, the multivitamin decreased heart disease deaths in men and in older people, but appeared to increase the risk of stroke deaths in women and in younger subjects.
All of these results merit further study, meaning they are not truly conclusive one way or another. Unfortunately, the editor of The Annals of Internal Medicine has twisted the facts, declaring that all of these equivocal results mean that "the case is closed", and that vitamins and supplements are a waste of money, and worthless. It is curious that, while championing the concept of science in medicine, and research advances, the overall medical establishment distorts research on dietary supplements. Stay tuned: this story will probably have many more chapters to follow.