You’re trying to be proactive about your health. That’s important! So, you head to the drugstore to explore the wonderful world of supplements. Once there, you’ll be confronted by a dizzying array of colorful bottles filled with pills – from vitamin A to vitamin K as well as minerals of all types. With so many options, you might be tempted to take a multivitamin or specific vitamins and minerals to optimize your diet. A safe insurance policy, right? Not necessarily. Certain vitamins and minerals, when you take supplemental doses, may NOT be so safe. Here are six to be aware of.
You need a certain amount of iron in your blood to make hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to muscles and tissues. However, most men and women over the age of 50 get enough iron through diet alone. In fact, too much iron can be harmful to your health. Excess iron builds up in your liver and heart and other tissues because it has no other place to go. At high levels, iron has “pro-oxidant” activity, meaning it can damage cells and tissues. Unfortunately, your body has a hard time eliminating surplus iron. That’s why it’s not a good idea to take an iron supplement unless you’re iron deficient. Instead, ask your doctor to draw an iron panel to see what your iron status is. Before menopause, some women do need extra iron due to menstrual bleeding but don’t take an iron supplement unless you know you need it.
At one time, doctors recommended calcium in supplement form for most women. However, that was before studies showed a link between calcium supplements and a greater risk of stroke and heart attack. In fact, some research suggests that the risks of taking calcium supplements are greater than the benefit gained in terms of preventing broken bones. In addition, some studies suggest that taking a calcium supplement may not prevent bone fractures after all. Plus, calcium supplements, but not dietary calcium, are linked with a higher risk of kidney stones. With all the questions about calcium, talk to your doctor before taking a calcium supplement.
Early studies hinted that vitamin E might lower the risk of heart and Alzheimer’s disease. It makes sense since vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin. However, these benefits aren’t supported by the current literature. In fact, a Johns Hopkins meta-analysis with 135,000 people found that taking 400 I.U. of vitamin E or greater was linked with a higher risk of death from all causes.
One thing to keep in mind is the form of vitamin E used in most research studies is called alpha-tocopherol – but that’s only one kind. Natural vitamin E includes four tocopherols and four tocotrienols, all of which act slightly differently in the human body. Most supplements only contain alpha-tocopherol. It’s possible that the results in the study might have been different had the supplement included all forms of vitamin E. However, you can get all of these forms by eating vitamin E rich foods rather than taking a supplement. Good sources of vitamin E include nuts, seeds, plant oils, and green, leafy vegetables.
Vitamin A, along with vitamins C and E, are antioxidant vitamins. Getting more antioxidants sounds like a good idea, but as with vitamin E, it’s best to get vitamin A from dietary sources. A study funded by the National Cancer Institute found that smokers who took a vitamin A supplement had a higher risk of developing lung cancer. Vitamin A, at higher doses, is also toxic to the liver. Even taking slightly more than the therapeutic dose for long periods of time can be harmful to liver function and also lead to bone loss.
In addition, high levels of vitamin A can interfere with the function of another important vitamin, vitamin D. So, diet is the best option for getting vitamin A. Good sources include dairy products, wild-caught salmon, and eggs. You can also get the precursor to vitamin A (beta-carotene) by eating yellow, orange, and red vegetables as well as green, leafy veggies.
Even though B vitamins are water soluble, meaning your body can excrete the excess in urine, certain B vitamins can still be a problem at high doses. One called vitamin B3, or niacin causes liver inflammation at higher doses. Until recently, some physicians prescribed it to lower cholesterol. That was before studies showed an unacceptably high incidence of side effects, including intestinal bleeding, liver problems, and a higher risk of diabetes. Vitamin B6, also called pyridoxine, is another form of B vitamin that can be toxic at high doses, usually greater than 200 milligrams daily. High levels of vitamin B6 can damage nerves and cause symptoms such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet as well as weakness in the extremities.
Multivitamins contain varying amounts of each of the vitamins and minerals listed above. Therefore, it’s best to avoid multivitamins as well. Multivitamins sometimes contain excessive levels of some vitamins and minerals, more than you need for health. Supplement manufacturers often add “extra” quantities of vitamins and minerals to compensate for degradation of the product that can happen as it sets on the shelf. So, when a product is released it may contain higher levels of some vitamins and minerals than what is listed on the label. Plus, you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy any multivitamin or supplement. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements as it does medications.
The Bottom Line
Whole foods are the best and safest source of vitamins and minerals. In fact, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force concluded on the basis of research that there’s no benefit to taking vitamin supplements in those who eat a healthy diet. In certain situations, you might need one or more supplements. Some examples include:
· You eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
· You’re pregnant. (in this case, you definitely need folate and likely need iron as well)
· You have a disease that impacts nutrient absorption.
· You take certain medications.
· You have health problems that require additional nutritional support.
· You’re eating a very low-calorie diet.
Otherwise, a healthy diet is your best bet for getting your vitamins and minerals Don’t be too quick to rely on vitamin and mineral pills to meet your body’s nutrient requirements.
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Berkeley Wellness. “Should Anyone Take Vitamin E?”
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Vitamin A (Retinol)”
NHS Choices. “Vitamins and minerals – Vitamin A”
Live Science. “Don’t Take Niacin for Heart Health, Docs Warn”
Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(12):824-834.
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