If you don’t know that money and politics (which might just be one and the same) rule the world, then you are welcome to crawl out of the small rock that you have been living under. I open with this statement because it is important for me to point out a quick answer to the question that you will soon be asking yourself: Then why do people take vitamin supplements? Allow me to now provide you with a list of studies about vitamin supplements long enough to convince you, but hopefully short enough not to lose your attention. If you have a longer attention span, feel free to click on the links and check them out for yourself.
1942 – Researchers published a paper called “Vitamins for the Prevention of Colds”, and their main conclusion was that there is no indication that Vitamin C alone, or together with antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of the infections, like the common cold.
1972 – Another study at the University of Toronto gave either Vitamin C or a fake pill (placebo) to 3500 volunteers, and then infected them with the virus. There was no difference between the groups, not even in the group receiving 2000mg of Vitamin C.
1994 – Over 29,000 men who smoked in Finland were tested given either Vitamin E, beta-carotene (an antioxidant), both or neither. Those taking vitamin supplements were more likely to die of lung cancer or heart disease than those who weren’t.
1996 – 18,000 people with increased risk for lung cancer were tried with vitamin A, beta-carotene, both or neither. Those who took the supplements died at rates 17-28 percent higher than those who didn’t, stopping the study almost 2 years before the planned finish date.
2004 – In Copenhagen, 170,000 people who took Vitamins A, C E and beta-carotene were tested to see the effect on intestinal cancer. The researchers concluded that those taking vitamin supplements seemed to have an increased chance of mortality, with death rates 6 percent higher.
2005 – At Johns Hopkins School of Medicine they did a review of over 19 studies which included over 136,000 people, showing increased risk of death to those who took Vitamin E over those who didn’t take any vitamin supplements.
2007 – The National Cancer Institute looked at over 11,000 men who were healthy at the time of their enrollment. The study found that men who were found to take multivitamins excessively (more than 7 times per week), were twice as likely to get advanced prostate cancer or die from the disease as men who didn’t take any multivitamins.
2011 – A study of older women was completed to see the effects of multivitamin supplements including zinc, copper, iron and magnesium. The study found an increased overall mortality rate in the women taking these supplements, the strongest correlation with iron.
I know what you’re thinking: Then why do people take vitamin supplements? Well, it’s because of money and politics.
To know anything about the history of vitamin supplements, you need a basic knowledge of Linus Pauling. He is a 2 time Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry and Peace), becoming the first to independently win the Prize. He was once a very respected professor known to be one of the founding fathers of molecular biology, and he paved the way for James Watson and Francis Crick to shape our understanding of the structure of DNA. In fact, Pauling might have won a third Nobel Prize had Watson and Crick not beat him out with their discovery.
Pauling, after receiving a strong recommendation from a colleague that Vitamin C supplements can make you live longer, took it as his life’s work to promote the health benefits of these supplements. Unfortunately, he had fallen victim to confirmation bias. Understanding confirmation bias has never been more relevant than it is today, so pay attention. Confirmation bias is the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports your own beliefs, while ignore evidence that doesn’t. This type of bias floods our social media, news channels, and political conversations, but that is a statement which needs much further emphasis somewhere else. After receiving some backlash from the scientific community refuting Pauling’s claims as to the wonders of Vitamin C, a Scottish surgeon sent him a letter claiming that cancer patients that received 10,000mg per day of Vitamin C fared better than those who hadn’t. He tried to publish these findings in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ and thought that it wouldn’t be difficult seeing as he was on the board, but the rest of the board refused. It was then published in ‘Oncology’, though no scientist took it seriously as the patients who received Vitamin C were far healthier at the start of this experiment.
The rest of the story of Linus Pauling is similar to that of a madman who won’t tolerate being contradicted. He took the story of vitamins into the most extreme marketing campaign, and began claiming that high dose multivitamins could cure almost every disease that we knew of. This included heart disease, mental illness, viral infections, bacterial infections, cancers, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and the list just goes on, and on. This was highlighted by a piece taking the front page of TIME magazine. Written by Anastasia Toufexis in 1992, she claimed, similar to Pauling, that in doses higher than those recommended, vitamins may protect us from a variety of diseases including heart disease and cancer. She also claimed that it could prevent us from aging. The National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA), who were the lobbying group for vitamin manufacturers, bought every copy available and distributed them as widely as they could. This included giving one personally to every single member of congress.
Pauling and Toufexis aren’t alone. There are a number of advocates for multivitamins, Vitamin supplements and other pills that make people in the industry very wealthy. However the studies that they cite in order to back up these claims aren’t the most convincing. Here are a few examples.
1996 – Just over 11,000 individuals were asked to fill out a survey and report all of the nonprescription drugs that they took in the past, and then they were followed for 9 years. Differences between the groups were not significant, showing a slightly lower chance of dying from heart disease if you reported taking vitamin E supplements in the past.
One of the studies that is used the most by multivitamin advocates was published in 2011, and followed almost 15,000 individuals through 14 years. The conclusions state proudly that “daily multivitamin supplementation modestly but significantly reduced the risk of total cancer.” If you inspect the study however, it is full of more holes than Swiss cheese. The significant improvement that they speak of, speaks of a difference of about 1%. Now the amazing thing about the ‘random selection’, is that almost every category describing the groups before the trial starts all tilt in the same direction, in favor of the group that took a multivitamin as opposed to a placebo. Some of these characteristics include exercising more than once per week, smokers, and family history of different types of cancer. The difference between the groups are as much as 1%, sometimes a little more, though here it’s not considered statistically significant. It is clear to me that the strong correlation that other studies have proven between cancer and these uneven characteristic fields is more than enough to discredit the ‘significant’ reduction in cancer incidence in the group taking a multivitamin.
The last study I would like to mention is a review published in 2016, attempting to take all of the studies published up until May of 2016, with respect to Vitamin C and cardiovascular disease. It shows a number of studies, mostly retrospective surveys, proving that people who consume more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk for being diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease. The hypothesis was that this effect is due to antioxidants (which cancel out the big, bad oxidants in our body), and so more antioxidants would reduce the risk even more. However the attempt to go on and prove the efficacy of Vitamin C supplements has been partial, and unconvincing at best. Lower than recommended Vitamin C levels may be associated with increase risk of cardiovascular disease, though higher than normal levels don’t seem to show any benefit. In fact, higher levels may have succeeded in showing actual increased risk, though this conclusion is also questionable.
Oxidants have been given a bad name, probably due to the vitamin manufacturing industry. We know that on a biological level they can damage parts of the cell, including DNA, cell membrane and others. However this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We may need to damage parts of the cell to maintain a certain balance. Despite our best efforts, we have not yet been able to manipulate these delicate balances in our body without unintended side effects, and this is true even for the latest gene editing technology. So I guess we are left with the very exciting and radical recommendation: eat your fruits and vegetables.
For further reading on this subject we recommend reading Do You Believe in Magic?: Vitamins, Supplements, and All Things Natural: A Look Behind the Curtain by Paul Offit, an MD and a brilliant writer. And for this, get your Kindle Paperwhite on Amazon which can hold thousands of books and weighs less than one, providing a great experience without hurting your eyes from the glare of the screen.
Please comment if you have any questions, would like other references or if you liked what you read.