Why vitamins & supplements are worth taking…
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Today's post: Tuesday, 3-6-2007
Why vitamins & supplements are worth taking…
A recent study was reported in the media that taking antioxidant vitamins failed to show the expected benefits in longevity.
Other writers have covered the possible bias of the authors & the statistical failings of the analysis done.
On the other side of the issue, I’ve read of several different doctors getting excellent results with their patients with antioxidant vitamins, supplements, & therapies.
Here are what I see as the key issues.
1. Vitamins & many other supplements are complex organic molecules. And, in the body, the physical shape of organic molecules often DOES make a difference.
Here’s an analogy: If you made a mirror image of your key to your car or your key to your home, would they still work? Nope. They simply wouldn’t go into the lock. And, if you forced them into the lock, you could have much bigger problems.
Complex organic molecules are right and left handed.
If you take 30 iu of vitamin E as alpha tocopherol & half is the real vitamin E & half has the same chemical formula but is made up of molecules that are the mirror image of the real vitamin E, the best you can hope for is that you get the benefit of the 15 iu of the real vitamin E that you took. It may be that the reverse molecules are somewhat harmful. Though I doubt that’s the case with vitamin E, it may be with other vitamins, amino acids, & supplements.
A study done with synthetic vitamins unadjusted for containing molecules with the mirror image of the actual vitamins will get different results from one with the real vitamins only.
2. In foods, vitamins often exist in related groups & are found with other minerals & micronutrients.
So, I’m totally convinced that the best health benefits are found from eating foods with a known high nutrient content AND from taking vitamins both derived from such foods & with as many of their related group members as a person can afford.
Here again, vitamin E is a good example. The compound sold as vitamin E is alpha tocopherol. But there are a lot more related compounds in the family in foods. Nuts, avocados, wheat germ, & extra virgin olive oil & other foods containing alpha tocopherol also contain beta tocopherol; delta tocopherol; & gamma tocopherol AND tocotrienols which also come in alpha, beta, delta, & gamma versions & are cousins chemically to the tocopherols. (Rice bran oil & unrefined palm oil have the most of those.)
I take a supplement from Solgar that has 200 iu of natural alpha tocopherol AND some beta tocopherol; delta tocopherol; & gamma tocopherol.
(I don’t know what health benefits the beta & delta forms have, although I suspect, my body makes better & more beneficial use of the alpha tocopherol with them present. But gamma tocopherol has been shown to help prevent prostate cancer. As a man with a family history of prostate cancer, I’m particularly glad that’s in the formula.)
Another example is the beta carotene/lung cancer study. It was found that high blood levels of carotenes tended to occur with people who had no cancers or who had longer survival times if they got cancer. So, people with lung cancer were given extra beta carotene & did significantly worse than the people who got a placebo.
Why were the people with high blood levels of carotenes in better shape than the people who took beta carotene? Because they ate more than the people with low blood levels of a variety of vegetables containing the whole family of carotenes AND other cancer fighting phytonutrients. They also probably took a multivitamin with other nutrients along with any beta carotene they took instead of taking just the beta carotene.
And, studies of the health of people who eat a lot of a wide variety of vegetables are uniformly positive, particularly if they include cruciferous vegetables.
3. People are biochemically individual. And, they have different histories of previous food & vitamin & supplement use.
Some people need more of some nutrients. For just three examples, people who are older, people who have gluten & related digestion problems, & people who take drugs for heartburn & reflux need more intake to get any given effect since they simply don’t digest things as well as younger & healthier people.
Similarly, having a person add 1000 mg of vitamin C daily will have very different health effects in a person who has very low blood levels of it due to a poor diet & taking NO vitamins at all and in a person who eats 5 or more servings of vegetables & 4 or more servings of whole fruit or real fruit juice each day and takes 1000 mg a day of vitamin C already & has very high blood levels.
For some people & for some nutrients, their bodies will respond positively; but they need more than most people to get the effect.
To be fair, there are supplement vendors who push higher doses on everyone.
And, there are some vitamins for which too much can be harmful. For most people taking more than 10,000 iu of retinol, the animal form of vitamin A, or more than 200 mg a day of vitamin B6 over too long a period can be harmful. And, it may be that taking 400 iu or more of vitamin E can be harmful; but that’s still controversial.
But if you happen to need 2,000 iu of vitamin D3, the natural form, to get a health benefit--& there is new evidence that may be true of most people today, taking 400 iu may not show any benefit at all in a study you participate in, despite the fact that taking the 2,000 iu of D3 WOULD benefit you.
4. Before considering a study – let alone combining it mathematically with others, it helps to know what kind of population is being studied.
Older smokers with advanced heart disease will have different results from taking supplements than healthy people in their twenties as an example.
So, our position is still the same. The best health benefits are found from eating foods with a known high nutrient content AND from taking vitamins both derived from such foods & with as many of their related group members as a person can afford.