Your body definitely needs vitamins to survive. But do you need to take vitamin supplements?
Probably not. Most people can get everything they need from a varied enough diet.
Some people do need to take certain vitamins. For example, the NHS advises pregnant women to take folic acid and people who don’t get enough sun exposure to take vitamin D. And vegans take vitamin B12 to supplement their plant-based diet.
In fact, if you don’t have a specific need, rather than being a harmless daily fix, popping vitamin pills could be damaging your health.
1. No public health organisation recommends taking supplements if you’re generally healthy.
This is the advice from the NHS.
2. Vitamin C won’t help your cold.
Vitamin C is vital for healthy skin and helps iron absorption along too. But all those other things you’ve heard about it stopping you getting a cold? There’s not a shred of evidence for them.
Regularly taking vitamin C before you get ill can shorten your cold slightly. Starting once you already have symptoms doesn’t do anything, though.
3. The idea that vitamin C can cure a cold was spread by two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, long after scientists knew it wasn’t true.
At the age of 65 Pauling was told by self-styled “biochemist” Irwin Stone (whose training consisted of two years of chemistry in college) that if he took 2000mg of Vitamin C a day, he’d live for another 25 years.
Pauling took the advice, even increasing the amount until he was on to 18,000mg a day a few years later, and in 1970 wrote a book urging others to do the same.
4. Pauling went on to advocate high doses of vitamins as cures for other diseases, including cancer and AIDS.
Needless to say, there’s no evidence that they worked.
5. In fact, regularly taking vitamin E or beta-carotene could make you more likely to die of cancer or heart disease.
In a study 29,000 Finnish, male smokers were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither. Those taking supplements didn’t fare any better than those without – in fact, they were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those not taking anything.
A 1996 study (PDF) involving 18,000 people with a higher than average risk of lung cancer ended early when researchers realised that those taking vitamin E or beta-carotene were dying from cancer and heart disease 28 and 17% higher than those who didn’t.
6. Regular, high doses of vitamin A when you’re young can make you more likely to fracture bones later on in life.
It’s especially bad for women, who are already at a higher risk of osteoporosis, and people who don’t get enough vitamin D.
7. Long term use of vitamin A and/or selenium can increase men’s risk of prostate cancer.
According to this study.
8. Vitamin B6 can cause severe nerve damage if you take high doses for a year or more.
So don’t do that, unless you want to lose control of your bodily movements.
9. Too much of the mineral zinc, rather than helping your immune system, can actually reduce its function.
(If you’re taking between 100-150mg a day on a regular basis.)
10. Multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper supplements have all been associated with increased risk of death in older women.
This study tracked nearly 39,000 women over 18 years. The increase in absolute risk of mortality was biggest for copper supplements at 18%.
11. A review that summarises the findings of lots of separate studies on vitamins and mortality says:
The increased risk of mortality was associated with beta-carotene and possibly vitamin E and vitamin A, but was not associated with the use of vitamin C or selenium. The current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population or in patients with various diseases.
12. In 1972, worried about the lack of evidence for taking high doses of vitamins, the FDA tried to regulate multivitamins.
They wanted manufacturers to prove pills containing more than 150% of a vitamin’s RDA was safe before they could sell it. But the bill failed, so now vitamin manufacturers can put as much as they like in each pill.