Are Vitamins and ‘Natural’ Supplements Good for You?

Sep 15, 2015

Ben_Kerckx via Pixabay

By Alexandra Ossola

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced on Wednesday that it will invest a total of $35 million toward research into dietary supplements. Five research centers will spend the next five years investigating the effectiveness of some of the most popular “natural” dietary supplements in the country.

This research is important because the medical benefits of many nutritional supplements are unproven, despite the fact that about one-fifth of Americans take them. Antioxidant supplements, for example, have been found to stave off cancer, among other diseases, in some patients but worsen preexisting lung tumors in mice. Fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which may helplower your risk of heart attack, or it could increase your risk of prostate cancer, or do nothing to stop cognitive decline. If any of these chemicals contains a miracle cure—or if health-conscious people are unwittingly hastening their demise—doctors should probably know.

Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who has written extensively about vitamins and nutritional supplements, sees the value in these sorts of studies, even if the result is negative—in the past, similar studies have shown that taking concentrated garlic doesn’t slow bad cholesterol, or that the herb saw palmetto can’t help an enlarged prostate. “When patients want to take [these supplements] physicians can say ‘Don’t do it, take a statin instead. And don’t take garlic because it’s “natural”—it just doesn’t work,’” Offit says. The term “natural” is deceiving, he adds, since most drugs are derived from compounds found in nature.

Read the full article by clicking the name of the source below.

21 comments on “Are Vitamins and ‘Natural’ Supplements Good for You?

  • As a nurse, I think it’s best to get your nutrients from a variety of whole and/or raw, unprocessed foods, with supplements only as a last resort if your diet can’t be improved for some reason, or for deficiencies caused by environmental circumstances or choices, like vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunshine in northern latitudes, or iron and B12 deficiencies due to heavy menstruation or vegan/vegetarian diets.

    Report abuse

  • I believe vitamins in general should only be taken on a doctors approval.
    I have never taken vitamins and have never had a reason to. If, there is some deficiency, I believe it will show up in a blood test?
    Here in the NW should I be taking Vit D?

    Report abuse

  • A healthy diet and exercise should alleviate the need to take any supplement. If a person has a medical condition, which means they are deficient in some mineral or vitamin, by all means take a supplement. A plate with some protein and as many different colours of vegetables will suffice in most situations.

    In Australia, we have a consumers affairs TV programs that looks at the claims of dietary supplements along with anything to do with consumers. They are brutal and use comedy to expose fraud. This video is about Swisse dietary supplements. They make reference to the TGA, which in Australia, is the Therapeutic Goods Administration, a toothless regulatory agency. Enjoy the video.

    Report abuse

  • 5
    whocares says:

    No, most certainly you cannot rely on your average blood test to show you everything and it also depends on the type of deficiency. And too many doctors underestimate this problem. Here, they simply assume you have adequate diet (unless you are vegetarian). I got a harsh lesson from person experience.I I was suffering from severe pain that they did not find any reason for, then I read some symptoms, similar to mine, could be attributed to vitamin b12 deficiency and after vitamin b12 shots, things got better, gradually. I dont say, go stuff yourself with witamins, but dont take them for granted or the ability of your doctor to make the right diagnosis.
    You can ask for specific tests to make sure.

    Report abuse

  • This research is welcome. Offit is a well known enemy of the supplement industry but is a necessary cog in the process of better regulation and oversight.

    However stating that one can get everything they need from their diet is both unrealistic in most cases as well as borderline myopic, and is a rather ironic reversal of the appeal to nature by way of its own natural fallacy, primarily that one can get everything they need, and the optimal amounts, from their diet. But while this is certainly possible in theory, it is impractical for many lifestyles and is rarely accomplished in practice. Personally my diet is somewhat limited. I don’t always eat everything I should all the time. In fact it doesn’t happen often despite my best efforts. In my case, smart supplementation is a very low cost insurance policy.

    As with everything else, inform yourself and supplement wisely to optimize health. There are notable supplements that have been widely studied and proven to be beneficial. Just off the top of my head there is niacin (B3), which is a cholesterol optimizer par excellence (lowering total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL), fish oil (omega 3 fatty acids), which has been clinically proven to benefit a battery of health issues and Vitamin D, which people are very often deficient in (I was and I live in FL).

    Report abuse

  • Steve,

    My doctor suggested Biotin 5000 for my thinning hair, and vitamin E for something else which now has the consistency of skim milk (Joke)
    Raising HDL? That’s the bad cholesterol. What are you talking about?

    Report abuse

  • You may be right about supplements, but you didn’t say why they should be a “last resort”. You just said what you said. Back it up, please. I’d like to know why you advise against them. I take vitamin C and Biotin 5000 (for my thinning hair). Why is that bad?
    And raw is not always good. Raw legumes, for example, are bad. (I can’t back that up.)

    Report abuse

  • non-scientific

    P.S. That IS scientific. There is a word for that. It’s a tool, part of mnemonics. Forgot the precise term. I remember learning about that years ago in grammar school. Great way to remember stuff.

    Read Aristophanes’ The Frogs. One of the funniest play ever.

    Report abuse

  • Hi Dan. The fact that your doctor recommended any vitamin is a triumph. Nutrition education has been a weakness of western medicine for a very long time. I am a former Medical Technologist, which is basically a pre med tract. The required nutrition education was very weak. I hear it’s improving. Most of my knowledge of nutrition (aside from some basics such as all of the chemistry’s and biology’s) is from self study. My brother is an oral surgeon with 4 more years of school than me and I have to correct and/or educate him on nutrition whenever we get on that subject. I am an avid physical fitness junkie (cycling and weight lifting primarily) so I’m sure that has something to do with my interest in nutrition as I’m not only trying to stay healthy but also optimize my performance.

    As Vicki said, HDL is the desirable cholesterol component. Men have naturally lower HDL levels than woman so it’s important to raise those levels while lowering triglycerides as well. I pay less attention to total cholesterol and more attention to the cholesterol constituents. The Apo A/B lipoprotein fractions in particular have roles in lipid metabolism and are more specific than their macro protein precursors. I would suggest adding these to your next general health screening by way of suggestion. If your doctor keeps up with the literature he’ll be impressed that you’re aware of these markers and of your collaborative and learned approach. There are other important markers to keep your eye on too such as homocysteine and CRP (C – reactive protein) levels. These are proteins that are elevated in response to general systemic inflammation but can give a more complete cardiac picture as well.

    Anyway, I could write about this stuff all day but I’ll quit while I’m ahead and off on a tangent; wouldn’t want to get spanked by the mods for veering off topic. Good health to you!

    Report abuse

  • Hi, Alf,

    I myself have asked myself the same question. I live in NYC. I am also a night owl, and sleep late. So I don’t get a hell of a lot of sun. I was told that the absence of sunlight can cause a vitamin D deficiency. Not good for the health. Also causes depression.

    If you don’t get enough sun, you might want to take Vitamin D. But here is a good suggestion. Make sure it’s the right kind. I asked my doctor and he said that there are different kinds of Vitamin D; you have to be kind of careful. Taking the wrong kind of Vitamin D on a daily basis might not be such a good idea. (He mentioned the right kind, but I forgot what it’s called. I have to call the guy back.)


    Report abuse

  • knowledge of nutrition

    Thanks, Steve! I enjoyed reading what you had to say.
    I recently had a physical. I have a terrible fear of finding out that something’s wrong with me. Anyway, I did well on all the blood tests and everything else. I hope they checked
    that . . . whatever it is you mentioned. (I wrote it down for next time.)
    Homocysteine. My mother (a former nurse) told me that that is crucial. But they no longer test for that routinely. I don’t know why. Insurance doesn’t cover it or something.
    I should have insisted on it, but I wimped out.
    My hemoglobin was very good.
    Question: does Saw Palmetto work? What about Milk Thistle? I have a friend who is religious about herbs. I think, in his case, “religious” (in the Dawkinsian sense of the word) is the right word. He isn’t reasonable. But it’s hard to know what the truth.

    Report abuse

  • No problem, Dan – as I noted I enjoy discussing this stuff. Congrats on the good blood test results. Insurance should generally cover all but the most esoteric tests if ordered by your doctor for a specific medical reason.

    The literature about saw palmetto is all over the map. Also, in recent years the former gold standard test for prostate health in men, the PSA (prostate specific antigen) has also come under fire for its ironic non specificity. Here’s something else to watch out for, an itchy trigger finger from either your generalist or your urologist if you have a slightly elevated PSA test. Some gung ho docs like to order a prostate biopsy (yikes!) after on elevated test “just to be sure”. Never acquiesce to such an invasive procedure after one elevated blood test. I speak from experience. I was instead retested a few months later and my levels were fine. The PSA (and the former standard, PAP – prostatic acid phosphatase) can be ‘falsely’ elevated for any number of common reasons, including simple irritation/contact with that general area such as what occurs during bike riding or motorcycle riding, horseback riding, etc. Also during vigourous exercise and even sexual intercourse. And while prostate cancer is very serious of course, it’s also one of the slowest growing cancers. So while it’s an important test, an elevation simply means more investigation (and certainly a repeat test) is warranted.

    As for milk thistle, it’s often advertised as a liver tonic (though I bristle at the term “tonic” as it conjures up visions of early 20th century hucksters touting their latest tonic or cure all). There has been more of a consensus on milk thistle. Research has shown that the active component in milk thistle (silymarin) may indeed have hepatoprotective properties. But certainly do your research and see what you find.

    I don’t like dogma in any case so I would take your herb obsessed friend’s advice with caution as well as a large grain of salt. Then do your own research and see what you come up with. Good luck!

    Report abuse

  • Thanks again.
    Research in this area is not easy. I can research a writer or a historical event, but when it comes to anything medical, I run into problems. There are too many opinions and facts I don’t understand. And everyone disagrees with each other. I guess it’s like anything else; you have to navigate as best you can, and consider the sources, and make a judgment based on what evidence. It takes time and knowledge, however, to evaluate the merits of what is presented as evidence.
    Not easy. My doctor agrees with you about Saw Palmetto, but maybe my nutty friend is a modern-day Galileo type (although I doubt it).

    Report abuse

  • Medical research CAN be difficult, particularly for lay people (with all due respect). The internet is a bastion of information (and misinformation), both good and often very bad. This rears its ugly head often when non medical people try to self diagnose based on some common or even ambiguous symptoms. This can even happen to learned folks. Once again I have a personal example.

    A few years ago my daughter and I were playing around. She accidentally kicked me near the groin. It hurt a bit more than I expected but I shrugged it off. Later I noted that it was still sore. The next morning I again noted soreness and while in the shower explored the area more closely. To my alarm I discovered several swollen nodules in my groin. I immediately got started on my internet research. I did various searches, most were riffs on ‘lump in groin’. Given my sex and age range the most likely culprit according to the internet (aside from some benign things like ingrown hairs, etc) was lymphoma. Of course this was predicated on the fact that the lumps were swollen lymph nodes. I went to my general practitioner. He examined me and thought they felt like blood clots. He sent me for an ultrasound. The tech did the ultrasound and confirmed that they were swollen lymph nodes. She knew my background and whispered ‘it’s your lymph nodes’ while giving me a concerned “I’m sorry” look. In the meantime my lymph nodes continued to swell, to the point where the largest one was visibly swollen as a raised, visible lump. Obviously this was causing great anxiety. I preemptively made an appointment with an oncologist. My philosophy was, why wait? He did a thorough exam and noted my by now, unsightly swollen lymph nodes. After the physical exam we went through some Q&A. he asked the usual battery of questions and then came to the question “do you have any pets?” my response was no, but my daughter did and I was often at her mother’s house. “What kind of pets do they have”, he asked. “Cats”, I answered. He looked up from his chart and looked at me. “How old?” “Kittens, less than a year”. He got an excited look on his face. “Have they scratched you?” I said yes and pointed to my lower leg showing him a battery of still healing scratches. With a ‘eureka!’ look on his face he said, “cat scratch fever!” I wondered briefly if he was a Ted Nugent fan and then it all came to me in a rush. Bartonella henselae. I had overlooked the most likely culprit and went straight to the worst conclusion. My physician briefly consulted with a friend who was an infectious disease specialist, and then ordered the test. As I was still working in the lab at the time I was the first to see the result, which was a positive titer indicating a strong infection. I was soon on antibiotics and in time everything cleared up. But I also learned a lesson. Too much information can be dangerous. I was surprised at my medical naiveté. But it was a good learning experience ultimately.

    Check out the links below. These are my go to sites. They have good search engines, PubMed in particular. If you enter ‘saw palmetto’ it returns a bunch of pertinent searches so you waste less time looking for what you want. In addition to PubMed I also frequent the Mayo Clinic and NIH websites. You don’t need to have a science background to search wisely (though it helps).

    Report abuse

  • Hi Dan. I had a lengthy reply to your comment here that hasn’t posted yet – likely due to links I provided, which I’ve heard often result in a delay in posting. Look for that one at some point.

    Report abuse

  • Great story, Steve, and very well told. I felt relieved and it wasn’t even me. Congrats! I have to say something a little silly. Here goes: the guy who figured out what the cause was reminded me of the character “House” from the TV show.
    I just had a thought: they were indeed nodes but caused by the infection, right? Those dreaded nodes were actually serving a vital function. The human body is quite remarkable.
    I must confess; I am a hypochondriac, and have a tendency to spend way too much time looking things up on the internet. In my case too much info is definitely not a good thing.
    But those look like good sites. Thanks.
    Hope we cross paths agin on this website. I am sure we will.

    Report abuse

  • Thanks for the kind words, Dan. The most impactful thing I took away from the House-esque encounter with the youngish (my age or perhaps a few years younger) oncologist was how modern the experience was. As a pretty healthy man I don’t frequent the doctor’s office. Insurance forced me to claim a primary care physician who I theoretically saw once per year. But working in the lab and doing any test you want at any time, you lose the urgency of seeing a physician for any little thing. When you felt down you’d simply draw a CBC and look for a slight elevation in white count to explain things away. Leukocytosis or a shift to the left (in combination with the elevation or sometimes lowering of the total WBC count) would make you lean toward a viral rather than bacterial infection. In most cases no need for a doc. But now that I’m out of the lab I have to see a physician to get lab tests done. And so I was finally exposed to a modern doctor, who takes notes on his laptop and texts his friend for a consult all while I sit there. Progress! I think.

    Enjoy the links and I hope they can help keep your hypochondria at bay. Stress is a killer and your cortisol doesn’t need another excuse to elevate as that in itself (frequent and/or prolonged elevations in cortisol) can cause a host of problems. To your good health, and I’m sure we’ll speak again.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.