News & Perspectives

Surprise, Surprise: Vitamins Are Good for You
Downing your vitamins may feel like an afterthought when you're in a rush, but according to a major report in a prestigious medical journal, this daily routine may be the most important thing you do for yourself each morning. Their bottom line: Everyone should be taking vitamins to protect against disease and help with the aging process.

Top scientists are now offering compelling proof that vitamins provide important protection against many chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. That's the good news. Yet only about 30% of Americans take them regularly, report the scientists from Harvard University's Medical School and School of Public Health who reviewed more than 30 years of research on vitamins and chronic disease prevention in the June 19, 2002, issue of the Journal of the Medical Association (JAMA).

Eyes on the Multi

It's long been known that extreme vitamin deficiencies can cause illness. The first really noted cases centered on sailors in the 1700s, who came down with scurvy, a debilitating disease, after months at sea. Captains eventually discovered that a crate of citrus fruits (lemons or limes) could bring a shipload of sick sailors back to their feet. The fruit's vitamin C did the trick.

Although such extreme deficiencies are now rare in Western societies, many people still regularly get suboptimal amounts of crucial vitamins in their diet. And this has been linked to the development of many diseases. It doesn't take very drastic deficiencies to threaten your health, according to the Harvard researchers. Very subtle shortfalls can be real risk factors, and many more people are vulnerable than has previously have been recognized.

Because many physicians are unaware of the most common food sources for vitamins, the report says, or unsure which supplements to recommend, inadequate vitamin intake often goes untreated. Many people--including the elderly, individuals who are hospitalized, those who drink alcohol, and pregnant women--are even more at risk.

Vitamin Specifics

For some diseases, the JAMA study found, research trends show a strong association between specific vitamins and prevention of the disease; in other cases, it's still not clear which nutrient, or combination, provides the best protection. Special note was also made of the value of antioxidant vitamins, which fight destructive molecules that contribute to many diseases. The Harvard authors focused on nine crucial vitamins:

  • Folate. Whether due to a low intake or alcoholism, a low level of folate may result in anemia (low red blood cell counts), or even cause neural tube birth defects. Folate, or folic acid, is now also being studied for the role it may play in preventing coronary heart disease (CHD) and cancer.

  • Vitamins B6 and B12. Marginal levels of B6 are associated with heart disease, and a lack of B12 can cause anemia and neurological abnormalities. Strict vegans (vegetarians who eat no animal products at all) are at particular risk for B12 deficiency, as are the elderly.

  • Vitamin D. Although the body can synthesize D from sunlight, inadequate levels are more common than previously thought, especially among the elderly and the housebound. One large international study showed inadequate vitamin D, which is crucial to bone density, among 24% of postmenopausal women. Combined with calcium, vitamin D can significantly reduce the risk of bone fractures.

  • Vitamin E. Although clinical trials have found that vitamin E supplements do not protect the hearts of those who already have CHD or are at high risk for it, it may have a protective effect among people with lower risk potentials. As a consequence, long-term use may be a real aid in primary prevention of heart disease. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin E may also help prevent prostate cancer, particularly in smokers, although protection from other cancers is not proven.

  • Vitamin A. Crucial to vision, the immune response, and skin growth and repair, vitamin A may also decrease the risk of bladder and breast cancer, though this evidence is not strong, the report says. Deficiency in vitamin A causes night blindness and increased susceptibility to disease.

  • Vitamin C. This antioxidant is associated with decreased cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and breast. It is not clear whether this benefit comes from consuming high amounts of fruits and vegetables, which also contain other nutrients, or whether the vitamin C itself offers the protection, the researchers say.

  • Carotenoids. These plant-derived compounds are also antioxidants, and about 50 are classed as vitamins. The best evidence for carotenoids is their protective effect against lung, colon, breast, and prostate cancers. In smokers, however, taking large doses of beta-carotene actually increased lung cancer risk. Lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes, has been shown to protect again prostate cancer.

  • Vitamin K. This vitamin is so crucial to normal blood clotting that all newborn babies are given intramuscular injections. When intestinal bacteria are altered, vitamin K synthesis is affected, so people taking antibiotics are at risk of inadequate levels. Vitamin K is also being newly studied for its possible protection against bone fractures.

    A Simple Solution

    Physicians need to learn to identify patients who have poor nutrition or other reasons for inadequate vitamin levels, the report's authors say. A simple multivitamin providing the recommended daily values is inexpensive and readily available. Says WholeHealthMD's Medical Advisor Dr. David Edelberg, "Just exercise some common sense. Oversupplementation may actually encourage disease, so be wary of overdoing it, particularly with the fat-soluble vitamins, which are toxic if you take too much."

    As only 20% to 30% of Americans consume the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, suboptimal levels of important vitamins are all too common. A little multivitamin health insurance might go a long way.

    Nutritionally oriented doctors have regularly commented about the declining quality of both how and what Americans are eating. Even people who pay attention to healthful diets, like vegetarians, may find themselves on the short end of the (carrot) stick. "The safest and most economical insurance against what might best be termed 'accidental malnutrition,' says Dr. Edelberg, "is one daily multiple vitamin."

    Date Published: 08/31/2002

  • > Printer-friendly Version Return to Top