Are Multivitamins the answer?

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There are many supplements including Vitamin B 12, that have been touted as “the answer” for everything from old age and Alzheimer’s to heart disease, breast cancer, high cholesterol, and sickle cell disease. However, the results have been inconclusive. Studies are also suggesting that vitamin B-12 does not help with stroke risk or lung cancer. Nor will it take strokes off your golf handicap.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that some supplements can enhance health in different ways. The most popular nutrient supplements are multivitamins, calcium and vitamins B, C and D. Calcium supports bone health, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants – molecules that prevent cell damage and help to maintain health.

One trend is to take daily doses of antioxidants such as beta carotene, vitamin A and C or selenium to protect yourself against cancer, heart disease or signs of premature ageing. There is some scientific evidence that people who have a high level of antioxidants in their diet have a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. That is why the nutritionists say we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. However, other studies also suggest that taking those same antioxidants in pill form may not have the same effect and may even be harmful. Who do you believe!

Here’s where we start to have a ‘belief’ problem. Is Big Pharma blocking the sale of health giving supplements because Big Pharma doesn’t “own” them? One problem in the supplements studies is the fact that supplements are not as rigidly tested as are front-line treatments, so the supplements you want to take, may in fact be useless. Or worse, downright dangerous.

When Big Pharma develops something new it then takes several years before this new wonder drug hits the market, after expenditure of millions of dollars. And remember that if Big Pharma can’t make money from new drugs, then all research will halt. The drug to cure cancer will not be found. It is not being held back by Big Pharm, let me assure you. The pill to stop cancer will make the owners of the patent gazillions, not just billions.

But I sidestepped myself. We are all living longer, so what can we do to get our hands on the elixir of youth? If you believe folklore, the answer to aging is again multivitamins. Peddling mega-vitamins is a megabuck industry, credited with improving your health, your love life and fixing everything from falling chins to falling arches.

Unfortunately, “There’s still conflicting evidence about whether taking certain vitamin supplements can affect a person’s risk of cancer,” says Dr Alison Ross, at Cancer Research UK. “These products don’t seem to give the same benefits as vitamins that naturally occur in our food.”

Catherine Collins, chief dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London says, “The whole idea that you must meet some vitamin and mineral target every day of your life is a marketing myth. You can eat lots of fruit and veg one day and not much the next but over a week you will still get the right amount of nutrients. There is very little scientific evidence that there is any benefit whatsoever in taking a daily multivitamin – even in old people. You cannot exist on a poor diet then shore yourself up with a multivitamin. The idea that taking high quantities of vitamins will give you a health boost – like putting premium petrol in your car – is complete nonsense.”

Dr Toni Steer, nutritionist with the British Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, states supplements cannot compete with real food because when we eat fruits and vegetables the vitamins and nutrients interact with other chemicals to produce positive effects on the body. “If these same vitamins are pulled out and isolated in pill form, there is no guarantee at all that they will have the same effect.”

A study in the journal of the American Medical Association found that people who took antioxidant vitamin tablets (particularly vitamins A and E, and beta-carotene) were more likely to die earlier than those who did not. Oops! What next?