Do Multivitamins Work?
As you walk through your local drugstore, or the pharmacy section of your favorite supermarket, it is not uncommon to see many aisles lined with numerous vitamin and mineral supplements.
Some are single source vitamins such as Vitamin C, D, or E, while others are multivitamins. Some are formulated specifically for men, women, and children, while others target seniors. Some are in easy to swallow capsules, while others are in tablet and liquid form. The varieties are endless, however, you still have to ask the question, “Do multivitamins work?”
Base on their popularity, $30 million in the US alone to be exact, you think they would. However, read on to find out more.[toc]
What Are Vitamins?
Before we explore the topic of multivitamins, we felt it necessary to define exactly what a vitamin is, discuss each vitamin group, and highlight their primary benefits.
A vitamin is one of a group of naturally occurring substances which contain carbon and are therefore considered organic. There are 13 known vitamins which include vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and the Vitamin B grouping, which includes thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), and cobalamin (B12).
Vitamins are essential nutrients which the body requires in order to support proper functioning, growth, and development. Further, they are necessary to boost the immune system and fight off diseases and infections. Each vitamin performs a different function, and deficiencies can lead to serious medical problems.
Although the body produces some essential vitamins such as vitamins D and K, it cannot produce them all. Further, the amount of vitamins it does produce is not in the quantities required by the body. As a result, vitamins must be obtained through diet from food or supplements.
Finally, vitamins are grouped into 2 different categories:
- Fat soluble vitamins which can remain in the body for long periods of time and are stored in the liver and other fatty tissues. These include Vitamins A, D, E, and K, and do not have to be replenished as often as their water soluble counterpart.
- Water soluble vitamins do not remain in the body for long periods of time, as the body has no means to store them. After the essential nutrients are absorbed, the excess is eliminated through urination. Water soluble vitamins include Vitamin C and the entire B complex.
The Vitamins Which Make Up A Multivitamin
According to the National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Panel,
“A multivitamin/mineral supplement is defined as a supplement containing three or more vitamins and minerals that does not include herbs, hormones, or drugs, where each vitamin and mineral is included at a dose below the tolerable upper intake level as determined by the Food and Drug Board and does not present a risk of adverse health effects”.
Many multivitamins contain plant and animal sources from which the vitamins are derived, as well as minerals and other additives or fillers. For our purposes, we will focus on the vitamin content, as it forms the basis of a multivitamin.
Vitamin A is derived from both animal and plant sources. Orange colored fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots, and pumpkin contain high amounts of Vitamin A, and vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, sweet potato, kale, spinach, and collard greens contain substantial amounts. In addition, milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and liver are great sources.
Vitamin A is considered and antioxidant, meaning that it attacks and removes free radicals with in the body, and plays a role in
- Bone, teeth, and skin health
- Proper cell function
- Boosting the immune system
Those with conditions such as liver disease, cystic fibrosis, and Crohn’s disease, as well as alcoholics and vegetarians may require a Vitamin boost.
Vitamin B consists of a group of 8 water soluble vitamins, which are commonly known as the Vitamin B Complex. Although each possess different properties, they are somewhat related in the roles they play within the body.
Being water soluble, they do not store well in the body, and after being absorbed, the excess is excreted in the urination process.
Lifestyles which include smoking, excessive alcohol and drug use, unhealthy diets, shift work, illness, heavy business travel, and stress, increases the requirement for Vitamin B. It is not uncommon to see B Complex Vitamins as being marketed as stress relievers.
In general the primary functions of Vitamin B is to sustain energy, maintain the central nervous system, repair cells, and support the metabolic function of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Following is a brief description of the 8 vitamins which comprise the Vitamin B Complex:
Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
Thiamine supports the metabolic function of carbohydrates, by turning sugar and starches into usable energy, and enhances the nerve transmission function. In addition, it boosts the nervous system, muscle function, and promotes the metabolic process and digestion.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
By controlling and maintaining the adrenal function within the body, riboflavin supports a calm and healthy central nervous system, and is vital in turning food into energy.
Vitamin B3 – Niacin
Similar to riboflavin, niacin supports the adrenal function within the body, and because it promotes the metabolism of fats and carbs, it lowers bad cholesterol (LDL), raises good cholesterol (HDL), reducing heart disease and lowering the risk of heart attack.
Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid
Although all B vitamins play a role in converting the protein, carbohydrates, and fats into energy, pantothenic acid, or vitamin B5, is a component of coenzyme A (CoA),which plays a critical role in the utilization of fats and carbohydrates in energy production, as well as in the manufacture of adrenal hormones and red blood cells.
Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine
Vitamin B6 serves a number of important functions in the body with its primary function being the production of the chemical in the brain which allows nerve cells to send signals to one another. These neurotransmitters are essential to ensure that the metabolic process, immune system, and other functions of the body run smoothly.
Vitamin B7 – Biotin
Proper biotin levels are critical to a healthy and smooth running metabolic system within the body. Biotin deficiencies can contribute to skin diseases, infections of the intestinal tract, and nervous system issues. Biotin has been used to treat a wide array of medical conditions including, diabetes, alopecia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, hair loss, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, Rett syndrome, seborrheic dermatitis, and vaginal candidiasis.
Vitamin B9 – Folic Acid or Folate
Folic acid or folate is considered a vital nutrient contributing to growth and development of the human body. Although pregnant women see increased levels of folate in order to support the growth of the fetus, they are often given injections to ensure the level is appropriate.
Vitamin B12 – Cobalamin
Like some other B Vitamins, Vitamin B12 assists in supporting the adrenal process. In addition, it promotes a healthy nervous system by developing a sheath around a nerve, which allows the nerve impulses to move more efficiently. Further, it is vital for DNA and RNA production, and the health of neurotransmitters within the brain.
Vitamin C, also referred to as Ascorbic acid, is a water soluble vitamin, meaning it must be replenished frequently as it does not stay in the body for long periods of time. It is found in citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and pineapples, as well as vegetables such as red and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and other greens.
Vitamin C assists in the absorption of iron and is known to fight off the common cold. In addition, it is vital to the production of collagen, a major component of the connective tissue within the body. Its collagen producing properties maintain health in the following areas:
- Blood vessels
People who can benefit from Vitamin C include pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding, smokers, those recovering from surgery, and burn victims.
Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunlight vitamin” as one of its primary sources is from ultraviolet B rays (UVB), which are obtained through direct sunlight. Food sources containing high levels of Vitamin D include fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon, dairy products such as eggs, cheese and milk. Further, beef liver and mushrooms are excellent sources of Vitamin D.
The primary role of Vitamin D is to assist the body in the absorption of calcium, the main component of building strong bones. Vitamin D is also said to support the health of nervous system, muscular structure, and boost the immune system.
A Vitamin D deficiency will often lead to bone related medical conditions such as osteoporosis, osteomalacia, or rickets.
Individuals who may benefit from increased doses of Vitamin D include:
- Infants who were breastfed
- Darker skinned individuals
- Those with liver disease, cystic fibrosis, or Crohn’s disease
- Those suffering from obesity
- Individuals with recent surgeries
The main purpose of Vitamin E is to function as an antioxidant within the body, which protect the cells by destroying free radicals which arise from smoking, air pollution, exposure to chemicals, UV rays from the sun, and more.
The best food source of Vitamin E are:
- Oils derived from vegetable sources including sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, and soybean oil
- Nuts including peanuts, hazelnuts, and, almonds
- Seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- Green vegetables including spinach avocado, broccoli, and kale
Vitamin E has also been prescribed for people with certain types of cancer and heart disease, however, there has ben no conclusive evidence as to its effectiveness in either case.
Vitamin K is an extremely important vitamin as it produces prothrombin, a protein which delivers the clotting component which is vital in blood clotting and bone metabolism. A severe Vitamin K deficiency can lead to hemorrhaging, excessive bleeding, and death.
Although produced by the body, Vitamin K can be found in both plant and animal sources. Plant sources include, green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, turnip greens, collards, swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, romaine, and green leaf lettuce. Fruit sources include prunes, kiwi, avocado, blackberries, blueberries, pomegranate, figs, and tomatoes.
Although Vitamin K deficiencies are rare, the groups they affect include newborn babies, individuals with those with absorption issues, and those with, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, or ulcerative colitis.
As discussed, multivitamins often contain minerals as a means to increase nutritional value. The 16 essential minerals include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, and selenium, molybdenum, chromium, and fluoride.
A detailed discussion of these minerals is beyond the scope of this article, however, should you desire to learn more, please click here for a thorough explanation.
The Multivitamin Controversy
According to the JAMA Network, a part of the American Medical Association which publishes medical papers, US sales of dietary supplements reached $30 billion in 2017 with a whopping 90,000 products on the market.
Studies have shown that approximately 52% of adults in the United States have taken at least one supplement, while 10% have taken four or more. Further, Vitamins have been taken by 48% of the US population while Minerals have been taken by 39%. The main reason cited for taking them – to maintain health and prevent disease.
These numbers are huge, and obviously confirm the popularity of vitamins, multivitamins, and other supplements. One would assume that there would be an abundance of concrete scientific research supporting the health and wellness benefits, and specifically the reason most people take them as stated above – to maintain health and prevent disease.
Unfortunately after spending days scouring medical and academic websites looking for credible research studies supporting the health benefits of using vitamins, we found very little positive information. Many of the studies were quite dated, and most focussed on whether vitamins which included multivitamins, had positive effects on reducing the risk of cancer or heart disease. All studies we found were inconclusive. Further, many showed that certain vitamins taken in high doses, could cause medical side effects.
The general consensus can be summed up by Harvard Medical School’s Chief of Preventative Medicine, Dr. JoAnn Manson, who stated “there’s so much hype about dietary supplements, and very often the benefit is quite limited.”
She did go on to make two very interesting points which, to a certain degree support the use of vitamins in some cases:
- The most effective way for the majority of individuals to obtain essential vitamins and minerals is directly from the food in a well balanced diet. Vitamins and minerals derived from food sources have optimal biological ratios and are absorbed by the body more efficiently.
- There are specific groups within the population which may benefit from the use of vitamin and mineral supplements. They include those with specific medical conditions, pregnant women, seniors, and infants.
She sums it up by making the point that most healthy individuals who eat a well balanced diet, and live a relatively healthy lifestyle, should have no need to take additional vitamin supplements.
We have entitled this article “What Are Multivitamins? Do Multivitamins Work?” and feel that we have answered the first part very well. We defined exactly what a vitamin is, provided a comprehensive explanation of the 6 Essential Vitamins, and identified the Essential Minerals.
The second part of the title “Do Multivitamins Work?” was a little more difficult mainly because there is no clear cut answer other than “It depends who you ask”. We believe that there is a benefit, as logic dictates that millions of users cannot be wrong. Further, much of the scientific research is outdated, and limited in the scope of research.
That being said, multivitamins are here to stay, and will continue to grow for many years to come.
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