Are you among the one-third of American adults who pop a daily multivitamin? Have you ever wondered whether it makes any difference at all in your health?
The truth is we don’t know much about the long-term effects of taking a multivitamin. It’s never been proven that we can live longer, feel better or avoid some terrible diseases just by taking a single pill every morning. But scientists are starting to explore these questions.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School recently conducted the first randomized placebo-controlled study of multivitamins.
Nearly 15,000 male physicians over the age of 50 took a daily multivitamin or a placebo for more than 10 years to find out whether multivitamins can prevent major diseases.
Multivitamins May Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease
Here’s what the Harvard researchers found out about multivitamins and cancer:
- The doctors who took a daily multivitamin reduced their overall risk of cancer by 8% and their risk of dying from cancer by 12%.
- For men who had a previous history of cancer, the risk of a new cancer was reduced by a significant 27%.
- Lung cancer risk was reduced by 16% and bladder cancer risk by 28%.
Unfortunately, the results for heart disease were not as promising.
Taking a multivitamin was not associated with any reduction of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, angina or death from cardiovascular disease.
But remember this study was all about men. It didn’t say anything about heart disease and women.
An earlier Swedish study of almost 34,000 women linked multivitamin use with a 27% lower risk of heart attack in older women who had no history of heart disease.
And the longer you take a multivitamin, the greater are the benefits. Women who took a multivitamin for at least five years reduced their risk of a heart attack by a whopping 41%.
While the results of these studies are mixed, there are still plenty of good reasons for everyone to take a multivitamin. Men over 50 may reduce their cancer risk and older women may lower their heart attack risk. As research continues, we’ll probably discover new benefits.
In addition, multivitamins are designed to help ward off conditions related to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. For example, it sounds unbelievable but rickets are on the rise again because children aren’t getting enough vitamin D.
Part of the problem is that our food supply is deficient. Our grandparents had no problem getting all their vitamins and minerals from their food but today that’s almost impossible.
Here’s why it’s so difficult:
- According to the USDA our soil has 70% less nutrients today than 20 years ago.
- Food is picked before ripening and never achieves its full nutritional potential.
- Once harvested, food quickly loses nutrients during shipping, storing and processing.
- Processed foods now make up an estimated 95% of the typical U.S. diet.
In today’s world, a multivitamin is good insurance and can complement the food you eat.
Here’s What to Look for in a Good Multivitamin:
The Alphabet: read the label to make sure you’re getting 100% of the Daily Value for most of these basic vitamins:
- A (in the form of beta carotene or mixed carotenoids but not retinol)
- B1 (thiamine),
- B2 (riboflavin),
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B9 (folic acid)
- B12 (cobalamin)
- C (ascorbic acid)
- E (alpha-tocopherol… but ideally you should look for “mixed tocopherols”)
Keep in mind that your multivitamin provides only the minimum that you need to prevent deficiencies – NOT the amount that promotes optimal health.
That’s why you may want to take extra of some nutrients like vitamin D3. Many doctors are now recommending 2,000 international units per day. You won’t find that in most multivitamins so an extra D3 supplement is a good idea.
Vitamin C is the same. Ideally, you should take at least 2,000 mg of vitamin C a day. Our bodies can’t make vitamin C on their own, so you need to supplement.
There are other nutrients that aren’t included at all in multivitamins but are good basic supplements. These include fish oil or cod liver oil for heart healthy omega-3 fats, and the ubiquinol form of CoQ10 for heart health and better energy. You’ll need a separate supplement for these.
Minerals: Look for calcium, magnesium, zinc and selenium as the basics. Good additions are copper, manganese, chromium and boron. (Boron is especially helpful for men as it safeguards their prostate.)
Be careful with iron. It can accumulate in your body and become oxidized. Only take iron if your doctor has determined that you’re iron-deficient. Otherwise, opt for the iron-free version.
Reputable Company: There are thousands of different multivitamin formulations, so don’t get bogged down trying to find the perfect one.
To keep things simple, you can rely on a reputable company for good quality ingredients and good manufacturing practices. The Harvard Study used Centrum Silver, a basic multivitamin for seniors which is widely available in supermarkets and drugstores.
Just choose one brand and make it a daily habit. At pennies a day, a multivitamin really is the cheapest health insurance you can find.
Gaziano J, Sesso HD, Christen WG, et al. Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in Men: The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2012;():1-10. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.14641.
Sesso HD, Christen WG, Bubes V, et al. Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Men: The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2012;308(17):1751-1760. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.14805.
Lonn EM. Multivitamins in Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. JAMA. 2012;308(17):1802-1803. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.28259.
Susanne Rautiainen, Agneta Åkesson, Emily B Levitan, Ralf Morgenstern, Murray A Mittleman, and Alicja Wolk Multivitamin use and the risk of myocardial infarction: a population-based cohort of Swedish women Am J Clin Nutr November 2010 vol. 92 no. 5 1251-1256
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