Vitamins were first discovered in 1913. Multivitamins came along in the 1940s. Today, approximately 40 percent of adults in the United States take multivitamins on a regular basis.
Usually taken in the form of a pill, chewable tablet, or oral liquid, a multivitamin is a single dose of several vitamins the body needs in reasonable amounts to properly function. People often opt for one to avoid the hassle of loading up on excessive veggies and fruits or because of the ease of supplementing nutrients with a single pill.
While this sounds like a good thing on the surface, and for some people it may be beneficial, there are some things you should know about multivitamins before you make taking one each day part of your normal routine.
Reasons for the Multivitamin Craze
Multivitamins are a multi-billion dollar business in part because of trends within society. Ideally, there would be no need for any type of vitamin supplements if people got all of their nutritional needs from a diet that includes a mix of green, leafy veggies, healthy proteins, and low-fat dairy products.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 100 million Americans may be overweight or obese. Portion sizes at restaurants have also steadily gotten more generous over the years. Trends like these lead to widespread vitamin and nutritional deficiencies among all segments of the population, resulting in a staggering “demand” for a convenient way to compensate for dietary deficiencies.
No Real Consensus
Typically taken once a day, multivitamins are often recommended for people who are lacking in certain essential nutrients due to poor nutritional habits, pregnancy, underlying or chronic medical conditions, or digestive issues.
There is no standard recommendation for multivitamins. Some doctors wholeheartedly encourage patients to take one each day. Other medical professionals are more cautions and prefer to make recommendations on an individual basis rather than issuing blanket recommendations for all patients.
And other doctors will leave it up to patients to make the call themselves. There doesn’t appear to be much of a consensus with recommendations for multivitamin use among nutritionists and dietitians either.
Generally speaking, vitamins became widespread in the seventies and eighties of the past century, when, thanks to apt advertising campaigns, supplements became extremely popular and were promoted by a large number of healthcare providers as a sort of silver bullet in the prevention of many diseases or a valid solution against aging processes thanks to their antioxidant propreties.
Later on, though, many nutritionists and health professionals changed their mind after studies pointed out that high doses of vitamins might actually be connected to an increased circulation of free radicals which could paradoxically be linked to tumors and accelerated aging processes.
Getting Past the Hype
Say goodbye to stress, ditch unwanted pounds, and improve your overall daily energy level! These are just some of the claims some multivitamin manufacturers make. This doesn’t mean multivitamins aren’t beneficial. Multivitamins are meant to serve as supplements to the nutrients you’re already getting from the foods you eat every day by making up for what you may be lacking from your diet.
As a general rule, your mindset with multivitamins should be diet first then supplements. Vitamins and other dietary and nutritional supplements aren’t regulated in the United States, so there is no consistency with formulation or labeling. The same is true with herbal supplements.
What Multivitamins Can Actually Do
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study suggests that multivitamins can be good for post-menopausal women by helping to reduce the risk of experiencing broken bones or sprains. A University of California study suggests that vitamin deficiencies may alter DNA and increase the risk for developing chronic conditions such as arthritis.
A consistent lack of certain vitamins may also lead to the development of serious medical problems. For instance, not enough iron can result in anemia and a lack of sufficient vitamin C may cause scurvy. Multivitamins can restore the body’s natural balance of vitamins and reduces serious health risks in some people.
Multivitamin Precautions and Guidelines
Despite being viewed as harmless by many people, multivitamins shouldn’t be taken randomly or in excessive dosages. Multivitamins also shouldn’t be taken with other standalone vitamins. Doing so may lead to dangerously high amounts of certain vitamins and minerals in the body. Excessive dosages of A, D, E, and K vitamins, in particular, can be life-threatening. If you are on other medications, especially painkillers, muscle relaxants, and prescription anti-depressants and anti-inflammatory medications, for existing medical issues, check with your doctor before starting a multivitamin to avoid potentially serious interactions. Multivitamins aren’t a treatment for anything. They’re just supplements.
Precautions to take with multivitamins:
- Take each dose as recommended (and don’t exceed dosage or double-up on doses)
- Avoid taking more than one at a time
- Do not take multivitamins with dairy products or calcium supplements to avoid excessive amounts of calcium (too much calcium can affect how other nutrients are absorbed)
Some Vitamin Deficiencies May Not Exist
Randomly taking a multivitamin to get all of your vitamins in one dose with no clear medical reason may do more harm than good. Most Americans already get more than enough vitamin A from dairy products and commonly consumed vegetables and fruits. The same is true with most of the B vitamins. There’s no evidence that higher amounts of vitamin E are absolutely necessary.
In fact, there’s research suggesting that high amounts of vitamin E in supplement form may be harmful. Consequently, it’s a good idea to have a general idea of what vitamins you’re already getting from your diet before considering making daily multivitamins part of your routine.
Overall Effectiveness of Multivitamins
Even though multivitamins in one form or another have been around for many years, there is a surprising lack of conclusive evidence on their overall effectiveness. A handful of studies referenced by the CDC suggest that there is virtually no proof that multivitamins make much of a difference. However, the subjects in those studies were already relatively healthy individuals before they started taking multivitamins, possibly explaining the lack of any noticeable differences before and after taking multivitamins. Results from self-reporting about multivitamin use tend to be scattered or not conclusive enough to make a determination either way with effectiveness.
Assessment of Multivitamin Health Claims
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted an extensive study on the various health claims associated with multivitamins. An analysis of more than 400,000 individuals taking multivitamins found no significant reduction in the odds of developing heart disease or cancer.
A long-term study involving nearly 6,000 men found there was no noticeable impact on memory loss or cognitive decline. An evaluation of nearly 2,000 heart attack survivors found no substantial reduction in instances of later heart attacks and death.
Benefits of Multivitamins for Pregnant Women
The one group that appears to conclusively benefit from taking multivitamins is pregnant women, especially younger women who are expecting. Pregnant women who don’t get enough folic acid may be at a higher risk for having a baby with birth defects. The CDC recommends that women of child-bearing age maintain an adequate intake of iron. For pregnant women not getting enough folic acid or iron through diet alone, multivitamins may be appropriate.
Who Takes Multivitamins – And Why?
Many of the people who take multivitamins on a regular basis are already healthy and do so to enhance their own well-being or because of expected health benefits. As many as 70 percent of adults 65 and older take multivitamins, according to some estimates.
Part of the reason for this widespread use may be because of a common belief that loading up on vitamins can reduce the risk of broken bones or help with the treatment of other conditions. While vitamins are beneficial, overdoing it can have equally serious health implications. Multivitamins may not be necessary for individuals already getting sufficient vitamin intake or for people who are already fairly healthy. Some of the people who would likely benefit from multivitamins, such as individuals with serious nutritional deficiencies, aren’t doing so in large numbers.
If you are generally in good health, you may benefit more from maintaining a balanced diet and getting regular exercise rather than relying on multivitamins. Should you opt for a multivitamin, choose one specific to your age group and general nutritional needs. For instance, multivitamins for seniors have higher concentrations of vitamins older adults tend to be lacking such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Not sure if multivitamins are for you? Talk to your doctor or consult with nutritionist to get recommendations specific to your health care issues and nutritional requirements.