● By Robert Frey
By Shanna Perkins
Most of us have a few old bottles of Vitamin C rattling around in the medicine cabinet. Others consume a daily cocktail of vitamins and supplements. While these approaches are wildly different, they could each be detrimental. When it comes to vitamins and supplements, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s important to have a regiment tailored to each person’s individual needs.
“The most recent research shows that most vitamins are not very effective at what they’re designed to do, which is to get those nutrients into your system,” explains Internist Dr. Andrew F. Clarke. “Vitamins are not well absorbed and they’re not bioavailable. Unfortunately, many people are depending on those supplements for perceived deficiencies in their diets. People have poor diets and are trying to make up for that by using vitamins and supplements and they’re generally not effective. That’s a public health problem.”
The absorption of vitamins isn’t a strait and narrow path. For instance, many vitamins and minerals compete against one another inhibiting complete absorption while other vitamins promote the absorption of others. It’s important to research how each vitamin interacts with one another.
It’s also important to know the difference between fat soluble and water soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K, are absorbed in fat globules that travel through the lymphatic system of the small intestines and into the body’s blood circulation. They are then stored in the body’s tissues. Water-soluble vitamins are those that dissolve in your body’s water upon digestion. There are nine water-soluble vitamins: foliate, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12 and C.
“You want to eat healthful foods that are nutrient rich and avoid foods that are of poor quality,” Dr. Clarke reiterates. “When you eat a diet that is not nutrient rich, you’re going to have problems because you’re not going to be getting enough nutrients from your food and if you are trying to supplement, your body won’t be able to adequately do so. “
Age plays a vital role in the type of supplements and the frequency at which they should be taken. Around 50 years old is when most individuals should begin speaking to their doctor about what their bodies need more of to function properly. Dr. Jesus Garcia, Family Medicine Doctor, admits that early on in his career, he had doubts about the place of vitamins in the medical world, but today he encourages a regiment as his patients age.
“There was one point in my career where I didn’t really believe in multi-vitamins and vitamins, but recently it’s come to my attention that micronutrients perhaps may be needed especially when you start to reach the age of 50,” Dr. Garcia explains. “Before the age of 50, I recommend that people begin taking a multivitamin two to three times a week. If I assess that their nutrition is fair after the age of 50, I recommend multivitamins every day. For women prone to osteoporosis, I recommend extra vitamin C. Around 35 years old, I start calcium in women.”
Part of Dr. Garcia’s realization came from his belief in the effectiveness of one vitamin in particular – Vitamin D. This fat-soluble vitamin is naturally present in very few foods. It’s also produced when the sun’s ultraviolet rays strike the skin and trigger Vitamin D synthesis. It promotes calcium absorption in the gut and helps maintains adequate serum calcium and phosphate concentrations to enable normal mineralization of bones. Vitamin D has a bevy of roles in the body.
“Recently, I learned that Vitamin D is extremely important for general health,” says Dr. Garcia. “It’s come to light that Vitamin D is actually good for a multitude of things. I prescribe Vitamin D to so many of my patients. It helps repair tissues faster. I give it to all of my patients with cancer, especially breast cancer. It’s shown to decrease the recurrence of cancer. Among other things they’ve found, it also decreases blood pressure and helps arthritis.”
Regulations & Dosage
“Supplements in general are not well regulated,” Dr. Clarke states. “Many supplement companies are putting products onto the market that have not been researched or updated appropriately. Although there are laws and guidelines in place, many supplement manufacturers do not adhere to those and there isn’t enough oversight to catch it. It’s a buyer-beware market. Many people are buying them from a reputable source and taking them in good faith that what’s on the label is actually what’s in the bottle. It’s possible you could harm yourself without proper knowledge of what you’re getting.”
In addition to content, proper vitamin dosage isn’t adequately regulated. Taking a blanket approach to daily vitamins isn’t necessarily effective or safe. And much of this goes back to their absorption.
“A lot of vitamins can be stored for a long time,” reasons Dr. Garcia. “For instance, if you have enough B12 and folic acid, you could stop taking any kind of supplements for six months. It isn’t necessarily the fat-soluble vitamins that get accumulated. Some of the water-soluble vitamins have a tendency to accumulate in the liver. I think that people have this idea that if one is good, two is better. You can get into trouble with that. Your skin can get scaly. Your liver can be damaged. Your lips can crack and you can lose your hair.”
The problems associated with taking supplements with a no harm, no foul approach could mean a product not working effectively, an excessive dosage or a bad interaction with prescribed medication. While the negative side effects of taking vitamins without proper consultation are generally not dire, they can be uncomfortable and dangerous. However, they are avoidable. Dr. Clarke advises to always look for the USP label on all products. The United States Pharmacopeia is a third party who reviews all supplements and over the counter products, making sure that the labels match the products.
“You should always obtain supplements from a good source,” Dr. Clarke continues. “It’s always a little risky to order things online or off of TV. It’s best to go to a trusted source, whether that is a family member or a friend who is knowledgeable about the product. Talk to a professional about what you’re taking and all of the medications you are on – be it a doctor, pharmacist or health food store proprietor. If they advise it, it has the USP seal and it’s bioavailable, then you have a good product. I recommend supplements and think they’re important, but they have to meet all of the criteria.”