There are entire stores dedicated to selling vitamins and supplements. The Internet is also full of sites that tout the benefits of "Nootropics" which are combinations of different dietary supplements and herbs that claim to make us smarter and more focused. Users create their own "stack" in various combinations. But do any of these vitamins actually work?
A new study from scientists at St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto looked at that question for some of the most common supplements people use. Their results were mixed.
The work was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and was a detailed review of previous research and data compiled between January 2012 and October 2017. The most commonly used supplements are multi-vitamins, calcium, and vitamins D and C. The review looked at whether or not these pills could prevent hypertension, stroke, heart attacks or premature death. There was no advantage to taking these supplements, but there was no apparent risk either. Since most people do not get enough of the recommended daily allowance of most vitamins and minerals in their diet, many turn to tablets to make up the difference.
Dr. David Jenkins, the study's lead author, explained, "We were surprised to find so few positive effects of the most common supplements that people consume. Our review found that if you want to use multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium or vitamin C, it does no harm – but there is no apparent advantage either. These findings suggest that people should be conscious of the supplements they're taking and ensure they're applicable to the specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies they have been advised of by their healthcare provider."
The news wasn't all bad, however. Researchers found that folic acid alone and B-vitamins with folic acid may provide some risk reduction for cardiovascular disease and stroke. For general health, niacin and antioxidants showed "a very small effect that might signify an increased risk of death from any cause."
The review conducted by Dr. Jenkins and his team was comprehensive, including data on a host of vitamins and minerals that included: A, B1, B2, B3 (niacin), B6, B9 (folic acid), C, D and E; and β-carotene; calcium; iron; zinc; magnesium; and selenium. The team also narrowed down the definition of "multivitamin" to mean supplements that had most of these commonly used vitamins and minerals. It's a trend in marketing that some multivitamins contained only a few vitamins, in specific combinations and targeted to certain age groups or conditions. True multivitamins should have more than just two or three ingredients.
While the study found there was little harm in taking supplements, the vitamin industry is a multi-billion dollar market. In 2015, Americans spent $21 billion on supplements, that, at least according to the latest research, might not be providing any real benefit. Half of all Americans take a multivitamin, and one in five also take herbal supplements. In sales terms, 5% of what is spent on groceries each year goes toward purchases of vitamins. Dr. Jenkins recommended a healthy diet with little to no processed foods and lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts. Indeed, buying high-quality food might be a better use of money than pills and herbs. Check out the video below to learn more.