Americans spend more than 30 billion dollars a year on vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies, according to a report in The Journal of Nutrition. But research on the benefits of most supplements show very mixed results, and only about 23 percent of folks who take supplements are doing so at the advice of their health care provider. Here are three of the most common supplements and what the research tells us:
Experts have long established that omega-3 fats are essential to good health. They affect the heart, the brain and inflammation in the body. The body doesn’t make these healthy fats, so they must be ingested through food sources such as salmon, walnuts or flax seeds. Many people take omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil supplements, but research about benefits is mixed. A 2013 study showed a possible connection between fish oil supplements and prostate cancer. This on the heels of a New England Journal of Medicine study that concluded fish oil supplements did not reduce mortality from heart disease. This and other evidence led Harvard expert Howard LeWine, M.D. to conclude we are better off obtaining this essential nutrient from our food. According to LeWine, “How food, and its component molecules, affect the body is largely a mystery. That makes the use of supplements for anything other than treating a deficiency questionable.”
According to a Johns Hopkins Medicine report, 70 percent of those 65 or over take a multivitamin or other supplement. But, citing multiple studies that showed no benefit in mortality and morbidity, the experts at Johns Hopkins suggest that most folks would be better off spending that money on fruits and vegetables, noting that the research for good nutrition and health is much stronger.
Vitamin D is sort of the “vitamin du jour,” much the same as vitamin E was in the 1990s. According to a University of California’s Berkeley Wellness report, “By many estimates, at least half of people in the U.S. and many other countries have blood levels of vitamin D considered either deficient or insufficient.” Experts think that among other things, this prevalence is due to more people avoiding the sun, the main way to get vitamin D. Additionally, the skin’s ability to make vitamin D declines with age. Berkley’s report gives this advice, “Unless you’ve been tested and know that your vitamin D level is adequate—at least 20 ng/mL, though we think 30 ng/ mL is a better target—consider taking a supplement, especially if and when you get little or no sun exposure.”
Always talk with your health care provider before taking supplements. If you decide supplements or a multivitamin is right for you, my advice is to buy the best you can afford. Look for the option that uses natural, organic ingredients and is standardized and tested. Never take more than Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) – “mega doses” can do more harm than good.
Remember, there is a lot more to being well than popping a few pills. At the end of the day it is about how much we love, laugh, do meaningful work, play and enjoy life.
Be Well on Purpose!