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Vitamins & Supplements

Should You Take A Multivitamin?

July 11, 2011

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Many people have no idea whether a multivitamin is essential or a total waste of money. Or something in between.

So what’s the truth? As with many things, it’s controversial. And not even the “experts” can agree.

Some studies have shown benefit. Others have been equivocal, or downright discouraging.

For example, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study of more than 88,000 women (the Nurses’ Health Study, at Harvard). Those who took multivitamins for 15 years or more significantly reduced the risk of colon cancer as compared to those who took multivitamins for less time.

Another study demonstrated that taking a multivitamin reduced the risk of a first-time heart attack in a group of Swedish men and women aged 45 to 70.

However, a different Swedish study showed an increase in breast cancer risk among women who took multivitamins.

Confused yet?  

Welcome to the thorny world of medical research.

In 2002 a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine had pored over 35 years’ worth of research on vitamins. Their conclusions? Every adult should take a daily multivitamin as a safe and inexpensive way to improve health.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 showed that multivitamin use was associated with longer telomere length in women. (Telomeres–the tips of your chromosomes–are a biological marker of aging. Essentially, the longer your telomeres, the younger/healthier your cells are.) 

There are more studies, of course, but I can see your eyes glossing over so I’m going to stop there.

My opinion? I think multivitamins are a good thing. Maybe not a cure-all, but I think there’s some benefit nonetheless.Think of your multivitamin as an insurance policy. Possibly unneccessary, but generally low-risk. And perhaps there to bridge your various nutritional gaps. I wouldn’t count on a multivitamin to significantly boost your health, but it’s not a bad idea.

Don’t fool yourself, however, that all you need to do to stay healthy is take a multivite. Vitamins are not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle and a nourishing diet.

So what should you look for in a multivitamin?

Most multivitamins have a label filled with a dizzying array of ingredients, doses, and RDA. For the most part, any standard/reputable brand, or drugstore generic, will provide a pretty comparable list of ingredients. If you’re in doubt, ask the pharmacist for a little guidance. (I love pharmacists, they’re an awesome resource)

To get you started, here are some things to keep in mind as you’re shopping for a multivitamin:

  • Folic Acid: Women in their childbearing years need 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid daily to help prevent neural tube defects in a pregnancy. 
  • Vitamin D: Most multivitamins supply 400 International Units of vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium absorption and appears to play a role in the prevention of many chronic diseases. Vitamin D research is emerging, but in my opinion, most of us should be taking more than 400 IU.
  • Vitamin E: Recently, a few studies have shown concerns regarding the safety of “high doses” of vitamin E (over 600-800 IU daily). Tread carefully here.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is safe, and you need plenty of it. Choose a multivitamin with approximately 250mg of C per day.
  • Vitamin A:  Excessive vitamin A as retinol (the preformed variety called acetate or palmitate on labels) is detrimental to bone and liver health. So you don’t want a multivitamin with tons of Vitamin A. Instead, look for a multivitamin with beta-carotene and mixed carotenoids (the building blocks your body converts, safely, to vitamin A).
  • Iron: If you’re a premenopausal woman, pregnant, or a vegetarian/vegan you likely need extra iron. Other people? Not so much. Excess iron may accumulate in the body and cause organ damage.
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