In 2013, in a post fetchingly entitled Vitamins, Fish Oil and a Steroid Up the Nose, I described the various pills, potions and sprays that were part of my daily routine. Almost six years on, they’re all still around.
The Neutrogena hand cream and the steroid-based nasal spray for hayfever (taken from April to October) aren’t an issue; they definitely work for me. But I thought it was time to re-evaluate the dietary supplements to see if they’re (a) likely to be doing me any good (b) worth continuing to spend the money on. As you no doubt recall, said supplements are Glucosamine sulphate, Cod liver oil, Multi-vitamins and iron and Zinc with vitamin C.
And the short answer to both (a) and (b) is…Probably not.
From what I’ve read, there is simply no strong case for taking multivitamins.
- Articles like this and this suggest the evidence is mixed, with some evidence of possible harm.
- The NHS article says most people don’t need multivitamins, but there is a Government recommendation to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter months. However, other work suggests vitamin D supplements could be a waste of money.
- The Push Doctor site says multivitamins don’t help heart problems, cancer or mortality, and “multivitamins are ineffective at best and harmful at worst, unless you’re already experiencing a deficiency”.
- Bigthink.com says, “There is simply no proven track record showing that the isolation of certain vitamins from the foods that contain them is beneficial. This is not to say some people don’t require certain vitamins or minerals for a variety of issues. That’s a different case from overloading your body with a flood of them hoping something works.”
- Finally, a doctor quoted on Newsweek says, “In the absence of significant positive data—apart from folic acid’s potential reduction in the risk of stroke and heart disease—it’s most beneficial to rely on a healthy diet to get your fill of vitamins and minerals…So far, no research on supplements has shown us anything better than healthy servings of less-processed plant foods including vegetables, fruits and nuts.”
The general recommendation seems to be that if a supplement is taken, it should only be in response to a specific, identified deficiency.
Fighting off colds
In 2013 I said I was “convinced” that taking zinc tablets had reduced the number of infections I got. I’ve also been a believer in vitamin C for both preventing and getting rid of colds. Guess what? As far as supplements go, there’s almost no evidence to support those beliefs.
- I read two articles (here and here) saying that vitamin C probably doesn’t help prevent or fight off colds. However, both also said that zinc lozenges dissolved in the throat may help to fight off a cold once it’s started.
- I also saw two references to a single study appearing to show that garlic supplements may reduce the number of colds. However, the fact that it was one fairly small study means it can’t be taken as a definite recommendation.
It’s important to remember that none of these articles are saying we don’t need these vitamins and minerals!! It’s simply pointing out that most of us will generally get what we need from a reasonable diet, and that supplements are of questionable value. If I want to keep up my intake of zinc, for example, mushrooms are a good source.
Cod liver oil & glucosamine sulphate for knee pain
- While cod liver oil may be helpful for joints and for the vitamin D it contains, the vitamin A it contains may actually be harmful.
- As with multivitamins, we should be able to get the good stuff in cod liver oil tablets from a normal diet. By eating fish, for example 🙂
- Glucosamine is generally recognised as possibly useful for treating osteoarthritis – but I don’t have that. I just had a painful knee. The physio who recommended it admitted that opinion was divided over the effectiveness of taking it. And apparently glucosamine is something that the body makes naturally so we don’t necessarily need a supplement. (But see Update of 11/4/19, below.)
One final factor I saw mentioned a few times is that of the “placebo effect”. That is, if I believe something is going to help, it may actually help – even when there is no reason it should do so or evidence that it can. This slightly mysterious phenomenon is so well known that clinical studies have to allow for it. What it means is that I could be taking an expensive multivitamin or a sugar cube and get the same “benefit”! In other words, my state of mind can affect the state of my body. None of which undermines the general conclusion from my research – which is that I should probably save my money and concentrate on eating well. And if I catch a cold maybe try zinc lozenges.
…From now on, if I get sick or have knee pain, I’m no longer going to assume that the right supplements could have prevented it or can fix it faster than normal.
There is the question of what to do with the stuff I still have in the cupboard. Despite the evidence that they will probably do me no good, I find it difficult to just chuck them out. Maybe I just need to hide them all somewhere and wait till they’ve gone well out of date. Then I’ll feel more justified in throwing them away 🙂
What about you? Do you take supplements? Why? Has this post given you pause for thought? Let me know if you have any comments.
Since I stopped taking Glucosamine Sulphate, a problem I have with my elbow has got considerably worse. The Versus Arthritis web site confirms that my long-term elbow problem may be caused by arthritis, most likely (from the descriptions), osteoarthritis. As a result, I’m going to resume taking glucosamine and see if things improve again. As it is, I only have to do a few everyday activities (e.g. swimming, ironing, gardening) and my elbow / arm problem is bad enough that I need to rest it for the whole of the next day! It never used to be like that.
Watch this space…