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Chuck, I just heard on the news that experts are saying it is unhealthy for women to take vitamins. Have you heard that? What do you think? – Tammy L., Wyoming

Headline hysteria proliferated health news this past week from a report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a semimonthly professional medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

Here’s a sample:

  • “Vitamins May Increase Women’s Risk of Dying, Research Finds” – Yahoo! News
  • “Some supplements may up older women’s death odds” – CBS News
  • “Multivitamins linked to earlier death, study finds” – The Globe and Mail
  • “Are your vitamins killing you?” – Denver Health Examiner

At first glance, the evidence seems to support the news alarms, as the 22-year study involved roughly 40,000 women ages 55-69. The study concluded that the women who took multivitamins or supplements of iron, vitamin B-6, zinc, magnesium, folic acid or copper had at least a 2.4 percent increased chance of death. Calcium, however, reduced the risk of death.

Americans buy more than $20 billion worth of nutritional supplements each year, so there seems to be good reason for this health news to cause concern. Or is there?

“The headline,” CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton cautioned, “like many, can be deceiving. This study was based on associated findings; it did not show a biologic cause and effect.”

Similarly, Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, reported his doubt about the study to the Los Angeles Times: “I’m concerned that (the results) will be overgeneralized,” because they were based on self-reporting questionnaires and spurious statistical analysis.

There are genuinely substantial problems with the study. The women’s vitamin consumption was not medically investigated or clinically verified. We don’t know whether they took them regularly, sporadically or at all. We don’t know about the quality or brand of vitamins, and multivitamins have changed radically during the past 20 years. We don’t know what other illnesses the women had or the prescription medications they might have been taking. We don’t know other patterns of their health (smoking, drinking, exercise, etc.). There was no analysis of their causes of death beyond larger groupings; were they related to diet, heredity, element exposure, accidental injuries?

The truth behind the study is that the researchers asked the women only to fill out three surveys – the first in 1986, the second in 1997 and the last in 2004 – and report what supplements they took, what foods they consumed and a few other health-related items.

But marginal statistical conclusions based upon three self-reporting questionnaires over 18 years seem to be hardly scientific or something on which to base a major life or diet change. The study revealed that the risk of death increased by only 1 percent; 41 percent of multivitamin takers died, compared with 40 percent of those who did not take multivitamins. But couldn’t such a minuscule percentage be easily skewed by grandiose self-reporting alone?

The Alliance for Natural Health had a simple and straightforward conclusion: “This study is less than useless: It is dangerous, because it is being used by the media and the mainstream medical establishment to blacken the eye of nutritional supplements using poor data, bad analysis, and specious conclusions – otherwise known as junk science.”

A word of caution is in order here, however, as our balance is needed when wading through the medical waters, in order to separate the facts from nutritional fantasy.

The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter highlights three typical myths and warnings when it comes to nutritional supplements:

  • Myth No. 1: “Dietary supplements are far safer than prescription drugs because they are ‘natural.’”
  • Myth No. 2: “Dietary supplements are rigorously tested, and their effectiveness backed by all sorts of studies and scientific proof.”
  • Myth No. 3: “Supplement makers are knights on white horses riding to our rescue, while the pharmaceutical industry is ‘evil.’”

We must remember that we can’t live off pills or even nutritional supplements. They are, after all, supplements. Nothing replaces a well-balanced diet and exercise program.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, summarized well what a supplement is: “It’s not a substitute for getting you vitamins from fruits and vegetables, but everyone should take them as more of an insurance policy. Realistically, people don’t always eat healthily enough to get all the vitamins they need.”

Even the study’s lead author, Dr. Jaakko Mursu, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, concluded, “We would advise people to reconsider whether they need to use supplements, and put more emphasis on a healthy diet instead.”

So before adding supplements to your diet, first build the foundation of a healthy diet of “living foods,” including organic fruits and vegetables from good soil and from what Dr. Don Colbert calls the phytonutrient rainbow (red, yellow, orange, green and purple, e.g., grapes, blueberries and eggplant).

Second, consult your physician or health professional about the proper dietary reference intakes of vitamins and minerals for your age, gender and health history. You and your health practitioners (not those marketing certain products) should monitor your intake of supplements. Because you can overtake some, I recommend you at least consult a reputable guide to supplements, such as Berkeley’s “Wellness Guide to Dietary Supplements.”

Third, obtain and take high-quality and natural supplements – ones that are time-released, are easily absorbed and contain organic ingredients.

Next week, I will not only discuss more elements in the recent vitamin study under debate but also give real examples of how vitamins can, in fact, become dangerous.

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