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Striking the Right Balance with Vitamins: 5 Things You Should Know—Commentary

08/21/17 Larry E. Johnson, MD, PhD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences|University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences;

It’s a staple of cheesy science fiction movies—people in the future simply pop a pill to get their daily nutritional needs, saving the time and hassle of cooking a full meal and doing the dishes. While replacing an entire meal with a tiny capsule may not be realistic today, many people use vitamin and mineral supplements in an attempt to boost their health without doing much work.

It’s a tempting idea. We all wish we were a little healthier, and the idea that you can so easily improve your wellbeing or counteract unhealthy lifestyle and diet decisions is reassuring.

There’s just one problem. Taking vitamin supplements or a daily multivitamin isn’t the silver bullet many people believe. For most generally healthy people, a daily multivitamin has not been shown to provide health benefits.

Yet vitamins and supplements are big business in the U.S. About half of Americans take some kind of vitamin supplement every day, and collectively we spend $14.3 billion a year on pills, chewable tablets, and gummies that contain vitamins and minerals. If you currently take a vitamin supplement or are considering taking one, here are five things you should know.

1. Vitamin deficiencies are relatively rare in the United States

Thankfully, not many Americans have to worry about contracting scurvy these days. That’s because the average American gets enough vitamin C as part of our normal diet to meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). The RDAs are the most scientifically validated vitamin guidelines for optimum health and for preventing clinical deficiencies.

In fact, most people eating a healthy, balanced diet get all the vitamins they need without having to take any additional supplements. What’s more, vitamins have not been shown to have an impact on most short-term illnesses.

It’s also misleading when supplements are marketed by connecting common symptoms to vitamin deficiencies. Millions of Americans regularly feel tired and fatigued, but it has more to do with working too much and not getting enough sleep than it does with not getting enough vitamins.

2. Some diets and conditions make you more likely to need vitamin supplements

While vitamin deficiencies are rare for most adults, people who follow certain diets or live with certain disorders are more likely to need to supplement their vitamin intake. Vegans, for example, should make sure they’re getting enough vitamin D and vitamin B12. Individuals who are lactose intolerant may need more vitamin D and calcium than they get in their daily diets.

People with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn disease and ulcerative colitis and anyone who’s had bariatric surgery may require additional vitamins. Individuals who drink a lot of alcohol should also be encouraged to take supplements, especially B vitamins, under the guidance of a doctor.

3. Our vitamin needs change over time

As we get older, our intake of some vitamins can change. For example, the skin of older individuals does not make as much vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Older people also tend to eat less and spend less time outdoors. As you get older, it’s crucial to work with a doctor to make sure you’re hitting the RDA, especially for vitamin D.

4. You need to tell your doctor about vitamins you’re taking

Just because you don’t need a prescription to get vitamins doesn’t mean you should start taking them without first talking to your doctor. Too many people fear their doctor will be dismissive of the idea of taking a regular vitamin, especially if they don’t have any health concerns that warrant it. But your doctor should be willing to discuss the pros and cons with you.

What’s more, some vitamins may interfere with prescription medications. Vitamin E, for example, may increase the risk of bleeding for individuals on anticoagulant medication. A physician who knows your medical background can advise on the advantages or potential downsides of certain supplements.

Your doctor may also discourage you from taking supplements promoting their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. In reality, some inflammation is often a good thing. It’s a natural response to injury and infection. Striking a balance between letting your body use inflammation as a healing tool and getting enough antioxidants is the healthiest approach, and one your doctor can help you achieve.

5. Vitamins are no substitute for a healthy diet and exercise

If you want to decrease your risk of long-term health issues like heart disease and cancer, don’t look in the supplements aisle at the grocery store. Start in the produce aisle—eat a healthy, varied diet heavy in fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Find a workable exercise regimen, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, and don’t smoke. There’s no magic pill that will make you a healthier person, but there are many other ways to feel better and live longer.