By Dale Peterson, MD - Building Health
Physicians and medical researchers in the United States appear to have declared war against vitamin and mineral supplements. Last November Medscape, a website that provides news articles and educational activities for physicians, declared “the dark side of vitamins and supplements” the 2011 finding most likely to change the way doctors practice medicine. They followed up in February 2012 with an editorial titled “Trash the Vitamins: Convince Your Patients.”
I have recently seen headlines reading “Vitamin Supplements Associated with Increased Risk for Death,” “Vitamin E Supplements May Raise the Risk for Prostate Cancer,” and “Long-term Antioxidant Supplementation Has No Effect on Health-Related Quality of Life.” Taking the headlines at face value would lead one to believe that vitamin supplementation has become one of the leading causes of death in the United States! This is not the case.
When I look at the actual studies that purportedly demonstrate that vitamin and mineral supplements are of no benefit at best and deadly at worst I inevitably discover that the headlines are deceiving. In many cases the studies have been designed in a manner that assures a poor outcome and in others the results do not support the conclusions that are drawn from them. Often only a single nutrient has been supplemented rather that the dozens required for optimum performance. It other studies the strength of the supplement provided is far below the level that has been shown to be effective.
Recent reports that vitamin E supplementation increases the risk of developing prostate cancer are a case in point. The reports are based on the findings of a study designed to determine whether vitamin E and selenium supplementation could reduce the risk of prostate cancer (Klein EA et al. Vitamin E and the risk of prostate cancer: The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA 2011 Oct 12; 306:1549).
The study found that when taken alone vitamin E increased the risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent. The increased risk was not seen when men supplemented vitamin E and selenium in combination.
The study is being used to support the position that nutritional supplementation is a dangerous practice. Most physicians are advising men to avoid vitamin E and many are telling their patients to avoid any type of nutritional supplementation. This, however, is a misinterpretation and misapplication of the study’s results.
While I do not claim prophetic insight I wrote the following over twenty years ago: “Studies to date have focused on supplementation of single nutrients, primarily beta-carotene, vitamin E and vitamin C. While some benefits have been seen, it is entirely predictable that adverse effects will also be encountered . . . The body’s antioxidant defense system is designed to work in concert. Supplementing only one component of the system will risk exhausting the resources in other parts of the system causing a breakdown.” This is precisely what this study demonstrates.
When taken as a stand-alone supplement vitamin E appears to cause more harm than good. When taken along with selenium no harm is seen. Imagine what the study findings would be if vitamin E was taken along with the entire spectrum of vitamins and minerals needed by the body for ongoing maintenance and repair. Unless and until studies are undertaken looking at the effect of supplementing optimum levels of all essential nutrients simultaneously the results will continue to suggest that nutritional supplementation is of no value and potentially harmful. Of course, this is precisely the myth that a system reaping huge rewards from treating sickness rather than promoting wellness wishes to maintain.
The body requires over 100 nutrients to efficiently perform its ongoing maintenance and repair activities. Stating that supplementation is ineffective because a single nutrient failed to produce dramatic benefits is like finding that a watch will not run if it has only one gear and then declaring that watches are ineffective timepieces that should be discarded.
The message of the prostate cancer study is not that vitamin E is dangerous and to be avoided. It is that the approach to nutritional supplementation should be comprehensive rather than piecemeal.