Dietary Supplements: Insignificant Benefits – Excessive Consumption
Dietary supplements are a multibillion dollar industry, with nearly 100,000 over the counter products offered at any given time in our culture. More than 150 million Americans take supplements regularly for health maintenance and prevention of disease, despite negligible benefit in many cases. There is good reason for this: human beings want to thrive and feel healthy. The amount of information published on dietary supplements is vast and can be bewildering, with celebrity fads and aggressive marketing muddying the waters. Though purported health benefits may be overblown and exaggerated, there is good data from controlled, randomized studies that indicate the value of some supplements. Antioxidants like vitamin C and E help to protect your cells from free radical damage. Vitamin C, among myriad other benefits, helps the body absorb non-heme sourced iron. Folic acid is an essential supplement for pregnant women. Vitamin B12 is an extremely important nutrient, the absence of which correlates with weakness, fatigue, heart palpitations, and even dementia. In fact, if a patient presents with these symptoms and no other condition concurrent, one of the first things we do is test for vitamin B12 levels.
In our celebrity driven culture however, one that promises a quick fix for any number of issues from sleeplessness to obesity, supplements can be a risky proposition. There’s also convincing data to suggest that consumption of higher than recommended doses of supplements such as beta carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid may pose health risks such as cancer, stroke, and even death. In other cases, supplements may disrupt your body’s chemistry, interfere with medication, or achieve virtually nothing at all. The supplement industry is not regulated, nor does it necessarily run on empirical data or truth. The massive supplement companies that rent space at your local mall have a bottom line, and they thrive on fads that send customers in throngs to pick up the latest weight loss, muscle building or energy supplement, whether or not it has any relevance for their health.
There is no doubt your body needs and thrives on vitamins and essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron. The challenge is to ingest these nutrients in a form your body can easily absorb and assimilate. This is called bioavailability, and nutrients absorbed from food are not only better assimilated, they cause fewer side effects than highly concentrated supplements. It is not uncommon for colonoscopists to find hard vitamin pills largely intact in the colon. In some cases, this means the patient would have passed the pill whole, and likely not have absorbed much of the supplement they spent their hard-earned money on. For those of us who are generally healthy, there is unequivocal evidence that shows our bodies absorb essential nutrients most effectively from consumption of a diverse, well balanced diet. Positive health outcomes are related more to food choices and dietary patterns than consumption of supplements. A delicious fresh salad, tossed with olive oil, ground pepper, lemon, crushed walnuts and diced apple will in most cases supply the minerals your body craves more effectively than the pills sitting on your countertop. However, infants and older people, pregnant women, or those who have a nutritional deficiency or disease may benefit from targeted supplementation. If you have weakness, fatigue, or see unusual signs in the health of your skin, hair or fingernails that you feel may indicate a deficiency, you can always see your doctor to test levels of micronutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, folate, iron, and others. If testing reveals a deficiency of one or more of these micronutrients, there may well be an underlying condition causing this deficiency, in which case you will benefit from seeing a gastroenterologist to diagnose and help you treat or resolve that condition.