Should I Worry about Taking Supplements?

October 18, 2011
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supplementWorry?—no. Supplements have a remarkable record of safety. Give it careful thought—yes. Here are some things to consider.

When planning a supplement regime, you should seek good professional advice. If you don’t already have a good professional advisor, a place to start would be physicians belonging to one of the organizations listed below. They generally use and are expert about supplements and integrative medicine in general:

In addition, there are some basic questions that you should ask yourself:

  • Is this the right form of the supplement?
  • Is it natural or synthetic?
  • Are there co-factors that must be taken with it?
  • Do I trust the company selling it?
  • Am I taking the right amount?

Let’s take each of these in turn.

1. Is this the right form of the supplement, and is it natural or synthetic?

The sister publication of the Archives of Internal Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, just released a study suggesting that vitamin E supplements increase prostate cancer risk for men. The results of the study are puzzling. Taking 400 IU of vitamin E seemed to increase risk; so did taking 200 mcg of selenium. But when men received both the vitamin E and the selenium together, the risk was about the same as taking nothing at all.

The real problem here, however, is the form of the vitamin, which was synthetic alpha-tocopherol. In our article last February, Jonathan Wright, MD, explained that nature does not give us isolated alpha-tocopherol. It gives us a mix of alpha-, beta-,delta-, and gamma tocopherols, and that too much alpha interferes with what seems to be the more important gamma form of the vitamin. In another article, our scientific director Rob Verkerk further explained that synthetic alpha-tocopherol is not a good substitute for the natural form, and that tocopherols in nature are always accompanied by the tocotrienols.

What is true for tocopherols is true for other vitamins. If we take extra beta-carotene, we should take other carotenes to balance it. If we take more of a B vitamin, we will probably need more of other B vitamins to balance it. This is one of the problems with trying to apply drug trial methods to supplements. It isn’t one supplement that helps or hurts us. It is achieving the right balance through food, supplements, and exercise.

The Archives of the Internal Medicine study covered elsewhere in this newsletter claimed that supplementing with copper might be particularly risky. This is probably correct, since copper acts as a pro-oxidant and too much of the metals can overwhelm our body’s natural ability to remove them. That said, there are times when a balanced approach means we need to take a copper supplement. For example, if we take a higher than normal dose of zinc at the onset of a viral infection, it may have to be balanced with copper.

The Archives of Internal Medicine article also argued that folic acid use might shorten life. Nothing can be concluded from this source because the study is such a flagrant example of junk science. But the question about folic acid safety is a real one, and also an urgent one since federal law requires folic acid fortification of some foods such as bread.

Fortunately there is good medical research on the subject, albeit still inconclusive. A study published in February is very suggestive that only folic acid, and not natural folates, may be a risk for cancer. Natural folates, even at high levels, help to prevent cancers. This echoes two studies in 2009, reported upon by our ANH-Europe colleagues, which suggest that high doses of synthetic folic acid may produce an unexpected rise in some cancers, while natural folates are best for lowering the risk of colorectal cancer.

The main point to be gleaned from the research is that there is a potentially important difference between the synthetic folic acid and the natural folate. While awaiting more evidence, a rational response might be to use folate rather than folic acid.

It is not quite that simple, however. Merck has a patent on one of the natural forms of folate, which drives up the price. How, you might ask, can a drug company patent a natural vitamin? Welcome to the wacky world of government regulation.

2. Are there co-factors which must be taken with your supplement?

The Archives of Internal Medicine study mentioned above concluded that calcium was the one supplement that might lengthen life. This does not agree with better research. A large problem is that calcium needs to be taken with co-factors, especially vitamins D3 and K2. If these co-factors are not present, the calcium may migrate to the heart or circulatory system rather than to the bones where it is needed. If calcium is taken without supplemental magnesium, there may be other problems. That is why in an article last year, we criticized the World Health Organization for proposing that isolated calcium be put into the water supply. To do so would be more junk science—and could potentially harm a lot of people.

3. Do I trust the company selling it and am I taking the right amount?

These are interrelated questions since the company will advise you on the amount to take. Once again, in addition to seeking professional advice, you should do some research on your own. Start with the supplement company’s website. Contact the company. Ask whether the material is natural or synthetic, where it gets its raw materials, and what sort of testing regime it has. Some supplement companies test everything very carefully. Some don’t. Insist on getting answers about this. Good companies will be proud of their testing and will want to tell you about it.

Unfortunately, better quality supplements can be more expensive. That is another reason why we need to keep the FDA from driving supplement prices even higher, right up to drug levels, by requiring a new pre-approval process (see our Action Alert).

How else can ANH-USA help you sort through this important question of supplement safety? Let us know your thoughts and concerns and we will try to get you the answers.

13 Responses to “Should I Worry about Taking Supplements?”

  1. Carol Ransom says:

    Where can the supplement consumer obtain accurate, unbiased analyses of the various product offerings? I have subscribed to ConsumerLab for several years and am disappointed in these latest revelations.

       0 likes

    • John Blake says:

      I trust the Life Extension Foundation to provide accurate and honest information on dietary supplements. They carry their own extensive line of supplements, which might lead one to question their objectivity, but you can read the articles on their web site for free and then judge for yourself. Disclosure: I have been a member for about ten years. See http://www.lef.org for more info. (I first learned of ANH through Life Extension.)

         0 likes

  2. I agree, one trip to the Phamaceutical Company proves that drugs have some very severe side effects including increasing the pain in joints and actually cause more cancer…..no,no,no.
    My Mother gave is a tsp of Odd Liver Oil and made sure we had fresh orange juice and rose hips during the winter. She gave 12 children these valuable nutrients and produced 12 healthy kids.
    No, side effects…..ever. Not even the possibility of an over dosage.

       1 likes

  3. Kelli says:

    I worry far more about taking pharmaceuticals and their lasting affects than I ever do supplements. This is nothing more than another ploy by Federal Death Administration to make everyone dependent on drugs by banning supplements.

       4 likes

  4. Scott Gordon says:

    I hate to say it, but in some cases vitamins as they are sold in discount stores may be harming health as much as helping it. Have you looked at the pharmaceutical company vitamins lately?

    *Ergocalciferol (D2 -reportedly blocks absorption of D3) instead of real Vitamin D3
    *Synthetic vitamin E (again – may interfere with real E absorption)
    *Non-chelated minerals – poorly absorbed by the body
    *B-12 that is cobalt-based (look for cobal…) (said to work, but is mildly toxic) instead of methyl-based.B-12
    *Even “natural” vitamin A that isn’t carotene can have toxic effects in too large a dose (beta carotene has no such limits)

    And that’s not to mention the food additives and colorants they put in these cheap versions that are toxic to the body! If we are talking about those vitamins, it’s better to do without, because I bet you that some of them are not doing much to support health. Maybe the AMA knows that!

    Anyway, attacks from the AMA on vitamins are ludicrous, and a way to get people to neglect their health, since in a state of apathy (”what’s the use taking vitamins – nothing really works, anyhow”) you are going to be even more diseased. But it’s important to choose a quality vitamin and not just the off-the-shelf pharmaceutical variety all too common in major chain stores.

       3 likes

  5. Renfreu Neff says:

    I want to know if supplements sold under the Vitamin Shoppe label in that company’s outlets are as good as brands ( such as Solgars,NutriCology, etcetera) that are more expensive? Is it comparable to other kinds of products that are also distributed under less expensive in-store labels?

    Friends of mine who take large amounts of vitamin supplements insist that the “designer brands” are better quality & more effective. Is there any truth to this, or is it supplement snobbery?

       1 likes

  6. Cherry Hanna says:

    Please leave vitamin and supplement decisions to private citizens’ discretion. My suggestion is to first place governmental effort toward clean air and water.

       3 likes

  7. Joanne T. Becker says:

    This so-called study is not the first one where vitamin E was used and the form selected by the study group was synthetic, and not a natural gamma form of E. That immediately skews the results and tells anyone with any intelligence that the study itself is bogus and that the ‘researchers’ are uninformed about vitamins in general.
    The researchers themselves said they were not familiar with vitamins in their own lives.
    The first thing that happened after the results were published, was that the media ballyhooed the
    ‘findings’ that vitamins were useless and may have even contributed to the participants deaths.
    Our own hometown newspaper had the study results on the front pages of the paper for two days! I’m sure many ordinary citizens were scared to death when they read that, and threw their
    supplements in the trash. On top of the fact that this was not a double-blind study, the people who
    were the subjects of this so-called study, were of advanced age, were in various stages of sickness and some were smokers and drinkers, who had never taken vitamins or minerals consistantly, or at all. None were in the best of health. The researchers stated in their conclusions, that these people succumbed because the supplements hastened their deaths.
    Almost nine months later, AARP magazine ran a story on this ’study’ and their conclusion that it was seriously flawed, echoes my comments above. That was after the results were reviewed by competent medical professionals, who saw this sham for what it was. The study was dismissed as useless, but too late for some people, who believe everything they read – first.

       3 likes

  8. JoAnn Cauthen says:

    Is there a list or directory of good supplement manufacturers that we can access,
    like the “Find A Doctor” listed by states?

       3 likes

  9. Marilyn Markowitz says:

    My concern is with all the other ingredients that are added to certain (actually, most) vitamins and minerals; the fillers, if you will. I use a lot of supplements and have for quite some time. Many of the products I use contain questionable ingredients like magnesium stearate, stearic acid among others. I should make it known that I use only high quality supplements from very reputable companies…no cheap, synthetic drugstore brands. However, many, if not all of the companies I purchase from, all include these questionable, unsafe? ingredients. I would appreciate your input on whether these vitamin fillers are okay to use or are they dangerous as some have stated. I have read comments on both sides, some saying that magnesium stearate is safe, others say no. Is there a big difference regarding the source…say vegetable magnesium stearate vs magnesium stearate? I would love to have some kind of clarification regarding this issue as I have started to eliminate certain products due to my concern regarding the safety of some of the supplements I am currently using. I would appreciate any info you can give me. Thank you . Marilyn Markowitz

       1 likes

  10. Lisa Kavanaugh says:

    Those with rare disorders, such as mitochondrial disease, depend on many so-called “supplements” for survival. Insurance companies don’t cover the cost and they are expensive. Large doses are usually required several times a day in order to function on a minimal level. It concerns me that the cost could further increase or the supplement could become unavailable to those in need. Where does one with a rare disorder turn? Are there supplement companies willing to help those with limited income and medically necessary requirements?

       2 likes

  11. Emily Dale says:

    At 86 years of age, I am in fine health due to four things: 1) a fine Integrative MD, 2) my body chemistry balanced with proper supplements, 3) eating only organically grown/raised foods (preferably local, if available),and 5) no pharmaceuticals-at all!!

    I have never had any ill effects from any supplement, but in the past had dramatic ill effects from cortisone (loss of hearing in a previously normal ear & aniphylactic(?) shock) sulfa/penicillin (fainting) and antidepressant(lightheadedness and befuddled thinking for days untill I stopped). These were enough for me not to take them again!

       4 likes

  12. Insufficient potassium and vitamin B-1 (thiamin) can not damage the heart significantly when both are deficient. This has important safety implications when supplementing each during heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, beri-beri, gout, or diabetes caused or influenced by the deficiency of one of them. It is extremely important to know which kind of heart disease is involved. You may see this discussed in detail in http://charles_w.tripod.com/kandthiamin.html . This is probably the primary reason why the medical profession has not been able to prevent heart disease up to date.
    Copper is crucial for strength of arteries because of its role as part of lysil oxidase, which cross links elastin tissue. A deficiency is probably the main cause of aneurisms and therefore many strokes, hemorrhoids, and many bleeding problems, as well as high blood cholesterol and is probably involved by a synergistic affect in the cause of diabetes by chili pepper (see http://charles_w.tripod.com/diabetes.html ). You may see how to increase copper from food in http://charles_w.tripod.com/copper3.html and a discussion of copper physiology in http://charles_w.tripod.com/copper.html .
    You also may find a book about potassium nutrition as it relates to heart disease, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and diabetes, useful for your library. Its availability through Paypal for $17.00 along with its introduction and table of contents may be accessed in http://charles_w.tripod.com/arthritis8.html .

    Sincerely, Charles Weber
    PS Dr. Rastmanesh, a nutritionist from Iran, would like to secure a position in an American university because of religious problems. He has an impressive CV. If you know of an opening I will send you his CV.

       0 likes

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