Several years ago, we asked Dr. Geoffrey Harris, MD, a member of our Science Advisory Board, to review and write a response to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) regarding potential health risks associated with regular use of antioxidant supplementation.
The JAMA article in question addressed a meta-analysis* of 68 large clinical trials of persons who were regularly taking certain specific antioxidants in supplement form. The authors of the meta-analysis concluded there was a slight increase in mortality for those persons.
Wait…what? Taking supplements might kill you???
Since that original article and Dr. Harris’ review, there has been a fairly regular parade of sensational headlines in the popular press about nutrition, supplements, and healthier eating habits.
Typically, a legitimate science journal publishes an article which describes some interesting conclusions from a recent study or, as in the case above, a meta-study. Almost always, those conclusions are carefully stated in the conservative language of real science. The studies referenced are complex, the actual findings usually narrow, the caveats many, and the assertions cautious.
But when those articles and studies are processed through the media, especially through today’s frenzy for social media likes, the resulting headlines are anything but cautious, conservative and careful!
So an article about the possible health dangers related to the overuse of single component supplements, or the ingestion of massive doses of single vitamins generates headlines like, “Vitamins are Useless!” or “Are Dietary Supplements Dangerous?”
We think it’s worth revisiting some key sections from Dr. Harris’ article. They are as relevant and important today as they were when we first published the article on our site.
There have been some pretty wild and crazy health headlines recently relating to taking vitamin supplements. I thought it important to let you know what’s really going on here.
A recent, large review of antioxidant supplementation published in the February 28th, 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association has found a slightly increased risk of death in individuals taking antioxidant supplements compared to those who did not take supplemental antioxidants.
The European study came to its conclusions by analyzing previously published data from 68 large trials that directly studied antioxidant supplementation. The new study combined and reanalyzed the previous studies’ data to come up with their conclusions. They state their conclusion as: “Treatment with beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.” (With mortality meaning risk of death from any cause.)
You can imagine the buzz associated with this kind of result. The media has taken this study’s results and gone after nutritional supplements, respected scientists, and even nutrition itself in a sensational way. And of course, the study has come under a great deal of criticism from researchers and nutritionists since it was published.
So what are we to think? Should we stop taking our daily supplements?
Well, I’m still taking my daily supplement. I carefully read the study and reviewed the detailed results. The study does have problems, and I’m not sure what to do with their conclusion.
Most of the current research published about antioxidants and nutrition acknowledges that supplementing with high-dose single antioxidants like vitamin E or beta-carotene can have detrimental effects.
Antioxidants are the body’s way of removing dangerous electrons from free-radicals in our cells. But, by taking the dangerous electron from a free radical, an antioxidant becomes a free radical. Multiple antioxidants must work together to safely transfer and remove the dangerous electrons from cells. This process is complicated, requiring multiple vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants to safely manage free radicals.
What we know is that antioxidants are necessary for protecting our DNA, proteins, and cell membranes. The early studies that identified the benefits of antioxidants observed that people who ate foods high in specific antioxidants had lower rates of cancer. Interestingly, the general response was to supplement with high doses of the specific antioxidant and hail the antioxidant as “a magic bullet for cancer.”
This approach would be like saying a Nascar driver won a big race because of the gasoline used in the car. Yeah, the gas helped, but the gas, engine, tires, driver, and many other factors led to the win, not just the gas. The key to the original studies is people who ate more of the WHOLE FOODS high in specific antioxidants had lower rates of cancer.
We now understand that foods high in nutrients like vitamin E or beta-carotene have many other active antioxidants and nutrients that are working together. This is the key to understanding the SuperfoodsRx message. SuperfoodsRx is about whole foods, not mega-doses of individual nutrients or vitamins.
When I’m on the run, I don’t get to eat enough servings of fruits and vegetables, and food-to-go is better than going hungry. In our modern world of busy jobs, late meetings, and missed chances to hit the gym, keeping up a daily health routine, including proper nutrition, can be a challenge.
So, how do you achieve optimum health? I recommend daily exercise, a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and fish, and some time spent alleviating daily stress.
Also, it’s really important to ensure that you are getting at least the basic nutrients your body needs every day. Unfortunately, most of us don’t even meet their recommended daily amounts of many of the basic nutrients. Vitamin D, calcium, folic acid, thiamine, and even vitamin C are commonly deficient in our modern fast-food diets, not to mention those hundreds of crucial super-nutrients found in the right whole-foods.
This is why I still take a daily supplement and recommend that practice to my patients.
*A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies. Meta-analysis can be performed when there are multiple scientific studies addressing the same question, with each individual study reporting measurements that are expected to have some degree of error. The aim then is to use approaches from statistics to derive a pooled estimate closest to the unknown common truth based on how this error is perceived.