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 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 with regard to 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. Sadly, we don’t fully understand the process.
What we do understand 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.” But that just led to trouble. 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 are that the people who ate more of the WHOLE FOODS high in specific antioxidants had lower rates of cancer. We now understand that the 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 individual nutrients or vitamins.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect. Actually, my wife may be the first to admit I’m not perfect, but why split hairs? When I’m on the run I don’t get to eat my “five-a-day” 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 do not 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.