Multivitamin Supplements: Are they really the key to better health?

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Multivitamin/mineral supplements contain different vitamins, minerals and sometimes other ingredients,1 and can be taken alongside a normal diet with the aim of improving health through increased nutrient uptake. Supplements are available with combinations of various different vitamins and minerals, and no prescription is required to use them. The multivitamin industry continues to grow to this day; however, the question still remains as to whether or not supplements are a benefit to human health.

So, who can benefit from taking supplements?

The World Health Organisation estimates that over 2 billion people across the world experience deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals – such as calcium, potassium and Vitamin D, which play important roles in health maintenance through strengthening bones and muscles.2 Deficiencies can arise for a variety of reasons, such as abnormal metabolism, kidney failure, or reduced sunlight exposure in the case of Vitamin D. This lack of essential nutrients, even by a small amount, has been linked to reduced growth and certain neurological defects.3

In these types of cases, supplements act as an important tool in bridging the deficiency gap, even in areas of abundant food supply. Many multivitamin supplements provide sufficient quantities of iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which help to prevent against anaemia, a condition where there are not enough red blood cells in the body, as well as bone disease. Furthermore, supplements provide adequate levels of vitamin D useful for those not consuming enough vitamin D rich foods, like salmon and orange juice.3

Other situations where supplements can be useful include in growing children, and in pregnant women.3 The NHS recommends that those who are pregnant take folic acid supplements daily to reduce the risk of problems for the baby during early development.4 Folic acid has been well studied and the use of supplements during pregnancy is linked to a reduction in neural tube defects, which are problems of the brain and spinal chord, that occur during birth and  development.5

Do supplements work for everyone?

Whilst multivitamin supplements can support those with nutrient deficiencies, a study has shown that only 22% of users took supplements to “supplement the diet”, but rather many people used them improve and maintain their overall health. Deficiencies are also less common among those who take supplements because they may have healthier lifestyles and nutrition overall, independent of supplement intake.3 This touches on a socio-economic matter as it’s likely that those who would benefit most from additional supplements to reduce deficiency, may be the group to which healthy foods and supplements are least accessible.

Questions still exist surrounding the use of supplements as a means of improving overall health, however there is general agreement that you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need through the diet, with only some exceptions, such as pregnancy, and various conditions. Any excess water-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin C and B vitamins, will be filtered out of the body as urine if concentrations are already high enough, meaning that some vitamin levels can’t be “boosted” beyond a certain point with supplements in an attempt to improve health.6 With other types of nutrients this is not the case, and excess intake may cause adverse effects. Some studies have touched on the idea that supplements may reduce the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease, but extensive clinical trials are still needed to test this fully.2 The following chart7 provides useful information about the implications of some popular health supplements based on some scientific studies.

Source: Information is beautiful

How are supplements changing our approaches to nutrition?

When it comes to taking multivitamin supplements, considerations often need to be made which takes into account each individual’s health circumstances. What works for some individuals, may not work for others. This ties in with the concept of personalised nutrition, where an individual’s lifestyle, and genetic factors are studied with the aim of developing effective approaches to nutrition.8 Nutrigenomics – the interactions between genetics and nutrition,2 could lead to more progress in this field, and there is currently ongoing research surrounding personalised nutrition, however lots of criteria need to be met before this can be introduced into the mass market. It is likely that we won’t come to a point of completely personalised nutrition tailored to the individual, however we could see more specific nutrition approaches in the future based on differences in lifestyle and environment.

So, whether or not multivitamin supplements are the key to stronger muscles and perfect complexion is still up for debate. Whilst it doesn’t seem that there are huge negative implications for taking supplements to improve overall health, the clear benefits still remain questionable. In terms of deficiency however, research suggests that supplements do help to close the deficiency gap. With supplements becoming more and more popular on the mass market, it’s likely that we’ll see more news appearing in the future on the ways they can impact our health.

References

  1. Multivitamin/mineral supplements, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-Consumer/, Nov. 22,19
  2. Jeffrey B.Blumberg, Regan L.Bailey, Howard D.Sesso and Cornelia M.Ulrich, “The Evolving Role of Multivitamin/Multimineral Supplement Use among Adults in the Age of Personalized Nutrition”, Nutrients, Feb. 22, 2018
  3. Elizabeth Ward, “Addressing Nutritional Gaps With Multivitamin and Mineral Supplements”, Nutrition Journal, Jul. 2014
  4. Vitamins, minerals and supplements in pregnancy, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vitamins-minerals-supplements-pregnant/?tabname=getting-pregnant, Feb. 14, 2020
  5. Neural Tube Defects, https://medlineplus.gov/neuraltubedefects.html , Apr. 30, 2020
  6. Should I take vitamin supplements?, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1VjFvRZvDv9XrMcdB5dt1Wh/should-i-take-vitamin-supplements
  7. “Snake Oil Supplements?”, https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/snake-oil-scientific-evidence-for-nutritional-supplements-vizsweet/
  8. J.A.Betts, J.T.Gonzalez, “Personalised Nutrition: What makes you so special?”, Nutrition Bulletin, Nov.16, 2004

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