Nothing. Well, I say nothing. I diligently took a special ‘lady vitamin’ every day for a year to see just what I was missing: as it turns out, about £6.30 per month (money down the drain – or, more specifically, to the £13.5 billion supplement industry).
Not only did I not see any specific benefits, my overall health took a nosedive. I have had more illnesses in the last year than I have had in the last ten years. Over the course of my ‘vitamin year’ I had my first ever vomiting bug, the flu (in spite of having a free flu jab at work), a chest infection and countless other bugs and viruses that left me feeling less than fantastic. I am just one feverish day away from having an official ‘sickness review’ at work for this year (if they suggest I start taking a multi vitamin to help support my immunity I will scream).
But enough about my medical woes. Is this a coincidence? I’m not prepared to fork out another £75.60 to find out (the cost of these vitamins for a 12 month supply), as I simply don’t believe in it for adults who are normally in good health*.
So what exactly are we being promised, and how does this compare with my expectations and the reality of vitamin ‘benefits’? Upon closer inspection, the box states they are ‘designed for the demands of modern life’ (an interesting one – can they charge my phone at the same time)? It also states that their carefully-packaged product ‘provides a wide range of nutrients and trace elements providing nutritional support’ and ‘the benefits of the ingredients are thought to build over time’. So, no promises; and yes ‘another-£75.60-please-per-year-may-further-benefit-you-but-we-can’t-promise’ non-promise. I’m sure the woman running around on the advert, with glossy hair, perfect nails and a really nice car will help to sway a potential vitamin purchaser as well.
Perhaps I am just unlucky. Perhaps I am too cynical to feel the benefits of a placebo effect on this one (is ‘un-placebo-able’ a word)? Or perhaps they just DO NOT WORK.
A telling article, following three comprehensive studies, was written and published by Annals of Internal Medicine: ‘Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements’ (written and compiled by Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH; Saverio Stranges, MD, PhD; Cynthia Mulrow, MD, MSc, Senior Deputy Editor; Lawrence J. Appel, MD, MPH; and Edgar R. Miller III, MD, PhD). I really don’t need to quote the article as the title says it all.
Ben Goldacre (Doctor, author and writer for The Guardian) has published a series of articles damning the use of ‘quack’ vitamin supplements. He even points out that aggressive marketing strategies for the vitamin companies can be seriously harmful to societies:
‘Matthias Rath and the Rath Foundation vitamin empire [have] been running advertising campaigns in newspapers and poster campaigns near HIV/Aids treatment centres in several African countries, telling people that anti-retroviral drugs undermine the body’s immune system, and that “micro-nutrients alone can promote the defence against Aids”.’
Seriously worrying stuff. Ben Goldacre, along with many other medical professionals that I know, promotes the good old-fashioned healthy lifestyle and balanced diet – which cannot be replaced by simply popping a multi-vitamin pill. The body excretes what it doesn’t need, so by taking 500% of your RDA of vitamin C every day will not stop you from becoming ill – it may just give you diarrhoea and vomiting, or kidney stones. Too much calcium has also been linked to heart attacks (with a dose of D&V thrown in). In fact, one credible 2008 study found that 13.1% of people taking vitamin supplements died over the course of the trials, compared with 10.5% of people who were either taking nothing or a placebo pill.
So, supplement fans: If you feel you have money to throw away then you could carry on taking your multi-vitamins. They may make you feel better (or worse), or they may make you ill (or worse). On the other hand, you could just eat a balanced diet, spend some time outside and save yourself the bother.
I know for certain that the only supplement I am going to be regularly digesting from now on is the Culture section of the Sunday times. Cheaper – and no diarrhoea.
*Of course there are genuine benefits for certain supplements in certain situations: vitamin K injections for newborns are a no-brainer, as are folic acid supplements in pregnancy, and even multivitamins for the under 5s are recommended by the DOH. I am just talking about pointless vitamin supplements in adults who are in good health.
Dr Ben Goldacre – Bad Science: http://www.badscience.net/ (His book, of the same name, changed my life – well worth a read: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bad-Science-Ben-Goldacre/dp/000728487X )
Annals of Internal Medicine: ‘Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements’ (written and compiled by Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH; Saverio Stranges, MD, PhD; Cynthia Mulrow, MD, MSc, Senior Deputy Editor; Lawrence J. Appel, MD, MPH; and Edgar R. Miller III, MD, PhD): http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1789253