Multivitamins, multis, multimineral or simply vitamin supplements are all different names for the same pill which is often considered an aid in making up for years of neglect our body has been subjected to. But what exactly are those minute capsules and tablets doing for us or rather, to us? Do multivitamins work or are they just one of those many products manufactured by pharmaceutical companies to generate large profits? Let’s explore all of it in detail.
What are Multivitamins?
A human body on average requires 13 different kinds of vitamins and 16 different kinds of mineral salts essentially. Even though the body requires small amounts of them, their deficiencies, however, can have drastic consequences in the form of life-time deformities like scurvy, beriberi and rickets. Most people around the world consume a diet that lacks or contain very little amounts of these beneficial substances. Multivitamins, as the name suggests is a supplement that contains multiple vitamins along with other ingredients such as minerals and binding agents. There is no fixed recipe for multivitamins because the combinations and amounts of each vitamin present in the pills differ on the basis of the brand or the purpose it is manufactured for. Usually, vitamin supplements are supposed to be taken twice a day but one must not indulge in the practice of self-medication rather you should follow the doctor’s prescription regarding the dose and company of the medicine to be consumed.
Do Multivitamins Have Any Health Benefits?
Having established that vitamins and minerals are essential to the body it is also equally important to realize that for each vitamin/mineral there is a fixed amount which is to be ingested, the data is known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The amount may vary with age and other factors (such as diet and ethnicity) which are carefully considered by the physician or dietician before making prescriptions.
Though multivitamins are considered to be beneficial, the scientific evidence for it is mixed. So, do multivitamins work? Studies show that multivitamin intake can help reduce the risk of heart attack and cardiovascular diseases but there are also studies which prove that there is no relationship between the two. Similarly, studies report that vitamin supplements can help improve and sharpen memory. However, a number of studies also serve to contradict the finding and suggest that multivitamin intake is either harmful or has no effect on the memory of individuals.
Additionally, there is a widely accepted notion of multivitamins being beneficial in improving bone health. Calcium supplements that contain vitamin D are often prescribed by doctors for people with weak or brittle bones. Multivitamins containing Iron and folic acid supplements are often suggested to women especially during pregnancy and childbirth.
Why Multivitamins Don’t Work?
There can be a number of reasons why your multivitamins aren’t working for you.
- Conflicting ingredients: the formulations and combinations of multivitamins are important because the micro-nutrients that are used as ingredients in them may interfere with the absorption and working of other biomolecules inside the body. Zinc for instance, in the right amount, helps regulate the retention of fluids by the kidneys and helps prevent diarrhea but an excess of it may hinder the absorption of amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and iron (a necessary part of our blood hemoglobin)
- Absorption: vitamins can broadly be classified into two types; the water-soluble (B and C) and the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). As the names suggest the former are only solubilized by water while the later requires fat in order to solubilize and absorb. If your fat intake is too low then fat-soluble vitamins may be of little or no value to you.
- Dosage: as discussed earlier, all vitamins and minerals must follow a standard value known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). In doses that do not meet the daily requirement, the vitamin is more or less useless and excessively high doses of any particular or combination of vitamins can also reportedly have harmful effects.
- Form: A human body works in fascinating ways. The same substance may be readily absorbed in one form while it may be very poorly absorbed or not absorbed at all in the other form. Vitamin A, for example, is best if taken in the form of all trans beta-carotene or provitamin A, whereas the same vitamin in a different form such as retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate, serve to be very toxic especially if you exceed the dose.
How Multivitamins can be Harmful
- Excess antioxidants: Our body operates on a very delicate balance between different entities. One of them is the balance between the amounts of free radicals and antioxidants but in order to understand that you have to bear with a bit of chemistry jargon here. The chemical reactions in our body are constantly producing free radicals, these are highly reactive molecules having unsatisfied electron valency which means that they usually create havoc in their surroundings, ripping off electrons from otherwise healthy molecules like DNA and proteins in order to become stable themselves. In the process of ripping off the electrons, free radicals end up killing or destroying the healthy molecule. In order to counter the chaos, we have the class of substances known as antioxidants, the purpose of these is to donate the much sought after electrons and stabilize the free radicals before they could harm healthy cells of the body. Now the good news is that most vitamins can act as antioxidants themselves or multivitamins contain added antioxidants in the formulations but the bad news is that excess of those very same antioxidants can hinder the body natural fighting mechanism as well. Our body’s immune system does require to purposely kill certain harmful cells such as tumors, cancers or even invading bacteria. With too many antioxidants in the system, our body can no longer rely on the killing abilities of free radicals and the diability allows the harmful cells to proliferate and cause damage.
- Each year the FDA receives several case reports regarding serious side effects of multivitamins. Vitamin E, for example, has been associated with an increased risk of blood clots and heart diseases.
- Supplements containing iron may lead to iron toxicity especially in children
- Supplements labelled as natural may be anything but. The FDA says that many substances may contain synthetic botanicas which hardly qualify as natural and harmless.
- Vitamin A in excess may cause joint pain, bone damage, liver damage and numerous other health issues.
Multivitamins You Should Avoid
All CHEAP and LOW-QUALITY multivitamins should be avoided for a number of reasons:
- In order to produce cheaper products, manufacturers often cut down on the quality of their ingredients especially the binders (substances that act as the glue in the formulation and keep all the ingredients together), fillers (substances that act as bulking agents by adding volume to the size of the capsule), and coloring agents. These substances may turn out to be more harmful than the excess of the vitamin itself.
- Poor R n D: In order to manufacture a good pill, there is extensive amounts of money, time and effort that goes into it. Cheap manufacturers often lack the resources to conduct proper researches and hence their products may contain wrong combinations and unbalanced quantities of each vitamin and mineral either exceeding the RDA or falling behind.
Another category of multivitamins that that must be avoided are the ones that are obtained from Genetically Modified Organisms. Ascorbic acid and Maltodextrin often come from GMO corns that are modified to contain pesticides within them. Such corns might be harmful when consumed by the human body. There are a number of issues regarding GMOs but that is a whole other debate.
Who Should Take a Multivitamin?
Despite the fact that the use of multivitamins is so common both in the east as well as the west, it is imperative to know that most of us do not even need multivitamins. We can easily obtain all of the necessary vitamins and minerals by eating a balanced and healthy diet. Yet in some exceptional cases, multivitamins may serve to be slightly more beneficial and worth taking.
- Pregnant females: Supplements of folic acid may prevent neural tube deformities when taken during early pregnancy. The neural tube is one of the first structures formed in the fetus and gives rise to the formation of the nervous system.
- Elderly: Vitamins such B12 are essential for survival but unfortunately it is one of the most commonly encountered vitamin deficiencies. People of older ages may take multivitamins containing B12 after carefully consulting their doctors.
- Vitamin D is another vitamin that though essential, is easily consumed by simply exposing ones self to sunlight on daily basis. However, people living in areas with very limited exposure to the sun may consume multivitamins that contain vitamin D and calcium as they are essential for bone health and growth.
- Children with eating disorders such as anorexia may be prescribed multivitamins by the doctors to balance the inequalities of essential vitamins and minerals in order to prevent permanent damage to body organs. However, multivitamins are not promoted as being a permanent way of life. It should be used a temporary therapy to avoid life-lasting deformities and deficiencies.