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Should you take a daily multivitamin?

Elizabeth Jaggers, M.D., is a Piedmont internal medicine physician. In her Short Answer/Long Answer series, she tackles your medical questions.  

Short answer:

Some people with special diets or medical conditions need to take vitamins daily. However, as long as you eat a balanced diet of good-for-you foods, the human body is very good at taking in all the nutrients you need.

Evidence shows that taking a daily multivitamin will not have significant benefits for your health. If you still want to take one, this usually poses little to no harm. But you should understand that over-the-counter supplements and vitamins are not regulated or tested by the Food and Drug Administration. This allows many vitamin manufacturers to make false claims about their benefits.

Long Answer:

What exactly are vitamins and minerals? Vitamins are molecules or groups of molecules that your body needs in small amounts to function. They must be obtained from diet, as your body cannot create them.

They are used to help build bones, maintain your immune system, and regulate the growth of your cells. If you develop a deficiency of vitamins, you could develop diseases that we rarely see in the first world such as scurvy (yes, like a pirate) and rickets (yes, like Tiny Tim).

Minerals are inorganic substances such as iron, calcium, and sodium, which your body also needs in small or trace amounts to properly function. They are helpful for building bones, making hormones, regulating your heartbeat, and supporting healthy muscles and brain function.

Many Americans take a daily multivitamin supplement thinking that it will prevent chronic diseases or help them live longer, but the most current evidence shows that this is not the case. For the average person, multivitamins have not been found to be effective in preventing cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia or recurrent infections.

So maybe there is no benefit from taking a daily multivitamin, but is there any known harm? For most people, probably not, but consider the following:                            

  • Typically, multivitamins are OK, but many supplements can interact with other prescription and over-the-counter medication.
  • Many vitamins are water-soluble and generally, your body will “filter out” any excess amounts (I.E., they come out in your urine). But some vitamins (predominantly A, D, E and K) are fat-soluble and can build up in your body, and they can wreak havoc if you reach toxic levels.
  • While supplements and vitamins can be investigated by the FDA, they do not go through any pre-market regulation to prove that they are safe, effective, or actually live up to the claims they make. Do not be fooled by a product stating that it is "natural." This is essentially meaningless labeling, and keep in mind that mercury, cocaine, arsenic, and cow feces are also in the category of "natural."
  • There are a few organizations that offer some level of optional regulation. If you see seals from one of these companies, it means that the product has passed the organization’s quality tests for content, strength, and contaminants. These “seals of approval” do not mean that the product is safe or effective, but they provide assurance that they contain what is actually on the ingredient list and they do NOT contain harmful contaminants. 

Caveat: If in doubt about multivitamin supplementation need, safety, or brand, then ask your physician.

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