Vitamins are known to all of us as universal health booster. However, some types of vitamins such as Vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables are not stored by our
bodies for long and are furthermore sensitive to heat exposed during cooking. In the 18th century many sailors suffered from scurvy during their long journeys on shipboard. The vitamin C deficiency, which can cause suppurating wounds and the loss of teeth, rapidly progressed because of the sailors’ one-sided nutrition but most importantly because they were lacking the essential fresh fruits and vegetables. In order to prevent vitamin deficiencies and their severe consequences, people started to consider alternatives for the sufficient dietary intake of vitamins others than eating vegetables and fruits.
In the 1930’s the company Hoffmann La Roche then secured the first patent for the production of Vitamin C in form of pills. Ever since vitamin supplements have been a nutritional bestseller on the market and many scientists have been seeing great potential in the power of vitamins. The double Noble Prize winner Linus Pauling was convinced that high dosages of Vitamin C taken by all people would eventually lead to an eradication of the common cold.
The advertising industry readily picked up such ideas and is still using promises similar to Pauling’s hopes in their campaigns: “Multivitamins are a must-have for supporting overall health … multivitamin supplements also provide antioxidant protection for healthy cells against free radical damage.” (Bayer)
Just as many other pharmaceutical companies, Bayer praises the benefits of vitamins being antioxidants which prevent cancer development by binding to the free radicals in our body. Free radicals have been seen as aggressive oxygen molecules which attack our DNA and by this provoke genetic changes which can ultimately lead to premature aging and cancer. Although it has never been proven in scientific studies that vitamin supplements decrease the risk of heart attacks and Alzheimer’s amongst other diseases in the human organism, many scientists did not doubt the power of vitamins in the prevention of certain clinical pictures. At least in the test tube vitamins A, E and beta-carotene effectively bind to the undesired free radicals and prevent them from reacting with our genetic material.
In 2007 results of the biggest ever conducted investigation concerning antioxidant vitamin supplements were released at the University of Copenhagen. The so called meta-analysis, which meets the highest academic standards, takes 47 separately conducted studies including 200 000 tested individuals into account. Surprisingly, the head of the study Dr. Gluud and his team of expertise concluded that the tested groups which took vitamin supplements A, C, E, etc. showed a significantly increased mortality compared to the control groups which did not take any vitamin supplements.
Despite the beliefs that free radicals are generally bad for our health, Dr. Gluud supports the hypothesis that they might play an important part in our metabolism. When present in small amounts free oxygen radicals might overtake important roles in the body’s immune defense to eliminate damaged cells and thus prevent cancer development. If all free radicals are bound to the digested vitamins in our bodies, either due to over nutrition or vitamin supplements, we might have an increased risk of developing cancer prematurely. Therefore the amount of free oxygen radicals in our bodies might be the key indicator for vitamins being a top or a flop.
With this hypothesis, it might be possible to elucidate why a regular intake of multivitamin supplements doubles the risk of developing prostate carcinoma in men (Journal of the National Cancer Institute), why Vitamin E supplements slightly increase the risk of developing lung cancer (University of Washington), or why multivitamin supplements increase the risk of developing breast cancer in women (Karolinska Institutet).
During the 1930’s sailors suffered from vitamin deficiencies because they lacked essential fresh foods. Nowadays, it is estimated that an average US American takes in 20% more of his or her actual need for most of the vitamins. Nonetheless, it is estimated that one third of all people living in high-income countries take dietary supplements including vitamin pills, most likely unnecessarily, and by doing so possibly increase their risk to develop certain diseases.
Considering the most recent evidences that vitamin supplements can have adverse effects on the public health, we might need to change the way we look at vitamin supplements. In order to prevent excessive intake of vitamins, pharmaceutical companies and governments should start treating vitamin pills just as any other medication and therefore should consider the implementation of a system to regulate how much vitamin pills someone may purchase.
Dr. Gluuds meta-analysis is only the beginning of a long journey in discovering the vitamin myths which have already been manifested by pharmaceutical companies for too long. In the future scientists need to focus on whether the hypothesis of free radicals being an important part of our defense mechanism against damaged cells is correct and if so what amount of free radicals is necessary to maintain this hypothesized function without causing harm. In my opinion, the best advice for a healthy well-nourished person is to rely on a balanced diet which includes several portions of fresh fruits and vegetables a day.