Antioxidant supplements–hype doesn’t match reality

Last updated on June 13th, 2012 at 04:40 pm

I’ve never been a fan of vitamin supplements.  Aside from a very few supplements intended for a few specific clinical conditions, like vitamin C and scurvy, they have little use in preventing or treating diseases.  In fact, because mammalian physiology has evolved a homeostasis for these chemicals, any excess amount that can’t be stored is cleared by the kidneys and becomes part of your urine.  I’m willing to venture that the urine of many Americans is quite expensive, with all of the cleared vitamins and other micronutrients.  A balanced diet over several weeks is sufficient to provide the body with all of the nutrients and vitamins to be healthy and strong.  In fact, you are not even required to have all vitamins and nutrients every day, as storage of a few nutrients will be released as necessary, and clinical manifestations of nutrient deficiency may take weeks or months.  

One of the more popular group of  supplements is the antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene.  Presumably, these vitamins are taken to bind with free radicals (from a chemistry sense of the word, not hippies who haven’t been arrested)–free radicals are blamed for everything from cancer to arteriosclerosis, all without a lot of evidence in support.

Last week, the Cochrane Library, my favorite source of evidence based medicine articles, published Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases.  Let’s jump right to the conclusion:

We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention. Beta-carotene and vitamin E seem to increase mortality, and so may higher doses of vitamin A. Antioxidant supplements need to be considered as medicinal products and should undergo sufficient evaluation before marketing.

This is a critical conclusion that not only are these supplements of no use to you, they actually seem to increase mortality.  This isn’t just a conclusion from one study, but is, in fact, a meta-analysis of 56 trials with 296,707 participants.  That’s to the point where the statistics would show that it is almost impossible to derive these results from random chance.

Good nutrition is critical to good health.  But unless you’re on a diet of eating nothing but fried chicken, you’re probably going to have enough nutrients to maintain your health to a high level.  Don’t wast your money on vitamins or other supplements (very few, if any, work), unless there is a specific clinical need.  

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