Vitamins and supplements are more popular today than they have ever been. But are they all that they are cracked up to be? In this edition of Medical Myths, we address a crop of supplement superstitions and mineral misunderstandings.
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The supplement industry is huge. In 2016, the global nutritional supplement sector turned over an estimated $132.8 billion. By 2022, some experts predict that this figure will exceed $220 billion.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in 2011–2012, 52% of adults in the United States reported using some kind of supplement. In addition, almost 1 in 3 people (31%) took multivitamins.
People, understandably, want to be healthy and free from disease. If popping a relatively inexpensive pill every day ups their chances of a healthy, long life, it is no surprise that supplements are popular.
When you couple the desire to live well with a bold marketing campaign replete with toned bodies and perfect smiles, supplements fly off the shelves.
Before we go on, it is important to note that supplements are important for some people. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise females of child-bearing age to take folic acid supplements.
Similarly, for people who live in colder climes, vitamin D is an important supplement, particularly during the darker months.
If your doctor has asked you to take a supplement of any type, it is important to use it as they advise.
In general, though, for adults without health conditions who eat a balanced diet, the vast majority of supplements are nonessential. As these products sit at the intersection of science and marketing, it is no surprise that there are some misconceptions about their benefits.
- More is always better
When it comes to vitamins, more is not always better. In fact, more can sometimes be dangerous. As vitamin and mineral supplements are available without a prescription, people can be forgiven for assuming that they are safe at any dosage.
Large dosages of some vitamins can hamper the body’s finely tuned systems, though. For instance, according to the American Cancer Society:
“[T]oo much vitamin C can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb copper, a metal that’s needed by the body. Too much phosphorous can inhibit the body’s absorption of calcium. The body cannot get rid of large doses of vitamins A, D, and K, and these can reach toxic levels when too much is taken.”
Additionally, too much vitamin C or calcium might cause diarrhea and stomach pain. Taking too much vitamin D over long periods can cause calcium to build up in the body, which is called hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can weaken bones and damage the heart and kidneys.
- If the label says ‘natural,’ it must be safe
Sadly, the term “natural” is fairly meaningless in relation to the safety or effectiveness of a supplement. To provide an extreme example, cyanide is a natural compound that ferns produce. Of course, we are not suggesting that any supplements contain cyanide.
Some natural plant compounds do have medicinal properties, but there is more to it than that. For instance, dandelion roots are a laxative, whereas dandelion leaves are a diuretic.
There is also the question of dilution: How much of the plant compound remains in the final product? It might be a minimal trace, or the extract might be highly concentrated.