Supplements: Do We Really Need Them?

So let me get this straight.

You’re telling me that supplements may actually be harmful to my health? That despite thousands of years of vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies, amino acids, homeopathics, ayurvedic and botanical medicines, that they may do more harm than good, or at the very least are just a big waste of money?

Is that what’s being said, because this is what I’m hearing through magazine, television, books and other media sources?

Frankly, it’s annoying when research takes precedence over common sense. If you know it works, why do you need research to prove it?

Just so everyone’s on the same page, here is a fairly recent study suggesting vitamin supplementation may not be as good as we think:

This Iowa Women’s Study followed 38,772 older women for 25 years. The women in the study, whose average age was 62 back in 1986, reported their use of multivitamins and supplements over the years. The news was not good: the risk of death INCREASED with long term use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper. The risk of death only decreased with the use of calcium. They also noted that in other studies, calcium had the opposite effect.


Here is an excellent article on some of the potential flaws in the study

While this may very well be true that 80-yr old women don’t need iron supplements (why were they taking iron anyways, were they still menstruating?), the American public is now informed that “supplements” may increase risk of death. I don’t know anyone, with the exception of some nerdy nutrition dudes like me, who are going to go read the study to find the details. No media sources are going out of their way to tell the public that this was a study done on women, 50% of which lived longer than the average lifespan for a woman anyways. It’s perplexing.

Now what about all of the research on the health benefits of supplements? We don’t hear a thing about that.

Here’s a juicy little clip from Dr. Mark Hyman on how supplements could save us over 24 BILLION dollars per year in health care

How dietary supplements reduce health care costs

I think it’s absurd to discount “supplements/vitamins” as an all-encompassing field in which a couple potentially faulty (by design) research studies cause a media frenzy that insinuates all supplements are there-by bad/damaging/unnecessary.

I’d like to think that people are generally health-conscious and therefore will take certain measures to be preventative. Supplement use certainly falls into the realm of our “quick-fix” society, and so I don’t think people will stop utilizing supplements. However, I do think it’s important for people to be educated about what they’re using and why…

Here’s my “No-duh” comments about supplement use:

  1. Real food will ALWAYS be better
  2. You get what you pay for: Cheap supplements are made from cheap ingredients that will probably do more harm than good. I suggest you buy directly from your doctor, naturopath, chiropractor, or nutritionist. Ask them what they take and why. Ask them what you need for your goals, if anything. Do they look healthy? If not, better find a new health practitioner ;)
  3. Because many vitamins and minerals are synergistic to one another, simply taking isolated forms (Vit. A, C, B6, E, calcium, etc.) of vitamins may not be the best way to regulate deficiencies or prevent disease. I see this often in marketing of specific vitamins, i.e. Vitamin E and prostate health, Vitamin C and cancer, etc…
  4. There is often a dose-response relationship with nutritional supplements and what the optimal dosage is for you, which is multifactorial: age, health status, physical activity levels, prevalence of “disease”, goals, toxicity, lifestyle, etc. This is why blood, hormone, nutrient status testing is important.
  5. How do you feel? Better start paying attention. Not everyone reacts the same, in fact we’re as different on the inside as we are on the outside, therefore, we each have our own unique needs when it comes to supplementation.

Now, I think it’s utter hypocrisy for condemnation on supplement efficacy when our whole medical system is developing a pretty piss-poor track record in regards to prescription drug use/misuse.

Of course I’m not suggesting that nutritional supplements have been shown to treat, heal, cure disease, but I am suggesting that we should be far more concerned over the other pills in your medicine cabinet.

Here are some staggering FACTS for you:

FACT 1: Prescription drug reactions cause more than two million hospital admissions—every year in America.

FACT 2: More than 180,000 American patients die every year from taking their medications.

FACT 3: Prescription medication use is the third leading cause of death in America— dwarfing automobile accidents, AIDS, alcohol and illegal drug abuse, infectious disease, diabetes, and murder.


















SOURCES of Data: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA); links below.

Kind of shocking that, according to the above data, we’re five times more likely to die from a prescription drug than an automobile accident.

Conversely, According to a 174-page published report, the number of people killed in 2009 across America by vitamins, minerals, amino acids or herbal supplements is exactly zero.

Go figure.

My point here isn’t to vilify pharmaceutical companies (they seem to be doing a good enough job on their own) or conventional medicine, but to point out the twisted state of affairs when people coerced by media into questioning preventative health measures.

A few points I’m trying to make:

1)   People taking vitamins are going to be healthier (at least more health conscious) than those who do not. Typically they will eat healthier, exercise more and stress less. Maybe that means they will have to take less prescription drugs, which is clearly a good thing.

2)   Just because your medical doctor doesn’t know anything or may frown upon supplements, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them. Odds are very good they’ve had zero formal education on supplements or nutrition for that matter. That doesn’t make them a bad person, just uniformed. People research their car purchases far more than any medical drugs they start putting into their body, and those drugs have some very serious side effects…even death.

3)   It’s unfortunate, but we will always have conflicting views, opinions, and research regarding things that make money. Please do the best you can to get somewhat educated before you make blanket statements about anything, not just those relating to health. It seems that everyone is a nutrition expert these days with all the information and apparently zero ability to apply it.

I guess it just irks me when I hear so many B.S. statements about nutrition, health, supplementation, exercise, etc. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life (post-college, not post-Bar Mitzvah) studying from the very best practitioners in the world. These are MD’s, chiropractors, clinical nutritionists, naturopathic doctors and other trainers that are in the trenches every single day actually helping, healing, and improving lives. I spend thousands of dollars every year traveling, sitting in classrooms, missing work and my family to learn how to help myself and others. I don’t think they have all the answers nor do I think anyone does.

To be honest, this is a very tough time for us in the field of health. We’re fighting an uphill battle of conflicting health claims and with information technology a click away, and I don’t see things getting any easier. It seems everyone’s a guru sitting behind their computer regurgitating something they read on someone else’s blog.

Supplements may not do as much as we think…but they may do more. If you want to eat lifeless, processed food every day, sit on your behind, think negative thoughts and wait for disease to come knocking, then a multivitamin probably is not going to help. But, maybe taking a daily vitamin is the boost you need to get outside, start moving more, eat fresh and local, and feel better about yourself. Maybe that multivitamin could save  your life?

As for me, I believe that supplements are a small (yet important) piece in the PROCESS of getting and staying healthy in our toxic world. I’ve seen the benefits time and again.

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Bronstein AC, Spyker DA, Cantilena LR Jr, Green JL, Rumack BH, Giffin SL. 2008 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 26th Annual Report. Clinical Toxicology (2009). 47, 911-1084. The full text article is available for free download at… .

American Association of Poison Control Centers from 1983-2008 free of charge at…

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA); links below.

Why Should I Be Concerned About Drug Side Effects?

No Deaths from Vitamins, Minerals, Amino Acids or Herbs

Strand, R.D. Death by Prescription: The Shocking Truth Behind an Overmedicated Nation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Wood A.J.J. “The safety of new medicines; The importance of asking the right questions” JAMA editorial, 281 (1999):1753-1754:

Lazarou J., et al. “Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients: a meta-analysis of prospective studies.” JAMA 279 (1998):1200-1205:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Cohen, J.S. Over Dose: The Case Against the Drug Companies: Prescription Drugs, Side Effects, and Your Health. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001.

Willman, D. “How a New Policy Led to Seven Deadly Drugs,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 2000 (Front page).