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Friday, June 15, 2012

What Kind of People Take Vitamins?

"There's a sucker born every minute."

David Hannum
(frequently attributed to P.T. Barnum)
For normal healthy people there's no evidence that vitamin supplements are necessary, or helpful, in any way [Good Food, Bad Food]. Megadoses of vitamins may be harmful [A bad week for the nutritional supplements industry].

So, why would anyone fork out good money for vitamin supplements?

Biochemistry instructors should make sure students understand the difference between science and pseudoscience. That's why I inserted boxes like this one in the latest version of my textbook.
Whatever happened to vitamin B4 and vitamin B8? They are never listed in the textbooks but you’ll often find them sold in stores that cater to the demand for supplements that might make you feel better and live longer.

Vitamin B4 was adenine, the base found in DNA and RNA.We now know that it’s not a vitamin. All species, including humans, can make copious quantities of adenine whenever it’s needed (Sections 18.1 and 18.2). Vitamin B8 was inositol, a precursor of several important lipids (Figure 8.16 and Section 9.12C). It’s no longer considered a vitamin.

If you know anyone who is paying money for vitamin B4 and B8 supplements then here’s your chance to be helpful. Tell them why they’re wasting their money.


T Ryan Gregory said...

Well, pregnant women or those who are planning to become pregnant take vitamins, especially for folic acid (vitamin B9) to prevent neural tube defects, usually on the explicit advice of their physicians. B4 and B8 may be bunk, but the same may not be true of vitamins generally.

Unknown said...

Read the first sentence "For normal healthy people"

DGA said...

Pregnant women are, in some views, normal and healthy.

For myself, I think multi-vitamins and multi-minerals are cheap and there is no way one can be certain without testing that one doesn't suffer from some deficiency. A slight long-term deficiency could result in serious problems so a cheap supplement may be a good investment. But megadoses are not called for

Bryan said...


The evidence that vitamin use may cause harm is much greater than the evidence that, in healthy individuals, they have benefit. In contrast, vitamin deficiencies are extremely rare, and generally have very obvious symptoms. Aside from 'D' in winter (for those in high latitudes), and calcium in older individuals, there is generally no reason for the average person to take vitamins.

Larry Moran said...

There's no controversy about taking folic acid when pregnant. There are also some fairly common situations when vitamin D can be helpful.

Joe Felsenstein said...

There's an interesting connection of all this to molecular evolution. The major proponent of folic acid supplementation for pregnant women was Thomas Jukes (who was a biochemist trained in Toronto). After his work in nutritional biochemistry he got interested in molecular evolution. In fact in 1963 he published a book Molecular Evolution which gave the name to the field. He also published the Jukes-Cantor formula for distance between two DNA sequences.

gillt said...

What about the old people (>50)? They're often advised to take supplements by their physicians. The questions remains whether they can be described as normal or healthy.

Joe Felsenstein said...

Oops, Jukes's book was Molecules and Evolution and it was 1966, not 1963. So perhaps it did not originate the phrase "molecular evolution".

majkinetor said...

The evidence that vitamin use may cause harm is much greater than the evidence that, in healthy individuals, they have benefit.
Nonsense and terrible uninformed article. Furthermore, rebuttals of the vitamin dangers you posted are all around if anybody care to look it up.

Megadoses of most micronutrients are extremely safe. Apart from vitamin A which is conditionally unsafe (in the absence of K and D) and iron supplements, there are almost no recorded deaths from supplements in previous 3 decades. Endogenous vitamin like substances like CoQ10 or ALA are equally safe.

There are thousands of positive studies, many neutral studies while negative studies are rare and most are with serious conflict of interest.

Linus Pauling properly called pharmaceutical drugs toximolecular (vs orthomolecular).

Ofcourse, there are suspicious products out there, but do your homework. Here are some references for the start:

Ames, Bruce N, Ilan Elson-Schwab, and Eli A Silver. “High-dose Vitamin Therapy Stimulates Variant Enzymes with Decreased Coenzyme Binding Affinity (increased K(m)): Relevance to Genetic Disease and Polymorphisms.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 75, no. 4 (April 2002): 616–658.

Ames, Bruce N. “Low Micronutrient Intake May Accelerate the Degenerative Diseases of Aging Through Allocation of Scarce Micronutrients by Triage.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103, no. 47 (November 21, 2006): 17589–17594.

Challem, J J. “Toward a New Definition of Essential Nutrients: Is It Now Time for a Third ‘Vitamin’ Paradigm?” Medical Hypotheses 52, no. 5 (May 1999): 417–422.

Downing, D. “Recommended Daily Allowances-success or Failure?” Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine 1, no. 2 (1990): 89–92.

Fletcher, Robert H, and Kathleen M Fairfield. “Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults: Clinical Applications.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 287, no. 23 (June 19, 2002): 3127–3129.

Katharine, Milton. “Micronutrient Intakes of Wild Primates: Are Humans Different?” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology - Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology 136, no. 1 (September 2003): 47–59.

Hemilä, H. “Is There a Biochemical Basis For’nutrient Need’ [letter].” Trends Food Sci Technol 2 (1991): 73.

“Safety of Vitamin C: Urban Legends”. Department of Public
Health, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland., August 10, 2009.

Rosie Redfield said...

What about those of us who self-indulgently choose to eat less than perfect diets? Why shouldn't we use a daily multivitamin/mineral to fill in the gaps?

anthrosciguy said...

Seems to me the basic problem with taking pills as a way to get nutrients is that all these nutrients act in concert with each other, and often need a balance of some sort to work properly. And that while it's possible to get a balanced diet using pills it's easy to overdo one nutrient or the other, and mess up the balance. And that while it's possible to overdo one nutrient via eating foods, it's harder to "OD" that way than it is with pills. If you feel you must use a pill, a multi would be -- it seems to me -- the safest way to go, but it just isn't all that difficult to eat a reasonably decent diet instead.

TK said...

I'm a poor college student and at times I find my diet far less than reasonable. Considering I can buy 500 tablets of daily multivitamins (the vast majority of the vitamins within are real, haha) for $10, I don't feel too much like a sucker since I'm only paying about $5 per year. If there's decisive evidence that one multivitamin tablet every other day or so does cause negative effects, I will definitely stop, but I haven't seen such evidence yet.

Larry Moran said...

I'm pretty sure that a "less-than-perfect" diet in Vancouver will contain more than enough of all the vitamins you will ever need.

It's amazing that the idustry and their allies have apparently convinced a normally skeptical scientist like you to give them money for no reason.

majkinetor said...

I'm pretty sure that you don't know what you are talking about.

The Thought Criminal said...

I only take a multivitamin in winter when the garden is a distant memory.

I can't remember who it was who pointed out that nutrition wasn't the most exact of sciences. I'd put it in the who knows category.

The Thought Criminal said...

Other than the known toxicities of vitamins and supplements, why is this such a big deal? Isn't an excess of TV or time sitting immobile at the computer a bigger danger to health and well being?

OldSynner said...

I have endless admiration of Pauling’s work as a chemist, and for his peace campaigning. “The nature of the chemical bond” is one of the most influential science books ever. It is rather a shame that he spent so many of his later years espousing the (still unproven) benefits of mega doses of vitamins – especially water-soluble ones like ascorbate. As for supplements; generally they aren’t needed by most people. However, vitamin D is as much as lifestyle issue as a nutritional one. There is growing evidence about sub-optimal levels of some groups in northern countries, like the UK, and, presumably, Canada. We really don’t see the sun that much outside a few weeks in the summer. That and diet is enough for most people. However groups you don’t go out much, and / or cover up most of the skin, are at risk of deficiency, and supplements are recommended by the NHS.

thummim said...

I don't think the difference between a science and a pseudoscience has been well established- please clarify.

thummim said...

What I mean by clarify is to educate yourself
Start with these:
Lakatos, “Science and Pseudoscience,” pp. 20-26; Thagard, “Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience,” pp. 27-38

Anonymous said...

Dr. Moran, I have to disagree with you. I have fibromyalgia and psoriatic arthritis. While the THIS may not qualify me as a normal, healthy individual, I can say that for certain there are supplements I take that definitely do some interesting and beneficial things. Firstly, I take an SNRI. When I don't take 3000mg of vitamin C, I have a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. But, then I take the C, and it goes away. The vitamin C HAS to be doing something with my liver that takes the taste away. This is NOT in my head. Additionally, I supplement with red yeast rice, which lowered my triglycerides 57 points in 6 months. It's the active ingredient in Lipitor, yet has zero side effects and does not pad the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry. I take magnesium with malic acid, which really does make me feel better, instead of more tired and sick. Many of the newer studies suggest most Americans are definitely deficient in magnesium, which is never included in a multivitamin. Also, I take vitamin D in the winter, which does help me get sick less. Something else no one has touched on is that blacks have a higher incidence of hypertension and diabetes in northern latitides, which is believed to be a huge deficiency in vitamin D, as their skin blocks the little sun we do get most of the year. That said, although a black child may be normal and healthy, he may grow up to be a very unhealthy adult. Beginning supplementation of vitamin D at an early age may actually grow a healthy adult. One of my doctors also has a PhD in molecular biology, and his opinion is very opposite yours. Given that Western medicine is so unhealthy for most people and that many of us take at least 5 prescriptions/day (the pharmaceutical industry's golden number), I can't believe you have made such a bold statement regarding something as simple as taking a multivitamin. After all, what ever happened to PREVENTION?

Anonymous said...

He says, "For normal healthy people there's no evidence that vitamin supplements are necessary, or helpful, in any way"

You reply, " I have fibromyalgia and psoriatic arthritis. While the THIS may not qualify me as a normal, healthy individual..."

From that point on, you missed the point.