There’s no question that prolonged deficiency of certain vitamins can lead to illness and disease.
For certain at-risk groups, certain supplements have been proven and backed by enough research to safely reach a consensus.
- Folic acid for all women who wish to conceive as well as pregnant women up to week 12 of the pregnancy.
- Vitamin D for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children who are aged between six months and five years, people aged 65 and older and for people who get limited sun exposure.
- Vitamins A, C and D are recommended for children between six months and four years, particularly those not eating a varied diet, such as fussy eaters.
In addition, there’s also reasonable evidence to say that the fruits and vegetables we’re eating don’t contain the amount of vitamins and minerals they once contained.
In the days before processed food, farming, and antibiotics, it is likely that our ancestors would have been getting everything they needed from their diet and time spent in nature – exposure to the sun, sea and soil.
It is also believed that humans evolved to eat a diet higher in calories than the recommended intake for the average person today.
In Paleolithic times, humans would have been consuming on average between 3–4,000kcal a day, and as a result, taking in a diet higher in vitamins and minerals.
Naturally, we’re no longer spending our days hunting and gathering, so we need less calories and therefore we need to eat less food.
The result? Fewer micronutrients.
In addition, those who restrict their food intake through dieting may struggle to get the recommended daily allowance of vital nutrients. Vegan diets, for example, do not contain adequate amounts of vitamin B12, and as a result may experience fatigue and weakness, unless they take B12 supplements.
Those who limit their calories or carbohydrates by going on diets such as the Atkins or a Keto diet, may not be consuming an adequate amount of nutrients when they omit the starchy vegetables and whole grains.
So should we eat like cavemen?
Here’s the problem with that. Even the soil our food grows in today has changed.
Regardless of what foods we choose to eat, and healthful choices we make; the majority of us have little to no control over how and where our food is grown and preserved.
Farming methods have drastically reduced the level of nutrients in our soil and in turn: our foods.
At this summit in 1992, it was revealed that the nutrient levels in our foods could have fallen by as much as 85% over the last century.
For example, we’re told that we should be eating foods rich in vitamin A like carrots, sweet potato and squash – but these plants only provide us with the precursor to vitamin A, carotenoids.
In order for us to actually utilise the micronutrients however, we need to be consuming true vitamin A foods – those which contain retinol, not beta-carotene.
The solution – a mega pill?
So it makes sense, even for convenience’s sake: to take one ‘mega pill’ that will cover all the vitamins and minerals we aren’t getting in our food.
Unfortunately – there doesn’t seem to be one.
In this study, researchers randomly assigned nearly 6,000 male doctors to take either a daily multivitamin or a placebo pill.
Over a period of 12 years, the men were given a battery of tests over the telephone to check their memories.
84 percent of the participants claimed to have taken their pills each day, and when the results were in; they revealed no difference in memory problems between the two groups.
“No matter which way we broke it down, there was a null effect,” said researcher and author of the study, Jacqueline O’Brien.
Even if there was a multivitamin that did what it says on the tin, it is still ignoring the fact that: our bodies all have different needs and the balance of additional supplements we need will naturally vary.
For example, stress levels affect how much our bodies need certain vitamins and minerals, and higher stress levels can deplete existing micronutrients in the body.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that our makes, and cortisol (also known as the ‘stress hormone’) can inhibit the expression of vitamin D so our bodies can’t utilise it.
Vitamin C can also be affected by heightened stress levels. When overly stressed, we require more vitamin C to maintain normal blood sugar levels and immune system function.
We know what happens when we don’t have enough essential micronutrients – but what happens when you take too many vitamins and minerals into your body?
Too much of a good thing
Too much vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer among smokers in this study.
In a separate study, the vitamin A supplement increased the lung cancer risk by as much as 28 percent— which was enough to prompt the researchers into terminating the study early.
Whilst the benefits of the antioxidant vitamin E include reduction of free radical damage and slowing the ageing process of your cells, there have also been studies to reveal the potential dangers of too much vitamin E.
This study found that excessive amounts of vitamin E increased patients’ risk of heart failure.
Another study revealed that supplemental vitamin E had a positive correlation with increased mortality rates.
Lastly, this study on male participants reported that excessive supplementation of vitamin E significantly increased the risk of prostate cancer.
We’ve been commonly told that we should supplement with calcium to build stronger bones, but according to this study, we may be misled.
The study found that participants taking calcium supplements showed an increased risk of hip fracture. In addition, this study amongst three others, found that patients who take calcium supplements were at a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
These aren’t the only culprits.
Too much zinc is linked to a decrease in immune function.
Too much manganese is linked to muscle and nerve disorders in older people.
Too much niacin (B3) has been linked to cell damage.
Tailored supplementation. Ideally a full nutritional assessment can be done, in order to determine whether you are likely to have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
This can be performed by a doctor, nutritionist, or even a DIY app.
From there, you can begin work balancing the specific deficiencies you may have, through food choices, lifestyle choices (like getting adequate sleep and sun exposure) as well as taking supplements.