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The Ins & Outs of Vitamins

By Sabahat Rahman

Graphic by Alex Jeon

Recently, I watched a college vlog in which the student endorsed a vitamin supplement brand she had been using and offered a discount for her viewers. I was a little puzzled. Taking vitamins in the morning is a common habit, but how many of us really understand what vitamins do in the body? Are pills truly necessary, and can they even be harmful?

To start, what are vitamins?

Our bodies execute thousands of tasks each minute, thanks largely to proteins called enzymes. These enzymes drastically speed up the body’s chemical reactions, keeping us alive!

Many enzymes, however, need a partner coenzyme to function properly. Most of our body’s coenzymes are vitamins, including vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, as well as various B vitamins.

Hence, vitamins are necessary for proper bodily function. Moreover, they generally cannot be synthesized in the body, so it’s important to obtain them through our diets. Lacking certain vitamins in your diet can lead to a vitamin deficiency.

Vitamin pills: are they good for you?

There’s a reason vitamin pills and supplements exist. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) recommends folic acid supplements for pregnant women, for example, to help prevent neural tube defects. Breastfed infants should generally take vitamin D, and many physicians recommend vitamin B12 supplements for vegans. For certain populations, vitamin supplements are a necessary means of preventing deficiencies and staying healthy.

I, however, was more concerned about those who were taking vitamins without any prescription or underlying cause for concern. Around 86% of Americans take vitamins or supplements, according to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll and American Osteopathic Association (AOA), but only 24% of those taking the pills actually have a confirmed nutritional deficiency.

Dr. Mike Varshavski, an internet-famous Russian-American family doctor, had a lot to say regarding the survey. He stated that those who do not need to take vitamins are wasting their money and might even run into unintended harmful effects. In particular, Dr. Varshavski explained that the vitamin supplement industry is “highly unregulated, so it’s important to research manufacturers to ensure their products actually contain the nutritional supplements advertised.” Finally, Dr. Varshavski recommended people spend their money on highly nutritious foods instead, which would be more effective than supplements at improving overall health.

The same AOA survey also found that while 51% of Americans decided to take vitamins following a physician’s recommendation, 61% chose to take pills based on their own research or recommendations from friends and family. Here, Dr. Varshavski encouraged patients to “avoid trends, such as vaping supplements” and seek physicians’ guidance before taking supplements. National Institutes of Health (NIH) expert Dr. Craig Hopp similarly advised, “You should discuss with your doctor what supplements you’re taking so your care can be integrated and managed.”

Across the scientific community, the general consensus is that vitamins should only be taken if needed. For instance, the NHS says the following: “Most people do not need to take vitamin supplements and can get all the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet.” Scientific studies have even found harmful consequences of vitamin supplements: the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, for instance, found that vitamin E supplements could increase the risk of prostate cancer in healthy males. The NIH warns “some supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines.” Hence, taking vitamins without any real cause cannot only be useless, but also potentially deleterious.

Multivitamins: are they any better?

Multivitamins are pills that contain a cocktail of vitamins — they’re an all-in-one package, if you will. Recently, they’ve gained popularity, but the general consensus remains the same as with vitamins: if you don’t need it, don’t take it.


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