The Suprising Truth about Vitamin Studies

Among the most common questions I receive in my nutrition consulting practice are those relating to vitamins and supplements.  “If vitamins are supposed to be good for us, why do I read in the paper and hear on television reports they are not?” 

Earlier this year there was a new study that looked at several prior research studies and concluded that vitamin supplementation was not helpful (and in fact some suggested it could be harmful).  There were no significant differences in positive outcomes between people taking vitamins and those not taking them.  A study released last year found similar findings specific to Vitamin E and “antioxidant” supplementation. It went one step further saying that those taking the supplements experienced  worse outcomes (more heart disease and cancer) than those not taking the supplements. 

For years we have been told by alternative health practitioners and the vitamin and supplement industry that Vitamin E and “antioxidants” are supposed to protect against heart disease and cancer. This appears to be counter-intuitive. Can they both be right?

The surprising answer is yes, they can both be “right.” It all depends what was being tested and understanding the basic principles behind vitamin metabolism in the human body. Vitamins appear in nature as part of a complex composed of several biochemical factors . For example, in nature Vitamin C is in an orange and Vitamin E is in wheat germ and leafy green vegetables. However, this is not what was “studied” in the research. What was used were alpha tocopherol as Vitamin E and ascorbic acid as Vitamin C.  You see the government allows you to say these are the same things. But they are not. Ascorbic acid and alpha tocopherol are produced in laboratories. For example you can combine sulphuric acid and sugar and get ascorbic acid.  That doesn’t sound like an orange or a lemon to me!  

Without going into all the details let’s take a simple example of how this works in the human body, not in a test tube.  Scurvy is a Vitamin C deficiency disease.  The British sailors successfully used lemons and limes to prevent scurvy on their long ocean voyages.  Guess what happens if you give ascorbic acid to someone with scurvy?  Their condition will not improve.  They need the full Vitamin C complex as it is in nature, as the British sailors used, not the fractionated part made in a lab.  

So, when we provide only the fractionated, synthetically produced “vitamin” we are not getting the true vitamin as nature intended. Logically it will not work as the full complex will and therefore the outcomes will not be positive.  What is actually happening in the body from being barraged with extra antioxidants?  In real life these antioxidants are oxygen inhibitors and we need oxygen for life! You may say that you’ve used antioxidant supplements and they make you feel better.  Well, that may be true for a short period of time.  Antioxidants drive oxygen from the blood to the tissues.  In the short term this benefits the tissue (making you feel better), but in the long term it creates a shortage of oxygen in the blood (leading to the negative outcomes as found in long term studies).

The lesson of all this. Yes, buying cheap, synthetic, fractionated vitamins is likely a waste of money.  You may have experienced this yourself  when you have noticed bright yellow urine after taking a “B-Complex” vitamin.  Your body can’t use the stuff, so it is getting rid of it.

However, eating real food and using supplements that have been made from real whole foods will provide you with the promised health benefits. This is based on real research. The original studies and identification of vitamins was done with real foods and seeing the effects of removing these foods from animal diets. Specific diseases (the vitamin deficiency diseases) that humans were experienced were reproduced in animals based on the real foods.  So, it is real.  Specific vitamins do support specific functions in the body but only do so when they are delivered in the natural form in which the body was designed to utilize them.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Mequon, WI. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.