Are These Supplements Killing Us?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

“Some supplements linked to increased risk of death”, reads a terrifying headline in The Guardian.

Of course, the moment I see something like this, my sceptic sense begins tingling…

First of all, which supplements are they talking about?

And even then, at what doses?

So, I delved into the data to find out for you.

This meta-analysis reviewed the risks of 15 vitamin and mineral supplements:

  • Vitamin A (retinol)
  • Beta-carotene (the body can convert this to active vitamin A)
  • B vitamins: B1, B2, B3 (niacin), B6, and B9 (folic acid)
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium
  • Selenium

While most of these micronutrients are essential to survival, the researchers wanted to find out which of these vitamin and mineral supplements were associated with cardiovascular disease, stroke, and all-cause mortality.

(Ironic, I know!).

So, what did they find?

Could one tiny vitamin supplement really spell doom for us?

Of the 15 high-dose supplements tested, a risk for all-cause mortality was found… But only for 2!

For those of you taking one of the other 13 in a multivitamin, you can breathe a sigh of relief.

But which supplements could be silent killers?

The researchers point the finger at both vitamin B3 (niacin) and mixtures of antioxidant vitamins.

Only certain antioxidant mixes and niacin with statins showed small risks. Folic acid and B-vitamins showed benefits (Jenkins et al., 2018).

Do you think I’m going to tell you to throw these supplements in the trash?

At The Health Sciences Academy, we take a fine-toothed comb to the science. And in this study we find that vitamin B3 is only a risk factor when combined with a certain medicine called a statin, not on its own!

Not to mention, the supposed risk for antioxidants is really low… And the meta-analysis was an “apples and pears” comparison of different antioxidant mixes without much detail, meaning we don’t even know which might be responsible, or at what dose.

What do I suggest? One of the best ways to get antioxidants is to add lots of lovely greens and fruit into your diet. Studies consistently show that this is linked to a lower mortality.

But there are still important considerations to make when choosing supplements that are right for you or a client…

Taking the wrong supplements, doses, or combinations might lower their effectiveness, waste your money, or potentially cause harm. For example, if you don’t take them right, antioxidants can become harmful pro-oxidants.

You can mitigate the risk of wrong supplementary advice with our in-depth training here – where we also show you how to personalise a supplemental program for each client.

 

 

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The-Health-Sciences-Academy-Alejandra-Ruani-small1-right Alejandra "Alex" Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for their students. She is a Harvard-trained scientist and UCL doctoral researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups.

Connect with Alex via email.


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17 Comments

  • Cindy Martelli

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    thanks Alex! looks like it’s not a black and white YES or NO to supplements but a personalized matter

    keep up the great work!

  • Goulven

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    Hi there, thanks for sharing the news and your comments on it. If there is only evidence that dietary supplements are either useless or even possibly dangerous for people on a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables etc … why even consider taking them at all ? My doctor suggested to take Vitamin D sup. in the winter but I haven’t found strong evidence that this is a good idea (and then why not just eat more cod ?). Are there any scientific studies showing they are useful ? Cheers

    • Yes, micronutrient supplements can be useful when there’s a deficiency risk. Problem is: most of us take them wrong! But when taken right, they can be helpful :-)

  • Debbie T

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    This is interesting but I’d like to know if I ought to warn a family member who is taking statins, they should be careful about certain foods high in vitamin B3, as well as avoiding it in vitamin supplement form?

    • Debbie – B3-rich foods shouldn’t be a problem; it’s often the isolated B3 on its own that increases risk. Most B vitamins in isolation are risky, a B complex is safer :-)

  • Dawn Veiro

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    Thank you Alex this is a very insightful piece of information. Due to the fact that a vast majority of people are already taking statins for high cholesterol and their doctors may not have checked if they are taking Vit B3. Thus I feel GP’s need to be more switched on regarding this matter.

  • Loraine MacGinness

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    Thank you, it is great to be kept abreast with all the new findings knowing we are doing okay !!

  • H

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    Interesting article.

    I also came across reports recently that state ‘Antioxidants Can Make Cancers Worse’, which raised a few questions:

    – Whether these trials were conducted using synthetic or food based supplements (i assume synthetic)

    – Who is actually behind these trials / reports (pharmaceutical and food industry)

    – Were these trials conducted mainly on mice, petri dishes or on free-living humans (i have my doubts on the reliability of effects on mice & petri dishes, compared to humans)

    Regarding this particular Guardian article, i just came across the NHS’s take on it, which is also interesting & you may want to check out (if not done so already):

    “…It was funded by the Canada Research Chair Endorsement, Loblaw Companies Ltd and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Many of the authors reported links with the pharmaceutical and food industry…”

    https://www.nhs.uk/news/medical-practice/most-multivitamins-and-supplements-are-waste-money/

  • Naeem

    Reply Reply August 6, 2018

    Thanks Alex. Please could we have also have your comments about the recent media frenzy over fish oils.

    • The paper on fish oils and heart health is flawed, ignore it! It was irresponsible of them to tell us to stop taking EPA/DHA, in particular for those of us who are deficiency prone.

      Long-chain Omega 3s (EPA/DHA) are essential for IQ, memory, and brain health too :-)

      • Goulven

        Reply Reply August 9, 2018

        Here is what Harvard researchers say on fish oils and cardiovascular health : “… the evidence for improving heart health is mixed. In May 2013, for example, Italian researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that omega-3 fatty acid supplements did nothing to reduce heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from heart disease in people with risk factors for heart disease.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fish-oil-friend-or-foe-201307126467

        This is not about health in general though so it does not mean – as Alex said – that O-3 fatty acids are not good (to the contrary).
        But again … Why not just eat the fish rather than supplements ? The latter are certainly good for the businesses that sell them but what they can bring to people on a healthy diet is unclear to me …

        More sensible advice from the same source : “If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.”

        • Hi Goulven! Yes, we’re familiar with this 2013 Harvard article, there’s been a lot of interesting research after that too :-)

          – Supplements aren’t always needed but come in handy for those who don’t have access to oily fish (not every country does!), and many people fry fish or buy fish fingers (which are pre-fried), losing the Omega 3s and water-soluble vitamins.

          – Canned tuna has negligible amounts of Omega 3s, but not everyone knows that and incorrectly think they’re getting their Omega 3.

          – Even those of us who steam or cook oily fish, there’a a loss of Omega 3s and we may not be meeting our RDA.

          Like Alex keeps telling us, the solution is to look at the individual and personalise things.

          There’s also the risk of fish over-consumption and heavy-metal toxicity levels, all of which we discuss in this Continuing Education Module: https://thehealthsciencesacademy.org/fish-intake-limits-ce-2011431/

          THSA Team

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