We should never have told people to start taking supplements; latest research linking to one type cancer shows why
Health Tips– Vitamin supplements are colourful, chewable, and more affordable than a doctor’s visit. Many believe that supplements can do everything from giving you an energy boost to help you lose weight. At the very worst, your daily supplement can do no harm – this belief is just a Myth.
A growing body of research – including the study published August 22 in Journal of Clinical Oncology – suggests that some supplements can carry real health risks. The risks range from vomiting and nausea to an increased risk of cancer and death.
Epidemiologists at two American Cancer Research institutes and the National Taiwan University found evidence to suggest that long-term, high-dose intake of B6 and B12 vitamin supplements – that boost up energy – was linked with an increased risk of developing lung cancer in men who regularly smoked.
As part of the research, they collected data from more than 77,000 men aged 50-76 who had signed up for a long-term observational study designed to find potential connections between supplements and cancer risk. After observing them for 10 long years, they found that people are three times more likely to develop lung cancer if their intake of vitamin B6 is more than 20mg and vitamin B12 is more than 55mg compared to those not taking the supplement.
The study has certain limitations. All men smoked regularly, were older, and were already predisposed to develop the disease. Also, it was large and done over a long period, which suggests that its findings should be taken seriously. It is the first of its kind to look at the link between the two supplements, which had been believed to reduce cancer risk, and lung cancer.
Theodore Brasky, one of the study authors and a cancer researcher at Ohio State, said: “This is certainly a concern worthy of further evaluation”. Importantly, the work jibes with other research which increasingly hints that supplements are far from the panacea that they have long been made out to be.
Now the question is: Should we have started taking supplements in the first place?
In the 1930s and 1940s when supplements were introduced, they were presented as a way to address nutrient deficiencies that caused illnesses like rickets and scurvy. They were used to avoid expensive and difficult to access medical treatments.
However, in recent times supplements that target primarily middle-class and affluent women have emerged. These formulae ooze with latest lifestyle trends: minimalism, bright colours, clean eating, and personalization.
The Actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s new lineup of $90 monthly vitamin packs – released through her controversial wellness company, Goop – have appealing names like “Why am I So Effing Tired” and “High School Genes”. They claim to deliver health benefits like energy boosts and metabolism jump-starts.
Alejandro Junger, a cardiologist who helped design several of Goop’s multivitamin packs, told Business Insider “What is different about what Goop offers is that the combinations, the protocols put together, were done by doctors in Goop’s team”.
But a look at the ingredients in “Why Am I So Effing Tired,” which Junger helped design, suggests the formula is not based on rigorous science. The pack of supplements includes 12.5 mg vitamin B6 – about 960% of the recommended daily allowance(although on Goop’s label it’s 625%) – and ingredients like rosemary extract and Chinese yam, whose effects have never been studied in humans and for which no standard daily allowance exists.
Mayo Clinic says it is safe to take vitamin B6 supplements up to 1.3mg for ages 19-50. Taking too much of the supplement on the other side has been linked with abnormal heart rhythms, decreased muscle tone, and worsened asthma. High doses of vitamin B6 can cause drops in blood pressure, the Mayo Clinic notes and can interact with drugs prescribed for anxiety and Alzheimer’s, as well as Advil and Motrin.
The Mayo Clinic’s website says “People using any medication should check the package insert and speak with a qualified healthcare professional, including a pharmacist, about possible interactions”.
Junger politely refused to comment on specific ingredients in the formula but said that many of them were added to “address the most common nutrient – mineral deficiencies of today: B, C, D and E vitamins, iodine, magnesium, and molybdenum, among others.”
Ritual is a new supplement product materialized in the recent days and it arrives at your doorstep in a white and yellow box emblazoned with the words “The Future of Vitamins is Clear”.
The glass-like capsules filled with tiny white beads suspended in oil for one month costs $30. There are not much different from other standards, cheap multivitamin pills. They have the same amount of magnesium, vitamin K, folate, vitamin B12, iron, boron, vitamin E, and vitamin D.
VitaMe, another new supplement manufacturer, ships personalized daily packets with names like “Good Hair Day” and “Bridal Boost” in a box resembling a tea bag dispenser each month for $40.
Supplements and Diseases
Researchers have been studying the potential link between supplements and disease for decades. The idea is that if the supplements are good for us, we will see the evidence of this in long-term studies. Yet the existing research has not supported that idea. In fact, it is found to be the opposite.
A recent review done on large scale, published in Annals of Internal Medicine looked at 27 trials of vitamins involving more than 400,000 people. The researchers concluded that people who took vitamins did not live longer or have fewer cases of heart disease or cancer than people who did not take them.
Another study done for a long-term, published in the Journal of The American Medical Association in May divided nearly 6,000 men into groups. Each one was given either a placebo or one of four supplements touted for their brain protecting abilities. There was no decrease prevalence of dementia shown in any of the supplement taking groups.
A particular focus was put by scientists on smokers to see if the supplements could help decrease the risk of developing diseases like lung cancer (which smokers are already at an elevated risk of developing).
The existing studies, however, suggest that certain supplements are not providing benefits and may, in fact, be linked to harm.
A large, long-term study of male smokers found that those who regularly took vitamin A were more likely to get lung cancer compared to those who did not take supplements. A 2007 review of trials of several types of antioxidant supplements put it this way: “Treatment with beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.” Putting all these in mind, experts say that it is wiser to hold off on taking supplements and instead look to food to get the nutrients we need.
S.Bryn Austin, a professor of behavioural sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Business Insider “consumers should expect nothing from supplements because we do not have any clear evidence that they are beneficial.”
They also suggested that customers should be leery that they could be putting themselves at risk.