During the last two weeks there have been headlines around the world suggesting that those people who take Vitamin E run the risk of dying earlier than those people who don't! This comes hot on the heels of another recent news items suggesting the same scenario for a variety of other vitamins as well.
Pretty disturbing stuff if you are a supplement taker, and if you don't currently take supplements you are likely to be frightened off starting! This would be to your long term detriment... depending upon what supplements you were intending to take. So, today I thought it important that I should spend some time and tell you the truth about these negative 'studies' so you can put them in the correct perspective and make up your own mind as to the true position.
I will just deal primarily with the current Vitamin E study because it is still topical and because the finding can apply in principle to other vitamins and indeed other ingredients that are used in dietary supplements.
The study in question was published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine and was carried out by researchers at John Hopkins. They examined 19 different vitamin E studies between 1966 and 2004 to a meta-analysis. The total number of subjects (age 47 - 84 years old) in these 19 studies was 135,967. The dosages of vitamin E ranged from 16.5 to 2000 IU per day.
In other words this was not a 'physical' study in its own right but rather a compilation of data from many studies which are pre-selected by the researchers. They then take this data and feed it into various 'meta-analysis' software and adjust the information to eventually reach certain conclusions.
The bottom line...
In this case the bottom line is that the researchers suggest that too much of vitamin E (400IU or more per day) increases the risk of all-cause mortality.
Hmmm... interesting! BUT... are their conclusions reliable ones? Who knows... what we do know however is that the conclusions in these meta-analyses can be highly speculative because of the different variables in each of the studies included in the analyses. For example, what was the source of vitamin E, was it natural or synthetic (the difference is significant), what was the study duration, health/disease condition of subjects, etc. Hence, the study doesn't provide definitive proof of anything, due to the lack of uniform protocols and patient groups.
Nonetheless, In spite of the lack of definitive proof, this study does tend to reinforce a principle that we have long adhered to.
What is this principle?
Very simply... no single nutrient is the panacea for any ailment. In fact a single nutrient can sometimes do more harm that good. This has been one of the fundamental faults of the supplement industry since its early days. Rather than design products based on science the industry has tended to bow to public demand for the latest 'fad' nutrient.
The public get to learn of a specific nutrient that has certain beneficial properties and then everyone wants it, and manufacturers then provide what the public wants which is generally based on the premise that more is better, so consequently products come out with higher and higher doses of individual nutrients. Usually both manufacturers and consumers alike are oblivious to the short and long term side effects of taking some nutrients on their own.
This in turn contributes to the worldwide trend for authorities to limit the doses of a number of supplement ingredients. That in itself would not be too serious but it has started a 'ball rolling' which has other negative implications for both industry and consumers alike. But, that is another story for another day.
Back to the subject matter!
A classic example of taking high doses of a nutrient on its own was the beta-carotene debacle in 1996. Two studies (referred to as the ATBC and CARET studies) produced evidence that taking beta-carotene alone may increase cancer risks for smokers. The scientific explanation for this is that all the carotenoids which beta-carotene is just one, work synergistically as a team - recharging and supporting each other to confer the health benefits. In other words other carotenoids such as lutein etc have to be present in order to duplicate nature as much as possible.
But, of course this was not explained to the public as scary headlines are more attractive to the media in general.
A similar situation exists with Vitamin E and very likely explains the conclusions of the researchers. The common Vitamin E used by most people is only one fraction of Vitamin E. High does of Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) alone has been shown to deplete the body's gamma-tocopherol. Despite alpha tocopherol's action as an antioxidant, gamma tocopherol is required to effectively remove the harmful peroxynitrite-derived nitrating species.
There is more... but I think that you get the picture which is very simply that if you take a certain fraction of a nutrient and give it to someone who does not have a known shortage of that specific fraction of that nutrient then it can do more harm to the body than good.
Whilst talking about overdosing with a nutrient, I must add in my usual comment about Vitamin C in case you haven't read it before. Vitamin C is a great nutrient and can be taken in high doses... but only for short periods, and only if you are sick!
If you take more than 400mgs per day orally and you are not sick, the hydrochloric acid in your stomach reacts with the excess amount and you actually generate additional free radicals! In other words you create the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Yet... the principle of taking high doses of Vitamin C is so entrenched that most people believe that is a good thing to do. The manufacturers' sure do... I think?
So, what's the solution to all this?
Simple principle... complicated solution! You need to duplicate nature as much as possible! How do you do that? Well, for a start you don't take high doses of any single nutrient... in particular the common vitamins most of which are synthetic!
You ensure that your beta-carotene has other carotenoids present. You also ensure that you don't take Vitamin E on its own but rather as part of a mix of other Vitamin E types. The best in this regard is Tocotrienols which are available in a natural form and are broad spectrum.
I could go on and on and talk about how you can overcome the Vitamin C issue that I just mentioned by combining alpha lipoic acid with it and various other vitamin C type nutrients that are much more powerful but don't have the negative properties that I mentioned earlier. But... space does not permit me to 'ramble on' any more about this, and in any case I am sure you have got the message!
Finally, don't be put off by these studies. Professional supplementation is the answer to good general health and wellness. Taking isolated nutrients in high doses is counter productive to the objective.
In good health,