Standing up for supplements

The media has been in a frenzy for the past week over two new studies spouting doom & gloom findings on two very popular–and important–vitamin supplements. As I mentioned last week, it would be easy to brush these news reports off, but you deserve to know the FULL story, not just the side you’ve been seeing on the 6 o’clock news.

So let’s break it all down…

First, let’s take a look at the study claiming that vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer.

This study, published in the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), is a closer look at data from the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT).

It’s a very large study of 35, 533 men from 427 study sites in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The men were randomly assigned to take a 400 IU capsule of vitamin E every day for nearly five years, or they got a placebo.

Initially, the researchers found no reduced risk of prostate cancer with either selenium or vitamin E supplements. But they did find a statistically nonsignificant increase in prostate cancer risk in patients taking vitamin E.

So researchers decided to dig into the data again.

This time, they did find a risk of prostate cancer in the vitamin E group–a 17% higher risk over a seven-year period, compared to the placebo group.

However, there was no increased risk among men who took both selenium and vitamin E.

That little sentence is the crux of this issue. As the Council for Responsible Nutrition pointed out in a statement, “This reinforces the theory that vitamins work synergistically and that drug-like trials of nutrients, when used in isolation from other nutrients, may not be the most appropriate way to study them.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

When it comes to supplements, you simply can’t isolate two nutrients–in this case, vitamin E and selenium–and expect it to cause OR cure cancer (or anything else). That’s not how the human body works. It’s not how nature works. That’s how pharmaceuticals work. We need a different model for supplement studies, and the powers-that-be simply refuse to acknowledge that.

The other study that got everyone in an uproar last week involved older women and multivitamins. A group of researchers took a deep dive into data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study to determine just what link they could find between vitamin and mineral supplement use and death rates among the 38,772 women– all average age 61.

The women completed surveys in 1986, 1997 and 2004 regarding their supplement use, among other health-related questions. They were asked specifically about 15 supplements.

Researchers found some “evidence” (if you can count the minuscule links they turned up as real evidence) that multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, and copper were associated with increased risk of death. But it was iron supplements that were most strongly associated with risk of death.

However, even this link isn’t all it appears to be. You see, this study was conducted in post-menopausal women. And once women stop menstruating, they simply don’t need supplemental iron anymore. Supplementing with it can cause an excess in the body–which CAN increase your risk of death.

Basically, this is another instance of the mainstream using trumped-up data to scare people away from taking supplements. As the Council for Responsible Nutrition said about this one, “It may make for interesting scientific water-cooler discussion, but certainly does not warrant sweeping, overstated concerns for elderly women.”

In other words, don’t let these studies stop you from finding reputable brands of nutrients that work!