Will Vitamins Kill You More Than Drugs?

10/31/2011 11:28 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

The two main journals of the American Medical Association both published articles in the same week that concluded women who took a multiple vitamin/mineral or men with prostate cancer who took Vitamin E were more likely to die than their counterparts who did not take these supplements. The article on women taking multiple vitamins hit the news the day before the Vitamin E study did.

When I first saw this headline my two immediate thoughts were: "This must be bogus," followed immediately by "The multiple vitamins must have contained iron or copper." The latter thought occurred because those of us in nutritional medicine have known for the last 20 years that iron and copper should only be supplemented in those who needed them. A study in 1992 showed that Finnish men who had high iron stores were far more likely to have heart disease. It was presumed that the oxidizing activity of iron was to blame for the increased cardiovascular problems. Interestingly, that same year another article was published linking high tissue iron stores with Alzheimer's disease as well. Copper is also a mineral that should not be given to people who do not need it. When the body gets too much copper it can have toxic effects, especially to the liver.

Since then all the good supplement companies have made available multiple vitamin/mineral combinations without iron or copper. When I finally got to read the article itself it did implicate both iron and copper as problem nutrients, so I did feel slightly vindicated. It should be noted that this was a study that looked back at what the women had been doing in their lives by asking very few questions (too few actually!) and then trying to make sense of the data that was found. This was not a study in which some women were given multiple vitamins and others were not. What they did not do was simply follow the women who were taking supplements in 1986 and compare them to those who did not. Instead they included all supplement users, including those who were not taking them in 1986 but were taking them by 2004. I think it would be safe to assume that some of those who began taking them did so because of health problems that had arisen, and which would make them more likely to die.

As expected from the previous articles regarding iron, the researchers found that iron supplementation increased the risk of dying from all various causes by only 13 percent. They also found that taking calcium reduced the risk of dying from any cause by 11 percent. And in addition the authors noted: "... supplement users had a lower prevalence of diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, lower BMI (less body weight), and waist to hip ratio." That all sounds pretty good to me, and makes me wonder how that didn't make it into the conclusion!

The question then remains, does it help to take supplements? Having treated patients for 30 years with ONLY supplements I have to say "yes" because I have seen the benefits thousands of times. But, other recently-published literature reinforces my experience. Two articles were just published (in journals that are not owned by the American Medical Association) by Drs. Greenlee and Kwan, in which they studied the effects of certain supplements on women with breast cancer. They found no difference in outcomes between those who never took multivitamins or who just began to take them once they were diagnosed. But there was a difference between both of those groups and the women who were taking multiple vitamins before they were ever diagnosed with cancer. Those women were less likely to have a recurrence (by 24 percent) than women who had not been taking supplements before their breast cancer was found. These two docs also did a study on the use of antioxidants in women with breast cancer. In this study they found that women who took vitamins C and E had fewer recurrences of breast cancer (by 27 and 29 percent) than those who did not. They also found that the breast cancer patients who took vitamin E were 24 percent less likely to die from any health-related issue than their counterparts who did not take that nutrient.

While the AMA publications and spokespeople are quick with the press releases saying that nutritional supplements are not only useless, but dangerous, the scientific backing for those statements is lacking. People keep taking supplements for the simple reason that they work. If they did not work, people would have stopped using them long ago. I have successfully treated people with chronic and acute illnesses for 30 years with supplements alone. My patients thrived. Almost all of my patients had already tried conventional medicine and did not want that approach. They typically did not want to use synthetic pharmaceutical medications, partly because of the nasty side effects. There is a great deal more real evidence about the dangers of the side effects of pharmaceutical meds than there is about dangers of supplements. According to Dr. Bond 106,000 persons die annually in the United States from adverse reactions to drugs given in hospitals in proper doses. This places adverse drug reactions between the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. (after heart disease, cancer and stroke). Yet, these are the same people trying to tell you that multiple vitamins are dangerous.