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Taking Supplements or Not?

Arguments FOR Using Supplements

Arguments AGAINST Using Supplements
The fresh foods we buy are often drained of important nutrients, mostly because
  • The soil they are grown in has been depleted
  • Rising CO2 in the atmosphere has led to a drop in protein, and minerals[26]
The nutritional content of our fruits and vegetables has declined over the past 50 years. For example,
  • Riboflavin, or vitamin B2, has fallen 38%
  • The amount of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables has dropped 20%
  • The overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by 8 percent on average

Whole is different from parts:

  1. When the entire carotene family is used together as it is found naturally in foods it strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk of cancers, but when a single member of the family, beta-carotene, is used alone it can actually cause lung cancer to spread more rapidly.[22]

  2. In one study, increasing the intake of vitamin E from food sources was shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. However, intake of vitamin E supplements was not significantly associated with reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

  3. Micronutrients in food help our bodies use antioxidants and get them to the places they're needed. Supplements don't.

  4. People who take antioxidants as supplements don't reap the same benefits as those who eat foods rich in an antioxidant-rich diet.

  5. A recent German study[13,14] has found a significantly increased risk of heart attack among women taking calcium supplements, but not among those who got their calcium from food.

Concerns about the toxins contained in natural foods. For example, contaminants such as mercury, PCB, or lead are found in fish foods. However,supplement manufacturers use a technique called molecular distillation to filter out toxins from the fish oil.

You can't overdose on food sources. For example, it is known that taking vitamin A in the form of retinol has been associated with an increased risk of hip fractures in both men and women. However, natural carotenoids taken from carrots, red pepper or sweet potatoes are converted into vitamin A by the liver as needed.

Another example is copper uptake.  Food copper (organic copper) is processed by the liver and is transported and sequestered in a safe manner. Inorganic copper, such as that in drinking water and copper supplements, largely bypasses the liver and enters the free copper pool of the blood directly.  Research has found that Alzheimer's disease patients have an increased free copper level in the blood[5,6].
Sometimes, nutrients are absorbed easier from the supplements. For example, folic acid from food sources (i.e., spinach, tomatoes, or orange juice) is absorbed less well than folic acid from supplements.

Overdose or misuse of supplements can lead to liver toxicity, side effects, allergies, or even higher risk of cancer. For example,
  • Too much vitamin B-6 can result in nerve damage to the arms and legs, which is usually reversible when supplementation is stopped.  
  • A niacin flush could develop after taking a supplemental form of the vitamin B3 in a large enough dose. While the niacin flush is harmless, long-term use of niacin does have significant side effects that may be dangerous.[23]
  • A recent review lists 17 dietary supplements that have been associated with direct kidney injury, though in a very limited numbers of cases.[24]
  • A 7-year randomized controlled trial found that high-dose folic acid supplements actually increased risk of colorectal adenomas.[27]
  • 2 large randomized controlled trials that began in 1985 in Finland and the United States reported an 18% increased risk of lung cancer caused by high-dose beta-carotene supplementation and a 28% increased lung cancer risk caused by a combination of beta-carotene and retinol[27]
  • Vitamin E supplementation could slightly increased overall mortality.[28,29]

When you take supplements in capsule form, it bypasses the saliva in the mouth on its way to the stomach. For example, it's known that saliva can reduce the beneficial effects of cinnamon taken in its raw form.

Concerns about the cross-reactions and side effects of supplements
Sometimes supplements are just preserved forms of herbs which have been processed for easy consumption and longer shelf life.

Long-term effects of using supplements are unknown.  As a matter of fact, a recent study shows that high doses of vitamin E can significantly increase risk of prostate cancer.[22]
  • More than 35,000 healthy men in their 50s and older took part in the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (Select)[3,4] at 427 centres in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico.  The research found that the extra risk associated with vitamin E became apparent during the third year of the trial and could not have occurred by chance.

In busy daily life, we don't have enough time to eat a balanced diet.

Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Bruce N Ames concluded in his review article[1] that:
  • Although many results are not definitive and much more research is needed, a large literature suggests that micronutrient inadequacy can lead to cancer and other long-term deleterious consequences.
  • A solution is to encourage multivitamin–mineral supplementation, particularly in those groups with widespread deficiencies such as the poor, teenagers, the obese, African Americans, and the elderly, in addition to urging people to eat a more balanced diet.
Dr. Woodson Merrell commented on supplements[2] as follows:
  • "I am not a big fan of taking a lot of supplements regularly. I believe that most people can and should get the nutrients they need from food."
  • "I aim to avoid daily use of all but the most absolutely necessary supplements, which for many people is simply a quality multiple vitamin."

Supplements are recommended by Dr. Merrell when good food is not enough. If after significant changes to lifestyles and diet there are still deficiencies, or if there is a disease process that requires a supplement, go ahead and use supplements. The goal is to use them to jump-start a treatment and recovery protocol. If you choose to use them, remember the following:
  • Nutritional supplements (i.e., vitamin pills) work better together, in combination.
  • Taking medicine and supplements separately, an hour or two apart.
    • Sometimes minerals will interfere with the absorption of a particular prescription medication.
  • Use subscribed services such as, to find quality supplements.
  • If you take the following medications, it's especially important that you not take any supplement without talking with your doctor:
    • The cardiac drug digoxin
    • Medications to control heart arrhythmias
    • Medications to prevent organ rejection
    • Medications to control seizures
    • Warfarin
  • Look for a multivitamin containing no more than 2,500 IU of vitamin A of which at least 50% comes from beta-carotene.
  • In general, we should take a multivitamin without iron. Do not take an iron supplement without consulting your physicians.
    • Because liver is the body's primary location for storing iron, it suffers the most damage when we have iron overload, a disease called hemochromatosis.  Iron overload is also known to cause liver cancer[12,15].
  • Not all antioxidants are created equal. Some are stable, and others are what Dr. Keith I. Block will often call labile. Labile antioxidants--which include vitamin A, C, and E, selenium, and beta-carotene--can change into pro-oxidants. Thus they can increase the oxidative stress of your body and, if used without proper supervision, enhance the growth and spread of cancer cells. Used in the right dosages and combinations, however, they can help control malignancy.

Important Notes: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.

  1. Bruce N Ames (2006) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 103 no. 47 17589-17594
  2. The Source: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger by Woodson Merrell, MD.
  3. Eric A. Klein et al. (2008) JAMA 306: 1549 - 1556.
  4. Scott M. Lippman et al. (2009) JAMA 301: 39 - 51.
  5. The Risks of Copper Toxicity Contributing to Cognitive Decline in the Aging Population and to Alzheimer's Disease
  6. Understanding Alzheimer's Disease and Its Possible Treatments
  7. Alpha Lipoic Acid and Acetyl-L-Carnitine
  8. Health Benefits of Carotenoids
  9. Eating Organic, Local, and Seasonal Foods
  10. Naturally-Occurring Antiangiogenic Substances
  11. Natural Remedies
  12. Mandishona E, MacPhail AP, Gordeuk VR, Kedda MA, Paterson AC, Rouault TA, Kew MC (1998). Dietary iron overload as a risk factor for hepatocellular carcinoma in Black Africans.  Hepatology 27: 1563-1566.
  13. Link between calcium supplements and heart disease raises the question: Take them or toss them?
  14. Calcium and cardiovascular disease
  15. Risk Factors of Liver Diseases
  16. Multivitamins for Men: Study Finds No Heart Benefits
  17. Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements  (Annals of Internal Medicine)
    • Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. 
    • Supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful.
  18. This Graphic Shows Which Supplements Actually Work
  19. Niacin: Time to Believe Outcomes Over Surrogate Outcomes—If Not Now, When?
    • Sometimes drug interventions have many off-target effects that can counter or even reverse any benefit that might be expected from the risk factor modification.
  20. The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts (Travel and Health)
  21. Vitamin Deficiency Symptoms Chart
  22. Why vitamin pills don't work, and may be bad for you (good)
  23. Is a Niacin Flush Dangerous?
  24. A Review of Dietary Supplement–Induced Renal Dysfunction
  25. Supplements, OTCs May Hurt Your Kidneys
  26. The great nutrient collapse
  27. Anticancer Vitamins du Jour—The ABCED's So Far
  28. Yusuf S, Dagenais G, Pogue J, et al. Vitamin E supplementation and cardiovascular events in high-risk patients. The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation Study Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(3):154–160.
  29. Miller ER, III, Pastor-Barriuso R, Dalal D, et al. Meta-analysis: high-dosage vitamin E supplementation may increase all-cause mortality. Ann Intern Med. 2005;142(1):37–46. 

    A Guide To Optimising Your Vitamins And Supplements Infographic

    Image via: A Guide To Optimising Your Vitamins And Supplements Infographic