are vitamin and mineral supplements necessary to be healthy?

Today, many people believe that a cocktail of vitamin and mineral supplements is necessary to be “healthy” – the more you have, the better, right? Well, not exactly. Unless advised by your family doctor, taking more supplements than needed may be doing nothing for your health. In some cases, an excess of supplements could even prove to be bad for your health.

So, what are the effects of taking too many vitamin and mineral supplements? Overall, taking an excess of supplements could make them act like drugs and cause toxicities. In 2013, supplements lead to more than 100,000 calls to poison control centres in the US. Taking too much of the following vitamins and minerals could cause serious health problems:

  • Too much vitamin A is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers
  • Too much vitamin C is linked to diarrhea and/or stomach cramps
  • Too much zinc is linked to reduced immune function
  • Too much manganese is linked to nerve damage in older adults
  • Too much selenium is linked to hair loss
  • Too much calcium is linked to kidney stones and constipation
Source: the comic strips, by Alex Hallat

Not only can supplements cause toxicities, they can also interfere with other medications and the uptake of other vital vitamins and minerals. For example, too much calcium can interfere with the uptake of iron and zinc, taking melatonin can interact with your birth control pills, and co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) can interact with diabetes medications. Moreover, safely concerns also exist since supplements are not as strictly regulated as other medicines.

If supplements aren’t useful and can even be detrimental to your health, then why are we told that they are part of a healthy diet regime? Although some people benefit from supplements, since vitamins and minerals are an essential part of our diet, nutrition, and health, usually, they are not needed as most people already follow a healthy diet and/or consume fortified foods. In North America and much of the developed world, our foods are often fortified with vitamins and minerals as part of a public health initiative to prevent nutrient deficiencies – including cereals, fruit juices, milk, bread, eggs, etc. A full list of fortified foods can be obtained from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In this case, when we add certain supplements to our diet, we could exceed the upper limit of a specific vitamin or mineral, which in turn could lead to a toxic buildup in our bodies.

Source: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

All in all, dietary supplements are useful when we do not have a balanced diet and have been found to be nutrient deficient. However, a problem arises when individuals who do not need certain supplements take them unnecessarily and without considering tolerable limits. Although most people do not need to take supplements, there are certain instances when they will be recommended. For instance, folic acid is recommended for pregnant women up to week 12 and vitamin D is recommended for people who do not get a lot of sun exposure. A medical condition can also warrant the recommendation of certain supplements by a family doctor. The key is taking supplements safely, when needed and to always check the dose you are taking.

For more information on how to determine your daily supplement intake and avoid taking more than necessary, please visit this great blog post by Phoebe Chi, MD at Musings of PuppyDoc.

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