Blog | Monday, March 7, 2011

How many vitamins do we really need

With constant messages and studies that contradict each other, it is no wonder patients are confused about vitamins and what is needed to stay healthy. While most supplements cause no harm, except to the wallet, people do sometimes forgo needed good health habits with the erroneous assumption that they are doing the right thing by popping lots of vitamin pills. Based on current research, here are the supplements I recommend for good preventive health.

Aspirin: Candy for Programmers by brx0 via FlickrLow-dose aspirin (81 mg). Although a recent study did not recommend women take aspirin as a preventive medication, there are others that show its benefit for preventing heart attack and stroke in both men and women. A recent study reported in The Lancet showed low-dose aspirin taken for five years or longer reduced mortality from esophageal, pancreatic, brain, stomach, colorectal, prostate and lung cancer. If you are over age 40, I recommend one low-dose aspirin a day.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid (fish oil). The benefits of Omega 3 have been reported for years for depression, hyperlipidemia, heart health, ADHD, clotting disorders and even arthritis. The newest study published in The American Journal of Cardiology, showed that patients with heart failure improved their exercise duration and left ventricular ejection fraction by taking 12 months daily Omega 3 FFA. Yes, you can get this by eating fish and flax seed and certain veggies, but our modern diets are deficient in Omega 3, so an extra supplement is easy.

Vitamin D. This vitamin is essential for a number of body functions including bone health, autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease and cognitive function. I have no idea why there seems to be an epidemic of low vitamin D levels in Americans, but there is. It might be dietary because we need the right mixture of amino acids to convert vitamin D in the body. I am still checking all patients 25 OH Vit D levels by a blood test. If mid or high normal range, great. If they are low, I recommend 1,000 IU a day. It is cheap and easy.

Calcium. Calcium is needed for good bone and heart health, especially as we age. Women especially may be deficient in dietary calcium unless they drink milk, or eat yogurt or cottage cheese. Any women with a family history of osteoporosis should be making sure she gets at least 1,500 mg of calcium per day. One cup of cottage cheese contains 1,300 mg calcium. Unfortunately, the blood test for calcium is not an accurate way to see if you need supplements because the body will steal calcium from bones to keep the blood level steady. If you smoke or are a thin woman who is past menopause, you probably need calcium supplements

Photo by Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research ServiceSo what about magnesium, CoQ10, vitamin B, carnitine, biotin, folate, iron? Readers, vitamins are big business. It is estimated to be a $61 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone. If you don't believe me, just Google a vitamin and see how many ads pop up. There is no evidence that taking these extra vitamins as additional supplements improves your health or lifeline.

We all want to live long and healthy. Use the money you would spend on supplements for organic fruits and vegetables.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.