We certainly like buying them. In the United States in 2012, it was estimated that 52 percent of the population was taking supplements, 31 percent were taking multivitamins, 19 percent were taking vitamin D, 14 percent were taking calcium and 12 percent were taking vitamin C. Clearly, we think they’re good for us. But are they?
In heart disease prevention or treatment, there is still no general consensus. A recent review from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at 179 studies to try to get an overall picture of whether these make a difference to heart health: vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 (niacin), B6, B9, (folic acid), C, D, E, beta-carotene, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium.
Of the four most commonly used supplements -- multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C -- none had a significant effect in regards heart health, either in preventing heart attacks or strokes, or in preventing death.
There was no effect and no reason to take them to help your heart health, researchers found.
Folic acid and B-vitamin complex did help
Folic acid, however, did show a benefit -- a reduction in stroke risk by 20 percent and a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. A B-vitamin complex also showed promise for stroke reduction.
Vitamins that increase deaths
Niacin was found to increase the number of deaths -- yes, more people died. Niacin, when taken with a statin (a common anti-cholesterol medication class) was associated with an increase in all-cause mortality of 10 percent. Long-term use of niacin in conjunction with statin therapy didn't seem helpful.
Have you seen labels marketing antioxidants? They, too, showed no benefit on heart health and were associated with an increase in all-cause mortality.
Vitamins A, B6, E, beta-carotene, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium, the other supplements reviewed, were not associated with any significant benefits related to heart health or all-cause mortality.
So, with all of the reviewed studies showing no significant benefit to vitamins, minerals, and supplements, should they be on the shelves in your house?
Talk to your doctor before you start or stop any products, but in general, they will recommend that you get your vitamins and minerals from food. That seems to be the way they actually help health. A healthy, low-fat, balanced diet with fruits and vegetables is what the doctor has on the menu.
Eric M. Ascher, DO, is a third-year family medicine resident from New York working in the ABC News Medical Unit.